Five minutes with Yu Mei designer Jessie Wong

1 September 2017
By Fashion Quarterly

Yu Mei

Luxury leatherware brand Yu Mei made its New Zealand Fashion Week debut in 2016 with a live, bag-making demonstration at Auckland’s Thievery Studios.

Returning to NZFW this year to showcase her AW18 collection, designer Jessie Wong worked with a number of local artists to create a compelling immersive experience that would challenge the audience’s perceptions of the female form.

In the lead-up, the ever-innovative Jessie shared details of the presentation, the collaborations, and the inspirations behind her latest work.

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Your AW18 presentation sounds like quite a group effort. Tell us about the key players…
We’ve worked with a couple of Auckland based creatives who are doing exciting things and it’s been such a fun collaboration. I always want to show in new and stimulating ways that play to the strengths of our collection’s tactile nature. We worked on illustrations for our AW18 collection ‘Ceci n’est pas un sac’ with Alma Proenca, whose work traditionally focuses on ceramics and drawing, and with Sarah and Ellyn Hui of Meide Studio who create compelling immersive experiences in technology and other mediums. Sarah and Ellyn also already knew Alma which made working together super simple.

What was the genesis of the collab with Alma Proenca?
I knew Alma through a few friends who worked at Lonely and had seen her work via Instagram. I got in touch and asked if she’d be keen on collaborating for the new range. The paintings are a bit of a departure from her current work, but the technique involved aligns with her work on ceramics, which she primarily does in blue paint. The work illustrates the space between perceptions of the female form under the influence of modern communication, and parallels the thought process behind the concepts of the surrealist movement. Alma was into the concept and it was a very organic process, she nailed the ideas pretty quickly.

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Your collection is titled ‘Ceci n’est pas un sac’. What does this mean, literally and conceptually?
‘Ceci n’est pas un sac’ literally means ‘This is not a bag’. It’s a take on René Magritte’s well known painting ‘The Treachery of Images’ which features a pipe with the french caption ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ which means ‘this is not a pipe’. Essentially, the subtext of the piece is that ‘all is not as it seems’. It is a pipe, but it is also not a pipe, it’s an image of a pipe. On a recent trip overseas I was interested to hear about how Celine designs all their bags to enhance the female form, which got me thinking about how women perceive themselves. We are subject to so many images, not just of the female form, but life in general, and through the narrow screens in our palms we view a world that isn’t always indicative of real life. Surrealist artwork illustrates the crazy places our subconscious mind can take us and the collection is a commentary on how in a weird way, what we perceive as real life is in fact sometime not at all real.

How is this concept communicated in the pieces of the collection?
The concept is communicated through the new silhouettes we’ve introduced into the range for this season. In particular the ‘Nadya’ bag which features the torso painting by Alma. It’s a relatively two dimensional tote bag with a belt around the middle that resembles a woman’s waist. It’s also in the colour palette of many paintings within the surrealist movement — lots of deep brown tones, with highlights of blue and butter yellow.

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How are Alma’s artworks being brought to life and what is the interplay between this and the collection?
We partnered with Meide Studio to see Alma’s artwork brought to life through the use of three-dimensional mapped projection around the centrepiece of our installation. The animations for the projections use Alma’s drawings of the female form distorted and moving in ways that deceive the audience as to what exactly they’re looking at. This links with the Magritte inspiration for our collection and the idea that all is not as it seems. We also use more of Alma’s traditional floral illustration work in the layers, and the animation includes simulation of Alma’s brushstrokes drawing the forms that are now painted on our ‘Nadya’, ‘Lise’ and ‘Grace’ bags, which distort when the bags are adjusted. The feature of the piece is the female torso on the comically large ‘Nadya’ tote bag being “painted” onto the leather during the show via this projection. It brings the collaboration and the collection right into the show.

How have you evolved your signature styles this season?
We’ve been working hard this season to develop the patterns of our old favourites to become more functional and detailed. My production manager Adrian and I have been building on the blueprints of our collection to refine our techniques with Lise, our machinist from France, who used to develop for Louis Vuitton and Hermes. Although we’ve learnt so many incredible ways to manipulate leather and construct a bag, the basis of a Yu Mei bag is ‘simplicity is complexity resolved’, so we’ve incorporated the techniques in ways that stay true to the Yu Mei aesthetic. The collection also includes a few new textures, all still New Zealand deer, but different iterations such as suede and a new product called ‘shrunken deer’ which has a bubbly texture.

What are the new styles we will be obsessing over?
The ‘Nadya’ tote bag for sure. The team has also been loving the ‘Lise’ clutch and ‘Grace’ bucket bag — all which feature Alma’s artworks.

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What style will be your go-to at NZFW and what will your top five handbag essentials be?
I’ve nicked a ‘Grace’ sample from the studio. The 2/6 size has a cross body strap so is hands free — very convenient for all the running around of NZFW. My essentials are my phone, wallet, makeup bag, a comb and spare show invitations!

How will you be celebrating post-presentation?
Wynn’s show is straight after ours and we have some bags featuring in that, so we’ll all be there supporting. And our lovely production team has flown up from Wellington so we’re looking forward to heading out after that… Adrian my production manager is famous for his vogueing so i’m hoping he busts that out.

What else will you be packing into the week?
A whole bunch of sales appointments. I’m looking forward to catching up with our stockists from across the country.

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