Girl you need to know: Jessie Wong, founder and director behind coveted bag label Yu Mei

13 November 2018
By Fashion Quarterly

Jessie Wong, founder and director of New Zealand leather brand Yu Mei, has proudly launched ‘Resort 2019’ at the newly opened Yu Mei Lounge in Ponsonby, Auckland — and we want to shop all of it. 

Inspired by the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and its old-school Hollywood glamour, Hawaiian pink and palm green form the main hues for the luxury leather atelier. The 25-year-old Wellingtonian speaks to Miss FQ exclusively ahead of the collection’s launch on her impressive career to date, proving why she’s a girl you need to know.

Yu Mei Resort 2019 campaign

Q&A with Jessie Wong

How did you get to where you are today? How did Yu Mei begin?
I started Yu Mei in the summer after finishing university in Dunedin at Otago Polytechnic. I had done a lot of experimenting with leather and bags while studying and it was a natural progression to start Yu Mei. While at university I learnt about the craft of using leather from Bill Drake, who is a leather craftsman in Otago. My designs are still inspired by what he taught me, the straps I use are made using belt making techniques.

It is a lovely feeling to be able to look at things you have made and see not only yourself but all the people who have helped along the way. Each bag is named after someone close to Yu Mei who had a need or personality that I have interpreted into a design. What I have achieved is because of the community around me.

When did you know you wanted to work in fashion?
I have always wanted to work in a creative industry. As a kid I was constantly making things, when I was taught to sew at eleven I knew I had found my medium. I have always had the drive to create a platform where I can express myself and fashion is my release.

Who do you admire most in business and why?
Emily Weiss is a woman I look up to, she is both cool-girl and feminist, capable of discussing tech and beauty in the same breath. This is the epitome of what it is to be a modern empowered woman; she’s built a company, community and culture around her brand Glossier all in such a short space of time.

Yu Mei Resort 2019 campaign
The resort collection consists of 10 hero Yu Mei styles in Hawaiian Pink and Palm Green along with surprise gradient colourways which is a first not only for the brand, but also for the tannery, New Zealand Light Leather, that supplies deer nappa leather to top fashion houses including The Row, Celine, Prada and Louis Vuitton.

How important is female empowerment to you and why?
I feel privileged to be a woman today, to be able to live my life on my own terms and help women around me be leaders in the company that we’re building. I am inspired by incredible women of strength and humour – we are at a turning point in history where women are beyond asking for approval they are deciding who and what they want to be. Female empowerment is hugely important to me, I always think of the women who came before and fought for women’s rights. Without their grit and grace, I wouldn’t be building Yu Mei today.

Do you have any advice for Miss FQ readers who want to get into careers like yours?
Surround yourself with good people, people who inspire you and people who will work alongside you. Definitely do not be afraid to ask for guidance, mentors are people who have been through what you are going through.

How do you define success?
Success to me means seeing a positive flow-on effect from the work that I’m doing and being excited to come to work every day. Always being challenged and never being complacent.

What has been your greatest accomplishment or milestone to date?
I always consider my greatest accomplishment to be the wonderful team that i’ve built around me. We’re a family unit, and any success is shared between us and that’s a real credit to them.

Yu Mei Resort 2019 campaign
The Hawaiian Pink is reminiscent of the bright pink hue of the famed Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s stucco facade which Jessie fell in love with on a recent visit to the island of Waikiki. The corresponding green mimics the native palm trees that surround the iconic hotel.

What are some challenges you’ve faced or had to overcome?
The biggest challenge I faced is most definitely keeping up with the high pace of growth that has come with building Yu Mei. When I started, I sewed every bag myself – so it came as a real shock for Adrian and I when we picked up 32 stockists over 2016 fashion week, a jump of 23. We didn’t have the infrastructure to produce that many orders, but I was also determined to deliver. So we screwed our heads on tight and went for gold. Between us two we sewed the entire season – which ended with some pretty long days and nights. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but somehow I’m really proud of us for making that leap together, and coming out on the other side better for it.

Any life-changing books, podcasts, or websites you recommend?
‘How I Built This’ with Guy Raz is a favourite. I recently listened to the episode featuring Whitney Wolfe and how she built Bumble. The podcast goes back into what each founder was thinking at the early stages of business and I identify with a couple of things in each episode. Listening to these stories makes me feel like I’m not the only one out there, and no one really knew what they were doing until they were doing it.

“…although it’s lovely to have a secret pocket for your love letters, we’ve moved on. We need to be toting around our portable offices so we’re prepared for any situation”

What motivates you?
I’m motivated to change the way women carry, making their daily lives easier and more functional. Bags traditionally are built on women’s role in society – and although it’s lovely to have a secret pocket for your love letters, we’ve moved on. We need to be toting around our portable offices so we’re prepared for any situation. Something I’ve always aimed for with Yu Mei is to build bags from a base level of utility, by women, for women.

Do you have a favourite quote or mantra to live by?
“Can’t stop, won’t stop until there are more women sitting in pink hoodies in first class” – Emily Weiss

Yu Mei Resort 2019 campaign
A clever way to inject some fun into the resort collection colourways for the season, Yu Mei and NZ Light Leathers collaborated on the project to create a new spray technique to combine two colours onto one nappa skin.

What’s your favourite go-to outfit or piece when you need to feel confident?
You can’t go past a great bag, we love seeing girls wearing Yu Mei with confidence – I like to think the brand and what we’ve created has had a hand in that. I’m a blazer and shirt kind of girl, there is something about the emotional sensitivity of wearing something that is simultaneously hyper-masculine and feminine.

What’s the one beauty product you couldn’t live without?
I’m obsessed with Kevyn Aucoin’s Volume Mascara – it’s tubing mascara which means you can wash it off with warm water and no panda eyes. Saves so much time.

When did you last act fearlessly?
I act fearlessly every other day at the moment. We’ve just opened two temporary lounge concepts that display curated collections of our Yu Mei range. It’s exciting because we get to control every element of the environment – from personal interactions to the packaging your bag comes in, and we get to meet our customers in person. The Yu Mei Lounge also offers limited ranges and one-off bespoke pieces of selected styles – like our Mischa Mini Bag, currently featured in every colour that Yu Mei has ever produced.

You’ve already achieved so much, what’s next for you?
I have so many plans, maybe take over the world, starting with New Zealand.

About Yu Mei

Yu Mei was established three years ago with just 6 styles, fit for university purposes and everyday wear. The brand has earned phenomenal growth, expanding to 36 boutiques across Australia and New Zealand with online orders sent worldwide to fans in Europe, Japan, USA and Hong Kong.

The collection is available now, from Yu Mei Lounge, Shop 30, 130 Ponsonby Road, the Yu Mei online store exclusively.

Photos: Ch’lita Collins


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