Jessie Wong in her Wellington Studio.
Jessie Wong is the eponymous founder and owner of Yu Mei, a leather goods label with a focus on utility and regeneration. She started creating bags when she couldn't find one that would carry everything she needed in a day, discovering that most were based on a blueprint of women’s role in society 100 years ago. Purses for love letters and lipstick are all very well and glamourous, but Jessie wanted one that could carry her laptop and lunchbox. And so Yu Mei was born, a brand that not only prioritises function and form, but looks beautiful doing it.
I was originally drawn to fashion because you're doing something different every day. You could be concepting designs, researching international suppliers, or creating a product that's actually functional. I’ve been sewing since the age of eleven, so I really like crafting and making things, and seeing those come to life. Then you get to do a photoshoot and really imagine the product in another sphere, and then you get to go and sell it. And the whole time you’re building connections with all the people in the process. I like the sense of doing one project, finishing it, then starting something new. I think I would get bored otherwise.
I love those magic moments, the ones where you're like, ‘Yep, that's right.’ It's not like, ‘Uh, is it good?’ It has to be that feeling of, ‘Yes!, that's what we wanted.’ The moment it clicks. Those usually happen in the sampling or toiling process, or getting the photos back from a shoot, then through the editing process seeing the campaign come to life. I always still do campaign edits, because I like putting together the story. My least favourite part of the job is all of the little fires that you have to put out every single day. Tanneries closing, running a business in a pandemic. That sort of thing.
The most surprising thing I’ve found is that there’s creativity in all aspects of the business, not just in the design part. If you do end up starting or running your own creative business, design will become quite a small portion of the overall equation. And that might not suit some people. But I love it, because I very much enjoy the satisfaction and game of growing the business and strategising that.
To anyone wanting to start a business, I’d say the biggest thing is knowing exactly what you want to achieve. Then you need to break that down into tiny little steps, and just execute one after the other with razor sharp, weapon-like focus. It's not a straight line, it gets fuzzy and there are roadblocks and times when you’re stuck in the mud, but if you keep on moving you’ll get there in the end.
My style could probably be described as very efficient, minimal design. I think quality is really paramount—a neutral trench coat could be the most boring thing in the world, but if it has hardware that's wrapped in leather and stitched meticulously, or I can see that it’s tailored in a certain way, it’s just really special. I’m all about those details that lift the whole thing up. It’s not easy because it’s simple. It takes a lot of time and effort to do that stuff well.
I also love jewellery. It’s where I’m a little extra. A well-designed earring is where the party is, so I’ll change them every day to match them to my outfit. But there’s also a bunch of things that I wear every single day, which all mark a significant milestone for Yu Mei. For example, I have a little Tiffany tag from when we first partnered with our manufacturer. They’re one of most incredible manufacturers in the world, and we visited them five times over three years, trying to get them on board. They’re a huge company compared to us, but on that trip they just believed in me, and were like, ‘Cool, where do you want to start?’ I was in disbelief, because we’re a small company, so it was really, really special that they believed in us. So the Tiffany tag represents that. Then I have this little bean necklace which I got when we came back from our five weeks in Australia, where it felt like we were laying the foundations for bringing Yu Mei there. So that necklace represents the seeds we planted.
In terms of design inspiration for Yu Mei, there’s two main tenets. One’s from studying art at school—we always had to have an artist model for every piece of work we did, and had to research them and understand their work to inform our practice. So every season, we choose colours informed by an artwork or an artist. Because everything has been done before— just not by you. And you have to understand history to create something new in the future. The other point of inspiration is all the people in my life, because all the bags are based on real people who have specific needs. That’s essentially the genesis of the brand, designing around everything you need to carry in a day, but it’s also true and honest to the product. Because if you find one person that can use something you're making, there's going to be 100 more like them. So if we're really lost, we always come back down to, ‘Who does this actually serve?’ I think that's really important. I like that sort of modest inspiration, where it's not about celebrities or some convoluted concept. It's just genuinely about what these people need.
In terms of hobbies… I like planning out the next two or three years for Yu Mei. That sounds like the worst hobby. But I do enjoy it. I also love the beach, so much. Maybe that's the Cancerian in me, but I think that was really instilled by my Mum. She gets so happy when she’s by the ocean, so growing up we always went swimming as a family. Even if it was freezing, it was always a challenge. “Last one in’s a chicken,” that kind of thing.
I think I'm a genuine hybrid of introvert and extrovert. I love going out, but there’s nothing better than the cosiness of being inside on a rainy day. I don’t love to pack my life with activities, though my partner Jack would probably disagree. And I don’t really have a ‘work life balance’ as such. My life is my work and my work is my life. But I’m very into streamlining things to make everything easier—for instance, I’ve set up a bunch of deliveries so I don’t have to go grocery shopping.
Utility is a huge part of the brand, and how I live my life. I think I’ve had that trait from a young age. I remember Mum getting me this diary for Christmas—it was just a notebook with a silk bound cover, but she said, ‘This is such a special book, you can only write special things in your most neat handwriting.’ So I started writing goals in it. One page of goals at the beginning of the year. And then on the last day of the year, I’d write down what I’d achieved. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm very goal oriented. It doesn’t mean there can’t be creativity, but it creates a framework so things don’t feel as chaotic.
It’s like our bags. They’re all designed for ease of use, but without looking like a backpack or a canvas tote. (There’s nothing I hate more than a freebie canvas tote.) For example, in the winter you're often wearing a coat, and lots of coats have wide armholes. So if it’s an over the shoulder bag, you need a longer strap so you can pick it up with one hand, and your elbow can get through in one movement. It's all about the movement, and how you actually move through the world, because if you're carrying other stuff, or you're trying to close the car door or use your card to catch the bus, you have to have one hand free.
I like to make sure there's things like cheese and crackers and hummus in the fridge at all times, especially during the summer months, so you have something ready in case people pop over. My other number one tip is having a good array of homemade salad dressings in the fridge. You can just keep them in peanut butter jars, and it’s so easy to just slice up some vegetables and throw on a dressing that makes the whole thing a little more exciting.
In terms of art, there are so many New Zealand artists who I love following.for example, who we collaborated with earlier in the year. She documents a lot of her process on Instagram, and I really find that interesting because I'm so invested in process. Ayesha Green is another artist I really admire. Alan Ibell, is great at storytelling. He has a narrative that runs through all of his art from the first painting, and each exhibition is another chapter in the story. I really like that kind of storytelling; and I love Elisabeth Pointon’s work, she’s very bold.
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