Interview with a founder: Jessie Wong of Yu Mei
New Zealand native Jessie Wong had barely let the ink dry on her university degree when she started Yu Mei, her leather handbag label, in 2015. With, in her own words, very little business experience and a team of two (including herself), Jessie managed to build a company that now boasts 35 stockists, 12 team members and two stores, with further expansion plans on the horizon.
Today, Yu Mei is known for the understated luxury of its sleek, functional bags, which are made from buttery New Zealand deerskin. Almost five years on from Yu Mei’s inception, we asked Jessie to reflect on the ingredients for her success. Here, she talks to j + b about her brand’s voice, the importance of quality materials, her mentors, her mistakes and her next grand plan: global domination.
What is your brand's mission statement?
Yu Mei's mission is to create luxurious bags for the modern woman, from a base level of utility that are designed to carry with ease. When I started the brand, there was a real gap for women’s bags that were both functional and fashion conscious - bags that could carry all a modern woman needs in a day, such as her laptop, makeup bag, chargers etc. Back then, which was only four and a half years ago, bags were very much based on women's role in society as it was 100 years ago. I began designing for myself and what I needed and it grew from there. We design everything with our ethos that 'simplicity is complexity resolved' so that speaks of the functional base of our designs.
What is the scope of your company today?
When I started the brand, it was just myself and my production manager Adrian who has been with me since the beginning. We were making every single bag ourselves, which was challenging when we gained 9 stockists following our first Fashion Week. Now our Yu Mei team has grown to a family of 12, with over 35 stockists. We have just opened our flagship store in our hometown of Wellington, New Zealand and will be opening a second store next month. Our sights are now set on the international market and we're excited about the prospect of this global expansion.
When you started your brand, how much of a background in business did you have?
I think I'd always wanted to work for myself, but I started Yu Mei straight out of University - a week after graduating, so prior experience is nil. Although I did complete internships with Akira Isogawa, Karen Walker and Twenty Seven Names while I was studying.
What was the first step you made in launching Yu Mei?
Once I had a good blueprint for the Yu Mei brand I just got going. I applied for an AMP scholarship, which I won, and was enough start up capital to set me on my way. I really bootstrapped everything while I learned the ins and outs of the leather trade.
First pitfall, if any?
You have to be relentlessly positive, nothing is a pitfall, just a learning curve or expensive mistake. I've learnt that manufacturing and establishing supply chains is hard work.
How do you engage with your customers on social media and in person? What is your brand's "voice"?
We have built a real community around our brand and believe strongly in inclusivity. On social media we often reach out to our followers to inform particular design features or colourways, which makes them feel involved in the brand. We have a #YuMeiInTheWild hashtag and always reshare content from our customers. We like things to be organic within our community, so any influencers and media we align with are first and foremost our friends and people whose messages we believe in. Our 'voice' is empowering women, supporting and including each other.
What do you think makes your brand special?
Aside from our community and values, the premium New Zealand deerskin we use is the epitome of luxury and sets us apart from other brands. This leather is the most expensive in the world and has a buttery-soft finish unlike any other. We are highly involved in our supply chain and have built relationships with each of the 40 sets of hands involved in processing the skins at our tannery. We feel very lucky to work with such amazing, quality leather so transforming it into beautiful bags to share with our inclusive community is a proud achievement. All these factors - community, quality and sustainability go hand-in-hand to set us apart.
How did you go about taking your brand international? Any particular markets you're still keen to crack?
Speaking to our designer friends who had done it and picking their brains gave us a sounding board. We were very lucky that our peers have been so generous with their time and insights. From there it's all hard work and relentless hustle, but it's my passion and I believe so proudly in our product. We have our sights set on Europe and have secured a showroom in Paris for the upcoming season, which I'm super excited for.
What do you think is the value of bricks and mortar retail in today's age?
I think that the true value of having a retail presence is the ability to control brand experience, so for us we have built on a lounge concept where people could come to have a drink and stay a while exploring the styles and functionality. We wanted to celebrate the ceremonial aspect of buying a luxury handbag - many of our customers will buy their first handbag as a right of passage, for example at a significant birthday or after graduating to their first job. We want to make this experience memorable and deliver a lasting impression, which then builds loyalty
What was a mistake you made early on that you learned a lot from?
Not every hire will fit in with the team and the energy you bring into the company is super important to get right.
What was a decision you made that changed your business for the better?
Seeking out a premium manufacturing partner to scale the business was relentless but worth it. I refused to compromise on the quality of our product and I think that determination paid off - we are now working with the best in the business and it has opened up endless possibilities in technology and innovation we would never have been able to achieve in-house.
Who are your mentors?
I have a great mentor, who started a very successful skincare company in New Zealand. I also continuously bounce ideas off my team, our digital marketer, my dad etc.
How important is word of mouth advertising for your business?
It's everything to us, the Yu Mei community is what gives this brand life!
What's your most popular or best-selling piece?
Our bestseller is the Braidy bag - the first style I designed for my friend at university who needed a bag to carry her laptop, sweater and everything else she would need for a day at the library. It is a simple shape that drapes beautifully but can also bear weight and holds a surprising amount. Our second best seller is the Ch'lita bag, named after my intern-turned-friend and newly appointed Art Director Ch'lita Collins. It was a step up for us design-wise as it uses a bonded suede lining to add structure to the deerskin.