There are many philosophies of how to build a good handbag, but Jessie Wong’s is one that works. Hers are bags that are going places, and so is she. In fact, the capital’s queen of swinging silhouettes and nuanced carry-alls is entering a whole new era.
The sign is black
Designer Jessie Wong might call it “stealth luxury”, as she does the handbags she makes. You might call the room that — a long, airy floor divided not by walls but by cascades of beige curtains in what used to be Wellington’s Racing Conference Building, a 1960s modernist carapace of ceramic tiles and steel-framed windows. There are horseshoes on the balcony railings, she says of her office. “For luck.”
Since launching her handbag brand Yu Mei in 2015, Jessie, now 30, has become a progenitor for much of the capital’s arm candy, a creator of an accessory topography entirely recognisable as bags that only Yu Mei can make. Mostly deer nappa — a by-product of New Zealand’s venison industry, it would otherwise be waste — her designs are seemingly everywhere, so much so that a very unscientific tally of how many you can see in the span of an afternoon feels essentially impossible as woman after woman buoys past, adorned with them on the street.
It is this “modern woman” that exists at Yu Mei’s centre, explains Jessie. She is most powerful and passionate when talking about her brand, warm with a focus that can feel like being anchored to the present. The sleeve cuffs of her collared shirt are upturned over her blazer, relaxed. She’s wearing the familiar calm expression of one who has everything under control.
“Everything is designed with a user-experience perspective and how it will facilitate the lives of modern women, how they move through the day and what they want to carry.”
Each product is inspired by someone in her life who had a need that wasn’t being met, a project that began while she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in fashion and design in Otago. (The story goes that in her first year of university, Jessie walked into the shop Slick Willy’s, now Chapman Store, where co-owner Amy Henderson asked where she’d got the bag from — she’d made it — and said to bring them in when Jessie started making them — she did.)
The product names read like a roll call: Jane, Milly, Phoebe, Claudia, Teresa.
Over its eight years of business, Yu Mei has accumulated an impressive assortment of milestones. Jessie, nostalgic, wears a few of them around her neck. There’s a Tiffany necklace, purchased when she secured a contract with her international manufacturers owned by the Prada Group (“It took me three years and five visits to convince them to work with us”), and a small Elsa Peretti bean that marks her contract with department store David Jones (“It was a little we’re-planting-the-seed-in-Australia moment”). Yu Mei now has 46 stockists, including New York’s Bergdorf Goodman.
Rubies, her birthstone, are on one finger. She’s half laughing, conscious. “They’re also emblematic of hard work.”
Celebrity fans of the brand include Jacinda Ardern, who wore the Suki, a petite box clutch, to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, and who, according to Jessie, uses the Charlie bag — more angular, spacious — to carry all of her documents. “It’s a favourite of a few politicians now across all parties, which is really interesting to me.” She quips, “They’re very bipartisan handbags.”
Part of their appeal is their pragmatic wearability — sleek compartments to keep your laptop, strap drops deep enough that you can pick your bag up with one hand and it doesn’t get caught on your elbow. But they also express a sense of aesthetic pleasure unburdened by too many references.
“There’s always this ethos of simplicity is complexity resolved,” says Jessie, admitting that the wildest embellishment she’s ever incorporated is a scrunchie, a cutesy, curly band that (crucially, one feels) can be removed. “How can this best be done if it was simple? What is the end game of what we want this to look like and how do we want it to function? If it’s not working, we’ll go 10 steps back and try and start again.”
“She doesn’t create anything mindlessly or on a whim — it’s always very thoughtful and centred on her community’s needs,” Laura Braid, a lawyer and original muse for the Braidy bag (the brand’s first), told me.
“I have worked with founders for years and they all have a dogged determinism to bring something new to the world, but Jessie is deeply considered with not just what she does but how she does it,” notes Claudia Batten, a mentor and entrepreneur. They’re part of a group of female business starters brought together by Claudia during the pandemic — a time that saw Yu Mei burgeon by 167 per cent — that meets every Friday to share advice, to stay on the edge of things. Jessie has since formed her own peer-mentoring offshoot, Solar Social, with Sharesies’ Brooke Roberts.
It’s the sustained twin pursuit of absolute refinement and innovation that her friend Georgia Currie comments on. “I admire her restraint, I admire her generosity and ability to welcome everyone and their ideas into her world,” writes the designer behind forthcoming brand Flowers and former brand Georgia Alice, over email. “Also, her trust in the people she surrounds herself with. I think it’s important as a creative to be open, and she is.”
Certainly, in this less-is-more arena, Jessie is becoming more open. On October 19, the brand expanded its line with a collection called Utility, parlaying its innate understanding of how to remove the mental overhead of your daily organisation into eight pieces including two totes, variously sized organisers, pouches, envelopes and cable ties purpose-built to fit within each other (there’s a system, akin to a numerical build-a-bear, to help you work out how). It’s a way to catalogue personal items — “There are already enough things that you have to remember in life, finding your keys shouldn’t be one of those things,” says Jessie — rendered in a lush contrast colour palette inspired by Ellsworth Kelly paintings.
Utility was three years in the making, borne out of one of a series of design workshops the brand regularly hosts with some of its most engaged customers and Club Yu Mei members, who go to give feedback. “Someone was like, ‘I need to carry my bran muffin in this,’ and I was like, ‘In your leather bag?’” It turned out there was a lot more convenience needed, something more “rough and tumble”, she says, to facilitate going to the beach or the gym, or travelling.
What is perhaps most significant about this new proposition is that it’s made of Econyl®, a regenerated nylon woven from detritus such as discarded fishing nets and old carpets, and produced by Italy-based specialist Aquafil. “Econyl® is a product that respects the environment by not taking anything from it. It is an infinitely recyclable and extremely versatile resource that offers endless possibilities,” says Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil’s CEO.
It was the answer to a Goldilocks conundrum where pineapple leather was too problematic (too much water and plastic in its production) and where mycelium leather, which uses the root structure of mushrooms, didn’t have the right hand-feel. “[Econyl®] is tangible, and a lot of other things we were looking at were just not tangible in their sustainability story,” says Jessie. She’s self-diagnostically allergic to the word sustainability and skeptical of it as a brand expression, its language muddy and too often doled out as mere ecological virtue signalling.
Instead, she talks a lot about stewardship, about taking responsibility for the products Yu Mei creates, extending as far as a buy-back programme. “You have to solve everything and it has to have this harmony in the materials and in the design for it to all come together.” It’s what gives her staying power, a cult-following, bags that sell out.
Yu Mei’s spring/summer 2024 collection, out today, is the next chapter of them. They are critically of her essence, with every detail painstakingly envisioned and executed, a coterie concerned with form and a magpie fascination for shiny things. Sets of rivets still come in sets of three, her Chinese lucky number, an important personal autograph for the third-generation Chinese New Zealander.
Yet there is also a layering back-up of the brand’s conceptual scaffolding. Chrome hardware, croc, piping and feathered straps (a raised, stitched, edge-painted technique common in belt-making), with notes of garment tailoring and Herman Miller chairs. Bound button-hole fastenings, the kind you might find in a tweed jacket. The loveliness of something scooped (the Antonia), of something lime (a reissued Teresa). In the Keriana clutch, a caramel cross-body in a buttery suede reminiscent of saddlery, there’s mixed-medium materials, a first.
Jessie stands up from the communal dining table where we’ve been talking, herself framed against a towering textural painting by Anh Trần that feels as dense and unyielding as gravity (Jessie and her partner Jack are collectors), and starts bringing over new-season samples.
“This is what Chanel flap bags are made out of, and this suede is some of the best, tanned in Milan. We don’t do things by halves. It is hard to establish those relationships from New Zealand, so it has taken years to be able to bring these world-class materials into the fold, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. This is really pushing forward for us.”
It’s a collection galvanised by an ensemble of collaborators who worked on its campaign, shot at East London’s Street Studios and staring model Cynthia Wrobel dripped in carry-alls. Jessie has been in a fruitful, generative exchange with UK-based, New Zealand-born Antonia Webb, former managing editor of The Gentlewoman and Fantastic Man, to translate Yu Mei’s brand direction on a global level, tapping the talent of photographers like Alessandro Furchino Capria, and most recently, Agathe Zaerpour and Philippine Chaumont.
Their SS’24 campaign carries the sheen of handbag pluralism: In one image, Cynthia is crossing the street in cream, back-lit, kinetic, trotting a weekender; in others, she’s grinning, all teeth, or sat on the ground, bag on her lap, legs akimbo, as if she’s just returned home, exhausted but still dressed in confection, her finery. Another, a still of six bags, a sort of coming together of materials, reminds Jessie of an old Calvin Klein or 90s United Colors Of Benetton ad.
The way Jessie speaks about her vision for the brand is confident without being boastful, the excited aura of someone who can self-generate and who knows there’s more to come. “Good things take time and we’ll just be very intentional about the next steps that we’re building. There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”
With big chunks of it spent on Yu Mei, what does life outside of the business look like?
Camping. The Great Walks (all of them). She and Jack are renovating their house.
“Guys, what do I do in my free time outside of Yu Mei?” she says, towards one curtain.
It replies. “You play tennis!”
“Oh yes, tennis, that’s a new hobby. I’m really determined that the whole team is going to get into tennis this year.”
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