Sometimes a young brand is so beautifully and skilfully realised, it appears as if it has existed for decades. Luxury leather goods brand from New Zealand, Yu Mei, is on a steady path of mindful growth, crafting meticulous accessories with real purpose and a genuine commitment to regenerative practices.
Growing up in New Zealand, Jessie Wong, founder and director of Yu Mei, had two dream jobs in mind at the tender age of 11. One was to be magazine editor; the other to run a fashion label of her own. True to her ambitions, she launched her luxury leather goods brand Yu Mei in 2015, and, amidst challenging times, has now opened three flagship retail spaces in Wellington and Auckland, the latest an impressive 129 sq metre lounge/residence in Newmarket. “The (initial) vision was that I wanted the products to be stocked nationwide, but as time moved along, the goal posts changed. That’s what you think when you’re 21, but you realise you can build. The vision has been refined over the last 6 years. I am proud of the way it has developed “says Wong.
Jessie equates the considered progression of Yu Mei with the same values with which it was conceived.” There was a very earnest reason as to why I started the brand” she explains. “I couldn’t find a bag that could carry everything I needed in a day. Handbags were very much based on the blueprint of women’s role in society over 100 years ago- they were designed to carry your love letters and your lipstick and not much else. I wanted to carry my laptop, lunch-box, makeup bag, a A3 visual diary and a phone charger. Everything I needed in the city as a modern working woman. I was a student at the time, and so I wanted something that was practical, with a base level of utility. It also had to meet a reductionist design aesthetic and have integrity in the materials.” And so the functional, yet beautiful DNA of Yu Mei was born.
“Simplicity is complexity resolved. It’s about not doing things simply because they are easy, but because it is the most refined way to do them.”
A core pillar of the brand is its purity, a design manifesto free of extraneous details or gimmicks. “Simplicity is complexity resolved. It’s about not doing things simply because they are easy, but because it is the most refined way to do them” says Wong. The buttery soft bags, totes, wallets and accessories are made from deer napa, a by-product of the venison industry in New Zealand which would otherwise be landfill. “The skins are tanned to become a soft, luxurious material which is perfect for those larger hold-all styles we specialize in. It’s lightweight, with the strength a cowhide and the suppleness of lambskin. It’s a beautiful material that has incredible longevity.”
Longevity, product circularity and a low ecological footprint are all-important considerations at Yu Mei, and Wong has firm views on how to move forward with regenerative disciplines in mind. Views she held right from the brand’s inception. “All of the practices of sustainability are there, but we purposefully never use that word. It’s more about walking the talk. It was already here in 2015, and I felt very strongly it was going to be something you just had to do in the future. I didn’t want to develop a brand that hung its hat on sustainability. I knew that once everyone was sustainable in the next 10 years’ time, there would be no point of difference, we would not be known anything particularly special.”
“All of the practices of sustainability are there, but we purposefully never use that word. It’s more about walking the talk."
As Wong explains it, there are other sides to the story when it comes to ethical practices: the responsibility in the actual manufacturing of the brand but also what the brand is putting in place for those customers to able to consume in a responsible way. “It’s up to the brand to make those options available” she notes. The pressure from manufacturers came under scrutiny early. “If your brand is working at a high level of quality, it will be with a big, established company that produces much larger volumes. We tackled that head on early and talked to our manufacturers about sustainability, the problems of too much inventory and of having to go on sale. We didn’t want to be a brand just producing for the sake of it. Too much inventory will prohibit the growth of a brand. And they accepted producing lower quantities. I was shocked, but they’ve seen the future too.”
This philosophy extends to the problem of over consumption at retail level and how the Yu Mei customer may interact with their purchases. “When people buy a bag, they will ideally use it for as long as possible. We don’t want to promote having thousands of items. It’s not a mindful practice. So, in thinking about that we have come up with our buy-back program – if you feel that your time is up with a certain product that doesn’t mean the time is up for that product. It means your relationship with it is ending: you could be moving from a bag you bought for university to needing a bag for your first professional job.
"if you feel that your time is up with a certain product that doesn’t mean the time is up for that product. It means your relationship with it is ending."
What we would love for you to do is bring that bag back to us, so that we can refurbish it in house and sell it on to someone else who will continue the life of that product.” Yu Mei incentivises customers to take good care of their bags by rewarding them with credits when they trade them in and buy another. The recycled bags go on sale once a year and the plan is to run the concept full time. “We’ve resold about 280 bags at this point” says Wong, “They are really popular, there is a market specifically for resell. Our goal is to take that one step further and have materials that can go back into compost and be returned to their natural cycle.”
“By the time 18 months is up, the customer who does buy every product will all of sudden have the perfect capsule wardrobe.”
Yu Mei’s simple, luxurious and intelligent design ethos for the “forward thinking and modern individual” may also make in appearance in the form of ready to wear some time soon. After showing a small cashmere collection in their Autumn Winter digital runway, (which attracted 11,000 online guests) Wong saw an immediate positive response in their ‘community’ as she likes to call the brand’s customers. “We do have a vision for this cashmere collection” says Wong. “The ready to wear show RTW was a beautiful exercise in understanding if the consumer would respond to a Yu Mei garment. I studied fashion before the bags took on a life of their own. People understand the next steps in the systematic tool kit of products that we offer: you might start with a hold-all, then you go to a folio, a document folder and card holder. All slimline pieces, all part of the ‘Art of Packing’. Cashmere was an add on to that, something that you grab and that go on the journey with you. There is definitely a plan for the next chapter.” The brand is looking at doing one garment quarterly: for summer, it’s the one shirt you need for that season; in February/March, a great pair of pants; in winter, the perfect coat. “By the time 18 months is up, the customer who does buy every product will all of sudden have the perfect capsule wardrobe” says Wong happily. Like everything to do with Yu Mei, the journey is steady and meticulous. “We are going to take it slowly, take time to understand what works for us” she says. Like a heritage brand in the making.