A word with Yu Mei founder Jessie Wong at her Wellington HQ

Step inside the luxury leather-goods label’s studio and store, where we find out how style meets sustainability. 

These are productive times for founder Jessie Wong and her team at luxury leather-goods label Yu Mei. Among the many irons in their fire, they’re currently working on their Autumn and Winter 21 ranges, taking their already robust commitment to sustainability even further by creating collections and colourways that run together like chapters in a story, allowing you to  build a wardrobe of bags that’ll never go out of style. We spoke to Jessie about her work life and philosophy.

MAIN IMAGE Jessie in the studio upstairs. Behind her hangs House at Dawn by Alan Ibell, and to her left is an untitled work by Olly Zander-Jones. ABOVE Designed by Rufus Knight of Knight Associates, Yu Mei’s Wellington store features a counter made from giotto marble. “Like our bags, it looks deceptively simple,” says Jessie. ”It houses storage and a wine fridge, and at one end are Osso stools by Mattiazzi from Simon James guests can park up on to enjoy a drink, chat to us and learn about the brand. In this way, our flagship has been designed to function as a lounge — inviting and comfortable.”

The past couple of years has been busy for Yu Mei — what have been some of the highlights? I consider us lucky that we get to come to work every day, but one of the main highlights has been opening our two Yu Mei retail lounges in Wellington and Auckland’s Commercial Bay. It’s pretty special to have spaces in which our community can connect with the people who design their products.

These stores were orchestrated from your Wellington studio in the heritage-listed Mibar building— how long have you been here for? Four years; we had a smaller space on level two for about a year before moving up here to take over level four, where the light is incredible. I love the Modernist features of this building: the terrazzo stone in the lobby, the warm wood, the wave-shaped awning that defines the exterior of our shop on the ground floor… All of these features, including the temperamental original elevator, give it so much soul.

Did you have to do much to it when you moved in? Not really — it’s still very reflective of the bootstrap nature of Yu Mei’s beginnings. We made the linen curtains ourselves and hung them to divide the space. They work well because there’s little separation between our office area and the atelier side, so we can still laugh at each other’s jokes. 

How many people work here? We have seven up here in our office team, and usually a dog too — one of the three on rotation; they’re all oodle breeds and a happy, tail-wagging presence. There are six people in our sales team — they work from our beautiful Wellington and Auckland lounges.

ABOVE In this corner of the studio (arranged with a Noguchi coffee table, Cigarette side table by Eileen Grey and Coconut chair by George Nelson) is a Barcelona sofa by the late architect Mies van der Rohe for Knoll that Jessie just loves. “I’ve been obsessed with the Barcelona Pavilion [he co-designed with Lilly Reich] since I visited it at the age of 15 and still look to his work for design cues — it’s referenced in the travertine floor of our Commercial Bay store.”
What’s a typical day like in the studio? It depends on the day, but I usually head to the studio between 8 and 9am, grab a cup of coffee from our Moccamaster and chat to the team. I might have a few meetings here or off site, and either are great, because living in a walking city like Wellington is such a pleasure and it’s easy to get around at short notice. My head of design and production Adrian Williams and I might work on new designs, or I might be developing the brand strategy with my brand manager Kirsten Nagel.
At 1pm, we usually have lunch together around our meeting table, then in the afternoon I might head down to the store and have a chat with our head of retail Grace Gaudin. Sometimes my head of operations Brigette Thomas will be shooting in the studio with our photographer Nick Shackleton. There’s never a dull moment.
If it’s a Thursday and there’s a new opening at Jhana Millers Gallery on level one, we’ll head down there after work. On Fridays, we enjoy a glass of something together; across the street from us is Wineseeker, a boutique wine shop that’s never short on chardonnay suggestions. I love our community here on Victoria Street — we all know each other and there’s a great vibe.

So how would you describe the Yu Mei aesthetic? It’s a combination of simplicity, utility and the South Island deer nappa we use that informs our aesthetic. Our ethos is ‘Simplicity is complexity resolved’, so everything we design is pared back. Attention to detail is ingrained in what we do as it takes a lot of refining to get to this point; one particular piece of hardware took about 19 iterations to perfect. Utility is also at the core of every design, so everything we produce is of the highest quality, fit for purpose and designed to weather your journey with you.

ABOVE Meetings are held at a table and chairs from Kinetic Design.

What role does sustainability play at Yu Mei? It all starts with our key material: our buttery-soft premium nappa. A material that would otherwise be wasted, it’s a by-product of the venison industry, which means it’s heavily regulated and the deer are farmed according to Deer Industry New Zealand’s Five Freedoms. We have respect for the life that the animal had before its skin became a beautiful bag, and that carries through every process and design, manifesting in a supply chain with integrity. We’re working to formalise and record all processes throughout our supply chain and become a certified B Corp [a business that balances purpose and profit]. Leather is one of the most renewable natural materials and with proper care, your leather bag should last a lifetime. We offer education around this to ensure a quality stock of secondhand bags are submitted to our Buyback initiative, which works to promote circularity and extend the useful life of a product through mending and refurbishing. Customers can submit their pre-loved Yu Mei bag for a credit towards their next purchase and we’ll refurbish the bag and sell it on at our Archive events, held annually as a way to reduce waste; our production team works from the Wellington studio to repurpose our leather offcuts and excess hardware from the year into one-off colourways we sell at reduced prices.
During lockdown back in March, we held our Archive event virtually for the first time and the outcome was an innovative new offering. As items were selling out, we had people messaging us in real time asking if we could make this bag in that colourway; we saw a gap for a market driven by demand, and so our Atelier was born. The Yu Mei Atelier now makes custom orders from a menu of styles and swatches. This initiative is so special because it involves the user in the design process and means we can match supply to demand, so there’s no excess stock. It’s also a great way for our team to trial new processes that they’ve learned from our manufacturers, and create new designs.

ABOVE An Underline workstation by Simon James anchors the studio office space beneath a floral installation by Love Stomp Floral. “We recently refreshed it after three years,” says Jessie. “We commissioned it for an early event and it never left.” 

Can you tell us a bit more about your production process? In searching for a manufacturer, it was our responsibility to find a partner who’d put as much care into the product as the other hands in our supply chain. We were introduced to our manufacturers in China through our tannery, New Zealand Light Leathers. They’ve worked with everyone from Prada to Céline, and I’m still having a hard time believing they agreed to work with us — we’re definitely the smallest fish in their pond. But like everyone in the Yu Mei supply chain, we have a family-
like relationship; they’re a family-run business themselves that has been around for more than 50 years.
The owners are from a village very near where my family’s from, so I feel a real connection to them. Quality, longevity and product stewardship are all part of our wider view on sustainability, and we take great pride in the supply chain we’ve built to last.

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Bonny Beattie


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