Jessie Wong of Yu Mei on the Art of Packing

We speak with Jessie Wong, founder and director of Yu Mei, on her latest (soft power-inspired) leathergoods collection and digital A/W21 runway presentation.

INTERVIEW ADAM BRYCE photography supplied

yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong

Tell us about your new A/W21 collection, The Art of Packing.

Autumn Winter ’21 signals an evolution for the Yu Mei brand. I’ve always been inspired by the fearless women in my life — my great grandmother, grandma and mum, to name a few but, for this collection, I was inspired by the concept of soft power and how this is typically a ‘feminine’ trait.

We chose a palette of beautiful neutrals that are timeless — ‘coconut shell’ is a rich terracotta-like brown and is my favourite for the season. We’ve updated our ‘Vi’ style to include a removable scrunchie strap and I love how this adds a playful and feminine edge to the structured body of the bag. 

How did the concept for The Art of Packing runway presentation come about?

We designed this range of small leathergoods — a laptop folio, document holder, eyeglass case and makeup pouch, that all fit together perfectly within our larger styles. The idea that this system of packing is so carefully considered is how we came up with the concept of ‘artful’ carrying and there being an art to packing. We filmed our digital runway presentation at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, which was a coincidence but lent itself nicely to the ‘art of packing’ story.  

I find the leathergoods market a particularly interesting one. For so long, it’s been led by large European luxury brands but there’s finally some movement in the market. Brands like yours are making inroads — what’s the key to breaking down the established market?

Luxury is no longer about flashy labels or status styles. True luxury is buying intelligent pieces to last that will carry you through everyday and work around your needs. No one needs a micro ‘it’ bag — but real womxn do need something that will fit their laptop, charger, sunglasses, makeup and tools to navigate through life; or the perfect makeup bag that’s slim enough to not take up too much room, yet deep enough to actually hold everything you need. If you have a considered offering, remain consistent in your values and engage with your consumer, it will resonate.

You’ve worked with styling duo Sebastian Hunt and Dylan Richards for a few seasons now. They also worked on the creative behind this video presentation — what is it about working with them you like?

Sebastian and Dylan have been a pleasure to work with; they are driven and visionary. The absolute control they have over creating a picture exactly in the way they have concepted it never ceases to amaze me. They’re also very good at interpreting the Yu Mei ethos in a way that is so fresh to the industry — it’s so much more than ‘campaign images featuring handbags’. The lookbooks themselves are almost works of art.

When we went into lockdown, right before our live AW21 runway presentation, I asked Sebastian if he could direct the show as well as style and he didn’t bat an eye — just a solid yes, and we worked hard to make sure the presentation could come to life digitally.

We love the concept behind the Club Yu Mei, can you tell us what this is about?

When I started the brand, our community built organically around us. People resonated with the product and identified with our team, because we’ve always tried to involve our community in the design process.

We built Club Yu Mei as a framework that we could connect with the community through, bringing them closer and allowing us to get to know each other through events, behind-the-scenes features, profiles on those who inspire us, and in-depth information on styling or design details. In a broad sense, it’s a place for connecting where everyone belongs and we can share ideas. 

We spoke the other day on how the New Zealand fashion and art scenes seem to be in a state of flux, where we’re seeing new brands and artists come to the fore. One of the most noticeable traits that these brands share is their global approach.

We talk about the same thing a lot at INDEX. We are from New Zealand Aotearoa but we’re trying to make a magazine for like-minded people no matter where they live. What is your approach to international growth? 

More so than ever, we live in a global world and are so interconnected. It’s been difficult with the pandemic to not be able to travel to new markets but, at the same time, we’ve all learned how much you can achieve from the comfort of your living room through the internet.

We’re now in David Jones throughout Australia and have been having a lot of fun coming up with innovative ways to support our sales there while we wait for a bubble, which turns out is not only relevant to Australia, but the rest of the world as well.

Presenting the collection in the form of a video (due to Covid-19) has become almost the norm around the world of late. What is the most important element of this form of presentation? And is it something you think you will continue?

Creatively, the most important and valuable aspect of a digital presentation, versus a physical one, is the level of detail you’re able to show via close-ups and ‘movie magic’. You’re able to present the full vision in a more artistic and conceptual way, which is exciting.

Travelling for fashion shows is also hugely unsustainable, so producing a digital presentation can be a good way to reduce your carbon footprint, which is something we’re working on at the moment. For that reason alone, it’s something I think will continue. From a brand perspective, creating a digital runway video is a more enduring artifact that can reach more people.

During the first March lockdown, in 2020, we really realised the power of harnessing a digital audience through our Archive Event so, since then, we aim to make every digital touchpoint feel tangible. If we host an online event, there will be a physical component — whether it’s via livestream, answering questions in real-time or adding a fun feature like an online Photobooth or embedded playlist. I think it’s something that will not only continue, but develop in increasingly innovative ways.

We often joke about the question ‘where do you find inspiration?’ but, in the case of Yu Mei, we’re interested to know what drives your design sensibility?

Each style begins with a problem or need and is designed, first and foremost, with functionality in mind. In ‘normal’ years, I travel and visit galleries and museums the world over and am inspired by the art I see, but also the cultures, experiences and people I meet.

The way I travel has definitely informed the design of our range — particularly the travel bags and ‘Art of Packing’ small leathergoods. From there, each design is reduced down to its simplest form, which is the signature Yu Mei ‘style’.

Your new Newmarket store, in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, is home to a special collaboration with the very talented Ashleigh Taupaki. Tell us about this collaboration.

We commissioned One (2021) in association with Auckland Art Fair through their Projects 2021, which features unrepresented or early-career artists. The curator, Micheal Do, told us about Ashleigh’s work and I felt an immediate resonance with her ideas of place and belonging, as well as honouring her ancestry and celebrating her heritage.

I especially liked that Ashleigh has a plan to return all the natural materials to the respective beaches from where she collected them, which speaks to Yu Mei’s focus on regenerative practices, natural materials and respect for the land.

From the beginning, Micheal understood Yu Mei’s values and paired us with a well-aligned artist in Ashleigh. This authenticity is why the partnership has been successful.

What do you want people to take away from your A/W21 collection and its presentation?

What I love about the Yu Mei brand, and the projects we put on, is the collegial spirit of the community that works hard to put them together. Forty-eight hours out of the live runway after the alert level change, we rallied our friends, including the models, Sebastian and Dylan, hair and makeup artists and the City Gallery to go digital. My mate Ben Forman at Wrestler pulled a team together within an hour or two, and filming commenced the next day, and it worked.

I think, in a way, this is inherently linked with the collection’s inspiration itself — the art of packing is all about systems that work, functionality and making it seamless to move through your day, leaving room for things that are actually important. I hope the feeling the presentation gives off mirrors just that, strong womxn leading the charge and leading change.

yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong
yu mei jessie wong

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