Jessie Wong is the founder of Yu Mei, the beautiful leather goods label based in New Zealand.
Jessie took inside both her Wellington based HQ & dreamy Newmarket Lounge in Auckland & we sat down to discuss her brand, vision for the future, workspace essentials & how she stays organised.
First things first, how did it all begin & what was that light bulb moment when you decided to start Yu Mei?
I started Yu Mei because I couldn’t find a decent bag that fit everything I needed in a day - laptop, A3 visual diary, charger, make up bag, the kitchen sink. At the time, the bags that were available were based on the idea of women’s role in society 100 years ago. Big enough to carry your lipstick or love letters, but not your laptop and lunch box. I wanted something that considered the wants and needs of modern women, and it turns out a lot of people felt the same way.
Where do you find your inspiration for Yu Mei? And what's your personal favourite piece currently?
The main inspiration is the people around me. All the bags are based on and named after real people who had specific needs that previously weren’t being met. If you find one person that finds something useful, there’ll be many more like them. We always come back to the question, ‘Who does this actually serve?’ I think that's really important.
I’m also really informed by art - we try to design our collections in the same way an artist approaches their work, really considering things like our colour palettes, and how each piece fits into the whole. We also love to work with and champion local artists. For example, last year we did a really special collaboration with Nikau Hindin in celebration of Matariki, and right now we have a collaboration with artist Kirsty Lillico hanging in our Wellington lounge, in which she transformed Yu Mei’s offcuts into upholstered wallhangings.
What is the first thing you do when you get to the office?
Say hi to the team, pour an extremely large cup of coffee, check that I don’t have lipstick smeared on my chin after inhaling breakfast en route to the office, embark on a mountain of emails.
What are your must-have desk essentials?
A keyboard and laptop stand so I (hopefully) don’t ruin my back, a little gold bell that we ring anytime the brand or team has a win, the latest copy of my favourite magazine The Gentlewoman, a notebook, and snacks. Always snacks.
Top ways you organise your life?
Yu Mei bags, naturally! But in the interest of not dedicating this question entirely to self-promo, I really do try and streamline my life wherever possible. My motto is, ‘Work smarter, not harder.’
At home, I’m big on pre-ordering things like a weekly fruit and veg box, or a wine delivery subscription. Grocery shopping is hell and I avoid it at all costs. Then I’ll do things like pre-making a bunch of tasty dressings and storing them in jars in the fridge, so I can quickly whip up an easy, tasty salad for dinner without having to think much about it. Likewise with my wardrobe - I generally stick to a selection of well-tailored, well-designed basics, so I know everything works well together. Then I can spice it up with a fun earring or lipstick.
Tell us about the concept for the Newmarket space you opened last year?
Our Newmarket Lounge is a large space, so we really wanted to make it feel somewhat like a home, where customers can hang out and lounge about. We’re big on community at Yu Mei, and didn’t want it to feel too much like a ‘store’ as such - more a space where our customers can connect with us and each other.
To establish that feel, we worked with designers Knight Associates to create a space featuring really warm, earthy colours and textures - lots of wood, soft lighting and neutral tones. We also made sure there was decent seating (shopping is tiring, life is exhausting, everyone needs to sit down once in a while). So there’s a beautiful Camaleonda sofa by Mario Bellini, and a pair of vintage Jean-Marie Massaud occasional chairs that were reupholstered in Doeskin deer nappa from our Autumn Winter 21 collection. There’s also a dining area that seats 12, meaning we can host a range of events there, from dining parties to larger drinks evenings - something we plan to do more of in a post Covid world!
What design aspects are non-negotiable for you when looking for a new space?
Good light is a must - we want the spaces to feel bright and spacious, not cramped and poky. There needs to be ample wall space for all the beautiful art we have the honour of hanging in our lounges (and to house all our bags, of course), as well as clean, uncluttered lines, so we have room to add our Yu Mei spin on the space.
How does the store aesthetic tie in or compliment your Wellington Lounge & Studio?
Both were designed by Knights Associates, who really understand Yu Mei’s sensibility and aesthetic. Both feature really high quality materials, from Oamaru stone to marble countertops I literally spent days searching for. Our Wellington Lounge is much smaller than our Newmarket space, and both sizes come with their own set of design challenges - but whatever the size of the space space, we always strive to maximise it in the most beautiful, space-efficient way.
What’s one of your favourite pieces in the new office space?
I love the pair of Frank O. Gehry Wiggle Chairs we have in the Newmarket Lounge. They’re super fun and playful, and nod to the fact we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
What has been your biggest career highlight for Yu Mei to date?
Opening the Newmarket Lounge - in the middle of a pandemic, no less - really was a proud moment for us, and was a result of everyone's hard work toward growing the brand. The store launch went till 2am - no mean feat for a retail opening.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from your business growth?
I’ve had a couple of wise women give me advice over the years, but one particular line that stuck with me was, ‘Be relentless.’ Karen Walker told me that at a Christmas party in her Wellington store, when I must’ve been 18 or 19. It’s so true. The difference between someone who will succeed and someone who won’t is the relentless ability to keep going. This doesn’t mean “never take breaks” or “work insanely ridiculously hard 24/7” - it just means showing up every day and giving it your very best.
What are your goals for Yu Mei / what are you most looking forward to in the next 12 months?
This year, I’m incredibly excited about the opportunities across the Tasman. We’ve spent a bit of time building a brand in Australia from afar, but now that we can physically be here it’s going to make a world of difference. I’m looking forward to meeting new people, cultivating the brand in Australia, and partnering with like-minded people and businesses to bring Yu Mei’s vision to life. Next stop - the world.
Follow Yu Mei HERE & Shop the brand HERE