Harrolds recently welcomed Yu Mei — a New Zealand-born accessories label — to its collection of coveted objects. From masterfully-made deer nappa crossbody satchels to fill-to-the-brim tote bags grounded in quality, Yu Mei has swiftly established itself as one of the most sophisticated names in modern accessorisation.
With a release of seasonal hues that evolve as the broader fashion landscape does (yet resist trends), Yu Mei is a vault of heirloom-like pieces designed to last. Today, we catch up with the brand’s chic designer, Jessie Wong, to rehash Yu Mei’s beginnings, a circular approach to fashion, and what can be found in her very own staple handbag.
I wanted something that considered the wants and needs of modern women
When and why did you create Yu Mei? Have you always had an interest in fashion, design and accessorisation?
I’ve always been interested in fashion and design, and knew I wanted to work in this world in some capacity – but I wasn’t sure exactly what that looked like. It all clicked into place when I was studying fashion at university, and couldn’t find a decent bag that fitted 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.
That was the so-called ‘lightbulb’ moment for me, and what prompted me to start Yu Mei. I wanted something that considered the wants and needs of modern women, and it turns out a lot of people felt the same way.
What was it like growing up in NZ, and how do you think this influenced your own personal style? How does your heritage steer your design sensibilities?
I feel very lucky to have grown up in New Zealand. We’re very fortunate when it comes to our natural environment, which informs a lot of Yu Mei’s design – whether it’s getting inspiration for colour palettes from watching the ocean out my window, or having access to our buttery-soft, New Zealand-farmed signature deer nappa leather, which most of our bags are made from.
In terms of how it’s influenced my personal style – I hate to admit it but there’s a cliche that everyone in Wellington (where I live and grew up) wears black, and while that’s not strictly true of my wardrobe (I also love cream! And brown!) I do lean towards a fairly neutral, which I think is typical of a lot of New Zealand’s design sense. It’s definitely interesting looking at the colours different countries lean towards – when we first started introducing Yu Mei to Australia I realised how eager everyone is to embrace more bold and bright tones. Which I love to see!
I also incorporate a lot of elements of my Chinese heritage into the brand and our designs – from our name Yu Mei, which is my middle name, to certain design principles.
Jessie’s go-to pouch, The ‘Emily Pouch’
Jessie’s go-to pouch, The ‘Emily Pouch’
Talk us through your approach to circularity and community — two fundamental values of the Yu Mei brand.
We’re really committed to circularity at Yu Mei, and approach it in a range of ways. For starters, we use premium leather because we believe that with proper care, our bags can and will last a lifetime. We keep our designs minimal and timeless, so that they can transcend trends and seasons. That said, we recognise that life happens, things get damaged and people’s tastes change, so we also offer a buyback programme – essentially what that means is customers can send a pre-loved bag to us, which we’ll then refurbish and match with a new home. We’re also committed to using as much of our leather as possible to minimise waste, from scraps to offcuts to hardware overruns. So we have annual archive sales where we recycle, repurpose and reinvent all that would be waste from the previous year of production.
Community is also huge for us at Yu Mei, and we’ve created an online space called Club Yu Mei as a way of connecting with our customers (and vice versa!). Through this we host various digital events and runways, interview and champion our wonderful friends of the brand, and cultivate an inclusive space that everyone feels welcome to. All our physical Lounges are also designed with this community in mind, and have everything from drinks fridges to plush sofas to local art adorning the walls – we want our spaces to feel more like a home than a shop.
Deer nappa is Yu Mei’s hero fabric. Can you explain what this is?
We’re really proud to use New Zealand-farmed deer nappa. Not only is it buttery soft and extremely durable, making it the perfect leather for our bags, it’s also a byproduct of the venison industry – meaning that it would otherwise be waste. 100% of our Deer Nappa is sourced from local farms within the South Island of New Zealand, enabling traceability back to a farm level.
How did you discover this as the source to build an entire label upon, and what are its benefits?
I studied design in Dunedin, a city near the bottom of the South Island and very close to where our deer nappa is farmed. They used to send their offcuts to our school, which is how I first encountered the material – in fact, the first bag I ever made was for a university assignment, using this material. So it’s been on the Yu Mei journey from the very beginning! There are so many benefits to working with deer nappa – it’s as soft as it is strong, it ages beautifully, and is a regenerative material. Farmed Deer also have a low ecological footprint as they are free to roam larger geographical areas, meaning the impact they have on the land is significantly lesser than cattle or sheep.
In your opinion, what makes the ultimate multi-faceted everyday handbag?
I love a larger hold-all style that I can throw everything into – especially since I’m often on the go or travelling. Our Claudia Tote is my go to, and is stacked with so many features to maximise its utility – from internal clips to attach your keys to, to an external pocket that double as a sleeve to slide over your suitcase handles (the ultimate travel hack). I’m also a sucker for organisation (with minimal effort), which is why we created our Art of Packing system – essentially its a way of streamlining what and how you carry. So we’ve developed all our products to work with one another – from our smaller leather goods (make up purse, glasses case, evening bags). I keep these all filled with their appropriate essentials – and into the Claudia Tote they go!
And how about a small, crossbody counterpart. How did you approach the structure of Yu Mei’s more evening-friendly carry-ons?
Though smaller in size, we still want our evening bags to be practical – utility is a huge part of Yu Mei’s designs. So you’ll find that many of our smaller bags come with card slots (no need for your wallet), and removable straps – so you can stay hands free using the crossbody strap, or remove it for a cute little clutch style. We love options.
We design all our bags to be timeless and sleek, big on functional features, without superfluous extras that get in the way
How would you pinpoint the Yu Mei unique aesthetic, in your own words?
Our aesthetic is minimal, stealth luxury. We design all our bags to be timeless and sleek, big on functional features, without superfluous extras that get in the way. It’s a direct alignment with my own personal style, which could be described as very efficient, minimal design. I think quality is really paramount – a neutral trench coat could be the most boring thing in the world, but if it has hardware that’s wrapped in leather and stitched meticulously, or I can see that it’s tailored in a certain way, it’s just really special. I’m all about those details that lift the whole thing up. It’s not easy because it’s simple. It takes a lot of time and effort to do that stuff well.
What does Yu Mei’s new partnership with Harrolds mean to you as a founder? How did this relationship begin?
Partnering with Harrolds is such an honour for us. It’s so special to be such a part of this incredible fashion institution, which has so much history behind it. I also love the fact that it’s a family-run business, which really aligns with Yu Mei’s sense of team and family!
What process does a Yu Mei bag go through to reach a Harrolds store shelf? We heard it passes through 35 sets of hands before finding a forever home.
Yes, it does! Actually more than 35 now but I haven’t done a count in a while. A deer nappa skin passes through a minimum of 35 hands to be tanned, and with the manufacturing process, even more!
Measurability and accountability are integral to Yu Mei. How do you ensure these are upheld in day-to-day business operations?
We have appointed a sustainability lead to ensure that our operations are always being managed from the perspective of our values, with regeneration being a large focus of our supply chain. Our sustainability lead, Rebecca Tock, is also our Commercial Operations Manager, but she started at Yu Mei to achieve our Toitu Carbon Net Zero certification. Because the process of becoming Carbon Net Zero is so involved with our operations, it was like a crash course and Becca ended up coming on board as our Commercial Ops manager also. The roles go hand in hand.
Lastly, please tell us what tidbits can be found in your current carry-all. We’d love to know.
My Emily Pouch, our compact make-up up bag, comes everywhere with me – I never know when I’m going to have a last minute dinner or meeting I need to spruce up for! At the moment my favourite products are the Charlie Bag & Teresa Tote – both great for travel. I also always have my laptop on me, safe in our laptop case (the Bolton Folio), a smaller bag I can pop out to lunch with, and snacks (always snacks).