Influencing with style

The 2021 Women of Influence winners were recently announced, and amid the impressive line-up is Yu Mei founder, Jessie Wong. Taking out the Business Enterprise award, Jessie has seen amazing success in her career, and is making her presence known in the fashion industry. Metropol writer Georgia Summerton chats to her about her journey so far.

Best known for beautiful leather handbags and wallets, Yu Mei is a much-loved leather goods label that holds sustainability and quality at the core. Jessie is the founder and director of

Yu Mei, and has spent the last seven years growing and developing the brand into what it is today.

“To be recognised by the Women of Influence awards is a huge honour – especially as someone from the fashion industry, in such a strong business category. It’s not just a reflection of me personally, but an acknowledgement of the grit of our small team, who absolutely punch above their weight. Eighty-five percent of our leadership team are women, and I’m always in awe of the drive and focus they have when it comes to building the best ways to do business beautifully and effectively.”

Since launching her business back in 2015, Yu Mei now has three stores across New Zealand and a wholesale network of 37 stockists. There is no doubt a strong sense of pride when reflecting on what the label has achieved so far.

“I’m most proud of our exceptional team. We have a lot of fun together and have really pulled off some incredible work in extremely high-pressure times. I think one of our most proud moments as a team was when we opened our Yu Mei Lounge in Newmarket – a result of everyone’s hard work toward growing the brand. The store launch went until 2am, no mean feat for a retail opening.”

Being recognised as an influential businesswoman is as Jessie says, a huge honour. When asked about who is the most influential in her life, it is those she holds close.

“All of the incredible women who came before me – my mum Jane, grandma Judy and great grandmother Vi, (all of whom have bags named after them!) Then there are all the female business mentors that I’ve been lucky enough to have around. For instance, Sarah Wickens, who founded Trilogy Skincare, has been such a guiding force in the growth of Yu Mei. I’m also influenced by female fashion designers who have made history. When you really look at it, many of the iconic fashion names today were the vision of men – Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurant, Karl Largerfeld, and while those designers have built incredible legacies, it’s the designers like Miuccia Prada and Phoebe Philo who have impacted me the most.”

Jessie also likes to look to some of these special women in her life for inspiration when it comes to the designs and functionality of her Yu Mei pieces.

“One of my first designs, the Braidy Bag, was named after my good friend Laura Braid, who was the patron saint of law school and parked up every day in the uni library with her study notes, laptop, chargers, water bottle, make-up bag, the kitchen sink. The Braidy Bag is a utilitarian item designed to bear weight. It’s now the go-to for university students, which I love. Function and utility are some of our pillars at the core of the brand.”
As with most businesses, the highs are met with the lows and there are plenty of challenges along the way. Yu Mei is no different, Jessie explains.

“When our tannery closed down in 2019, it was one of the saddest and most challenging things that had happened to us as a business. I really felt for all of the team we’d worked so closely with. Even in their closure they were incredibly helpful and worked with us to set up a new supplier. It was pretty important we got it right with the new tannery because the leather we work with is incredibly specialised.

“It’s South Island-farmed deer nappa, a by-product of the venison industry in New Zealand. Deer are particularly exceptional because they take a lot of space to farm, so have a low ecological footprint, and the leather is buttery soft and world-class. It’s the perfect hybrid of cow and lamb leather. It’s soft like lamb but strong like cowhide, so it’s perfect for larger, laptop-toting bags.

“After we’d sourced our deer nappa supplier, Adrian (our production manager) and I travelled for months to meet with tanneries all over the world. We travelled throughout Italy, France, Japan, China and the USA to find a solution. It took a while and by the end of the year I was exhausted, but when 2020 rolled around, and all travel was cancelled, I was extremely happy and relieved we hadn’t wasted any time finding a solution.”

As she mentioned, Jessie has had some wonderful business mentors over the years. A piece of advice that stuck with her 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, and to move from fire to fire with complete optimism. That’s building a business!”

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From the editor: 17 March 2022

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