When Jessie Wong creates a handbag, she strives for the sleekest design – but she’s largely focused on the person who will be holding the bag, and how they move through the world with it.

The Wellington-based founder of Yu Mei started her luxury leather goods label while studying for a Bachelor of Fashion Design at Dunedin’s University of Otago. She’d discovered what she thought was a fundamental flaw in women’s handbags.

“What was mostly on the market catered for women’s role in society a hundred years ago,” she tells Broadsheet. “You could fit your love letters, your lipstick and they’d have beautiful leather and hardware, but it just didn’t reflect my reality of what I needed.”

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Every Yu Mei bag is named after the forward-thinking people in Wong’s life – the Phoebe Bucket, the Adrian Envelope, the Teresa Tote. They’re practical and polished, elegant even while lugging around laptops. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a fan; she carried a Yu Mei clutch when attending the state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II.

Nearly all the bags are made of deer nappa, using only by-products of the South Island’s venison industry – in keeping with the company’s focus on mindful practices. The material has the strength of cowhide and the softness of lambskin. “When you feel the scrunchy, buttery softness and how huggable a Yu Mei bag is, you fall in love,” says Wong.

This high-quality feel is something Bergdorf Goodman immediately noticed. The luxury New York-based department store is now one of Yu Mei’s 44 stockists, and the first on the ground in America. When Wong spoke with Broadsheet, she was about to leave the landmark Fifth Avenue store for the Aotearoa Art Fair, which Yu Mei supports among other cultural and social initiatives. The label can also be found in some of Australia’s best stores including David Jones, Harrolds and My Chameleon, and showed with Esse Studios for Afterpay Australian Fashion Week this year.

Yu Mei’s overall aesthetic has evolved since launching in 2015, becoming more refined while sticking to the ethos of “simplicity is complexity resolved”. Wong made the first 500 bags by hand and, when her New Zealand tannery closed in 2019, she secured an international handbag manufacturer owned by the Prada Group. The factory produces high-quality leather goods in a region of China near where Wong’s family originally lived.

The designer is proud that her bags are ‘made in China’, as she challenges the negative preconceptions that can come with this label. “I hear off-hand comments all the time, which surprises me,” says Wong. “But I think it’s changing.” As a modern businesswoman and a third-generation Chinese-New Zealander, representation is important to her. As of November 24, she’ll be starring in TV3’s six-part docu-series The Hustle, alongside other talented Asian entrepreneurs in Aotearoa.

Yu Mei recently released a “Regeneration Roadmap”, which you can read online or as a print newspaper. It details the company’s responsibility for its products and their impact on the planet. “I think businesses should put these frameworks in place,” says Wong. “They’re not easy, but it’s something that we do because every bag is so important to me.”

As part of a buy-back program, customers can return a Yu Mei bag for credit and it’ll be refurbished for someone else to enjoy. There’s also the sell-out archive sales, which the team uses to create coveted one-off pieces from scraps and end-of-run leather colours. This year’s sale saw 30,000 people visit the website.

Yu Mei’s goal is to eventually return its luxury leather to the land through regenerative composting. The company already has Toitū Net Carbon Zero accreditation and is working towards B Corp status – which is currently under review. “Our goal is to have a net positive impact across the board,” the Roadmap states.

The label has a dedicated fandom – particularly in Wellington, where you’ll spot its bags on countless shoulders around town. This is extended far and wide with Club Yu Mei – it’s free to join and members are invited to events such as dinner parties and special launches. There’s also a new Digital Lounge on the website where you can browse 3D renders of the new spring/summer collection while listening to a curated playlist and learning about the company’s artist in residence – currently, painter Ruby Wilkinson.

“My favourite part of what we’ve built over the past seven years is the community of it all,” says Wong.