Apparel spoke with rising star, Jessie Wong, the woman behind the brand Yu Mei about how she got started in the industry, the lessons she has learnt along the way, how she continues to value quality over quantity and what the future has in store.

Having grown up on the beach on the south coast of Wellington in Island Bay, Jessie Wong spent most weekends watching her mother use the sewing machine and often got to have a go herself. Seeing her interest in sewing grow, her mother took her to have lessons at Inverlochy Art House in Te Aro. “I remember what I made in my first class,” said Wong. “A super funky black and white striped cowl neck top, terrible in hindsight but my Mum was impressed!”

Aside from her learning construction from a young age at Inverlochy, she has always had a knack for colours and putting outfits together. At 13, Wong started going into shops like Karen Walker and making friends with the staff there.

“Often those boutique stores sell fabric remnants in their samples sales so I used to collect those and use them for my school design technology projects.” Two years later she made a dress using Karen Walker fabric and asked Shelley, who then worked in the Wellington store to review the dress. It wasn’t long before the design team sent back a response offering Wong a week’s internship with Karen Walker up in Auckland. “My week at Karen Walker was invaluable. It was the first time I’d seen an entire workroom from design through pattern making to sampling all run together – and I loved it! It was so exciting to see how everything in the store came to life.”

Following graduation from Samuel Marsden School in Karori and having a week at Karen Walker under her belt, Wong knew she wanted to pursue a career in fashion and studied a Bachelor of Design in Fashion at Otago Polytechnic down in Dunedin. During her studies, she helped out at Twenty Seven Names and did a few weeks internship during her university holidays.

“They were great, both Rachel and Anjali had studied in Dunedin and helped me choose where to study, even down to which hall of residence I should apply for. I got a taste for what was required in the despatch department, not something you’re taught at school.”

In her final year at Otago, Wong spent five weeks in Sydney at Akira Isogawa where she found herself in an entirely different work environment to what she had experienced back home.

“Akira had three or four interns, and it was tougher. It wasn’t negative, but I do think I quickly realised that I didn’t want to be working in the fashion industry if it wasn’t for my label.”

Although formal education isn’t for everyone, Wong found that her time spent building design skills and experimenting without having to translate it into sales was definitely for her. “Getting constant feedback is something I missed once leaving tertiary education, but you quickly find that kind of support in other places, mainly my stockists most of whom have become my friends. Doing a degree is also as much about creating a solid support network in the industry as anything.” After completing her studies, Wong went on to create her handbag and accessories brand, Yu Mei, named after her Chinese middle name.

Up until this year, Wong has been a one-woman band doing all of her design, branding, wholesaling, online sales, events, sourcing, manufacturing and production – the lot. “I have recently hired the most amazing full-time production manager, Adrian. To begin with, though I had to do it all, and I have learnt a lot in the process.”

A typical day for Wong varies a lot depending on which stage of the season she is at but it is guaranteed to be a fun day. “One week we’re flat tack in production, or I’ll be on the computer replying to emails and sorting the admin side of things. Some of the best days are designing new bags or developing aspects of our patterns, and it’s very satisfying creating something new. We probably have the most fun during our campaign shoots because it’s the first time we get to see the collection come together.”

Running Yu Mei has taught Wong that no one knows what they’re doing until they’re doing it and that there is no set formula for success. She has learnt to trust her gut instincts when it comes to important decisions, and always value quality over quantity. “I also have the opportunity to run things my way, so I’ve become a lot more mindful of the decisions I make and the impact they have especially surrounding production. I want to grow Yu Mei into a socially responsible label and increase consumer awareness on how the products and garments they choose to buy are made.”

Wong attributes her success to date to the hard work and long hours she has put into her brand. Although the risk is always a factor when it comes to business, she was prepared to be pushed into the deep end. “If you don’t jump in, you risk not enjoying what you do. There will probably be someone around to throw you a pool noodle if it gets a bit much. You need to make opportunities happen for yourself, be curious and always ask questions. The worst anyone can ever say to you is no. Stay honest to your values and don’t take yourself too seriously.”