James Yu

Brother and sister team, James and Belinda Yu

It's in the bag

Brother and sister James and Belinda Yu used advice from an experienced entrepreneur to help them transform their wicker handbag business, moving it up the value chain while retaining their philanthropic outlook, as Janet Tansley discovers.

With success in their sights and a growing reputation, siblings James and Belinda Yu were on their way to bagging a booming business empire. But an off-the-cuff comment by Innocent Smoothies founder Richard Reed caused the duo to down tools and re-think their plans just two years in.

Their business, Wicker Wings, designs and produces handmade wicker handbags using traditional Chinese skills. “We were really doing well,” says James. “Although we were primarily online, we were being stocked in eight shops in the North West of England and in London, and we were in the final ten of Virgin’s ‘Pitch to Rich’ competition, vying to pitch our idea to Sir Richard Branson in a bid to win a £150,000 marketing campaign.

wickr Wings“It couldn’t have looked better. But, when Richard Reed looked at one of the bags we produced and said he could see it in Harrods, it caused us to think again about where we were and where we really wanted to be – while we were already good, we could be amazing.”

Re-launching after just two years, the pair were united in their belief that it was about more than “making a quick buck”. It always had been backed by a philanthropic ethos to give back as well as take.

“The re-launch came at a particularly good time,” adds James. “Buyers are becoming so much more conscious about quality these days, and they are interested in what’s gone into creating a product, they are fascinated about the story behind it.”

Wicker WingsJames and Belinda’s story is more interesting than most because it fuses together their family’s past with their present and what will hopefully be their future. “Our inspiration came from our grandmother, who wove wicker handbags for a living back in China, before the family migrated to Liverpool 33 years ago, in search of a better life for themselves and their children,” explains Belinda, 33.

“They had no money when they arrived but they started their own business, a fish and chip shop in Wavertree, and regularly sent some of the money they earned back home to help those who were less fortunate,” adds James, 24. “We were just sitting around the kitchen table one night, talking about our history, and Belinda mentioned that our gran used to weave baskets. I found that amazing and did a Google search and found there weren’t any major wicker brands.”

It was like a plan was coming together. James had just graduated in business and economics at the University of Liverpool and was considering his career options. Encouraged by their family’s story and inspired by the example of their parents, James and Belinda decided to team up.

“We get on really well so it made sense to look at ideas for working together and Belinda had already had a business and she had learned a lot from that,” James says.

“Neither of us had a fashion background so that side was quite challenging but we came up with our own designs and then it was a question of finding the right people to work with,” Belinda adds.

“The business took a year to establish, working around Belinda’s schedule following the birth of her second child – Belinda has two girls, Amelia, six, and Ava, three, and I am in awe of her,” says James, interrupting his train of thought. “I don’t know how Belinda does it, I don’t know how any woman does it, juggling work with being a mum but it’s phenomenal. She – they – are phenomenal.”

Wicker Wings was born and was thriving. Originally the bags sold for £60, with every stage of the process carried out in China. But, following the relaunch last year, everything except the wicker weaving is carried out in the UK, at the siblings’ respective homes in Liverpool and Sale.

That way, they can combine the meticulous weaving craft once honed by their gran and now carried out by artisans in the home of their forefathers – as they put it, “Ensuring the tradition of hand-weaving is kept alive” – with the control of putting the product together, ensuring the quality and perfection of the finished item.

“We are not talking about the Louboutin of handbags, but certainly the affordable-luxury end,” explains Belinda, drawing the comparison with the high-end shoe brand. “Everything is sourced in-house, from the leather that has replaced the pleather we used to use, to the buckles and fastenings, and assembled by ourselves and a team we have put together.

“It now seems strange that we had such finely-crafted wicker bags to which we attached other fittings that, while good, didn’t really complement their quality. That has now changed. We use Italian leather, which only gets better over time, and the product is now an even more beautiful one, one people will want to hold onto.

“Not coming from a manufacturing background, I don’t think we realised quite how much work went into just one bag. It takes a whole day just to weave the basket. And, from start to finish, it takes a day and a half to create and put it together.

“That’s why our brand philosophy is ‘Know the story. Understand the process’. Wicker Wings was and is about so much and so we needed to condense it into one simple tagline, which captures our essence and our ethos. And that does it perfectly.”

James and Belinda YuThey now make five shapes of bag in five sizes and five colour schemes, ranging from £160 to £195. The basket work has stayed black.

“We might bring out a natural shade – we could even dye it any number of colours – but initially at least we want to concentrate on changing the perception that wicker is only for hampers or picnic baskets,” Belinda adds. “It’s for all year round, not just summer.”

While this is the year that James and Belinda aim to send Wicker Wings flying into stores like Selfridges and Liberty, their quest is concentrated not just on building a better bank balance but on developing an exclusive product and a go-to brand for customers from 21 to their late 40s.

“Though that’s not to say it is not designed for anyone who simply likes style, and to be a fashion item to treasure,” adds James. “Yes, we all like to buy things that are cheaper, that we only expect to wear or use a certain number of times, but we also like to buy things that we know are going to last. Belinda has had her wicker bag for years and it just gets better with age.”

James and Belinda are constantly being asked about a male version of the bag and have not ruled that out as they expand, but the aim is to concentrate on getting a foothold in the affordable luxury end of the market and high-end retail side of things, as well as continuing their parents’ tradition of helping others through their work.

They have a “bag-for-bag” mission, which means that, for every bag they sell, they donate another little bag containing books to children in poorer areas of Asia. And customers are also invited to write a letter to the youngsters so the charity link is personal.

“Our parents have taught us to remember that you may not have much but you will always have more than some, so you should always help when you can,” James says. “They also instilled in us that education comes first, that it was the foundation for our future, so that was where the bag-for-bag mission came from.”

The wicker bags have changed the way James looks at his own life too. “The world we live in is so quick and fast-paced, with the sudden impact of social media, the quick-changing fashions,” he smiles. “Seeing the effort that goes into one bag and the time it takes has made me want to slow things down.

“I never imagined Wicker Wings could change my whole outlook on life. I didn’t expect that to happen, but it has. I’m probably the same as everyone else, I’m impatient, but I’ve learned to slow down and appreciate things, the quality of life and time as much as material things.

Wicker Wings“In business in general, people want that quick-and-easy buck, they want to make money and go. Belinda and I need a purpose, we want to create something more meaningful. If you look at the likes of Apple and its increasing philanthropic work, you can see that people expect more from a company. It goes beyond the product.”

Belinda says: “And people invest in that as much as anything. That’s why our story is so important – people buy into that as much as they buy into our bags. But this is the year we want to get into one of the retailers we have in mind.

“Where do we want to be in three to five years? I don’t know, it’s hard. I suppose we want to be a recognised brand, a go-to brand and one that puts wicker on the map of fashion.

“If I’m honest, I get caught up in doing things. You have a vision but that changes every so often. But it will always be about family. It was inspired by family and that will remain so.”

James adds: “Belinda and I are trying to make this business a success not just for us, but for our parents and family. We have come full circle. We want to create something that our parents can be proud of and which Belinda’s children, my nieces and nephews, can get on board with if they wish.”