Wendy Yu has been near and dear to the luxury world for some time now — as a patron, an investor, a business partner and a cultural tie between the East and the West. Yet her ambition didn’t end there, as demonstrated by the announcement of Yu Holdings’ establishment, investment in Mary Katrantzou, and an eye to expansive growth in 2018, somewhat commemorated with a glamorous Chinese New Year Dinner that was the talk of the luxury society.
The Luxury Conversation met with Wendy on a recent visit to Shanghai, to talk about Yu Holdings, how she had arrived at this point and what was in store for the future of Wendy Yu.
It’s been such a busy few months for you – with yourself and Yu Holdings now all over the international media, and in clear view. What has led to this current point – and do you feel pressure along with it?
The motivation and energy, as well as the pressure, comes primarily from myself. It’s from my deep passion and drive to creative a multi-faced platform to connect investments with innovation, creativity and philanthropy between China and the rest of the world.
Yu Holdings is now not only a vision, but also an evolution of Yu Capital , with two new divisions — Yu Fashion and Yu Culture. When I first started, there may have been doubts about my commitment. Perhaps I was assumed to be a casual investor by many people. But our track record and portfolio management on fashion and technology investments, as well as our established patronage role in the fashion and arts world have had solid results. We have been involved with iconic projects and strategically supported brands; my work is about building an eco-system through culture and creative exchange.
It has been building for many years – ever since I was young I visualised creative collaborations – I was aware of my strengths and where I could add value; such as connecting the east and west together. Now I have the vehicle, a platform for my vision. In this way, it is a natural and quite organic progression to support brands, technology and the arts.
I have had previous investments which have given a great financial return – but for smaller brands, they need financial support and also strategic guidance and involvement in order to grow. This kind of project is much more meaningful and engaging, as you get to see a brand that you are emotionally invested in grow and flourish.
After your education in Hangzhou, what took you to the UK, and why there rather than the U.S., for example?
Actually a cousin of mine was studying in England. When she came back to China, she seemed much more confident, composed and worldly. The move to London certainly influenced my journey from then to now.
In London, my circle of friends included talented designers, artists, smart entrepreneurs and bankers, who would often ask me all about China. I was a client as well as a friend, something of an unofficial advisor on China! They came to me for my opinions because I had no agenda, I was open and honest with my views.
It was a natural evolution to incorporate this into my work and my investments, it was all to do with creative and cultural exchange.
This is what I am truly passionate about: fashion, disruptive technology, creative and cultural exchange, and connecting people and companies. For now, I feel as though I am at the beginning of my life’s work. The fulfillment that I envisage is not simply financial but making a difference in the luxury industry itself, and supporting women going forwards. There is still gender inequality, and this must be addressed. Young girls must feel able to pursue any sort of future that they wish. This motivation to change the status quo comes from my own aim to be firmly positive and to drive positive change.
Were these issues that caught your eye more recently? Or was this an innate belief since young?
Since I was young I wanted to challenge the traditional image of what a woman must be. There has always been something of a rebel in me. My father gave me a lot of this courage and spirit of adventure. Before I was born, he was in the first generation of university graduates in China. He had a good government job, but left this in order to become an entrepreneur, one of the first in China. So although he was busy, he was a great role model. He taught me to be loving, caring and thoughtful of others, and to look at myself and always find ways to improve.
I really looked up to my Dad and I still do. When I was growing up in Hangzhou and in a British boarding school, going my own way was where I found true satisfaction. I was happy to have my own personal vision and follow it to get where I wanted to go.
With the scale of decisions now in front of you, who is your mentor and advisor to support you?
My father is of course still a mentor and advisor. People such as Angelica Cheung have been very supportive. I met Angelica when I interned at Vogue China, and over the years I’ve gotten to know her very well. She told me ‘I thought you were just another rich girl but I saw something in you’. It really meant a lot to me that she saw passion and most of all persistence in my character. Anna Wintour is another role model whom I have officially met last year and she invited me to the Met gala and offered me very wise advice. It is easy to be inspired by great entrepreneurs and visionaries. I’m also inspired by famous teachings, such as that of ancient Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu.
My own team are also the real heroes. I would say it’s 80% down to teamwork, and working with people whom I respect and love.
Importantly, new projects are introduced to me by trustworthy, proven people. Of course, I am very cautious where necessary. I may be a risk taker at times, but they are calculated risks – at the beginning of my life’s work, the results have to speak for themselves.
The first thing that anyone can read about when considering their brand entering China is Millennials, e-commerce, KOLs. What goes beyond that?
I love doing things differently and finding ways to stand out. For any brand coming to China, it’s vital to understand very precisely, who the customer is and what excites them.
I have had the same lesson from both my father and Angelica Cheung; the product comes first, followed by the marketing, and both must be in sync. This makes a successful brand. A certain aesthetic is fine, but you need to translate it for the Chinese customer. One example was Mary Katrantzou’s (below) collection, when it was presented on Weibo. The most positive feedback received was for the simplest styles. Mary is known for her amazing 3D prints, but it was the more pared-back looks which caught the eye of the customers in China. This is an example of subtly tailoring an aesthetic by responding to customers’ feedback and tastes.
The DNA of the brand can remain, but something elegant, flexible and exciting to the local eye is key. At the fashion shows we might say ‘wow’ at a certain look, but for Chinese luxury consumers, it needs to be practical, wearable and not only visually strong.
In such a busy moment, do you take time off to ‘stop’? Or are you the type of person that is non-stop?
I feel more relaxed in China. I love to meditate every day, to water and arrange flowers, go for spicy and authentic hotpot, and see my Chinese doctors. I love to read and reflect, and take time to plan.
People assume I love glamour all the time, but I love being casual and chilling out. There are multiple sides to each person. In Europe, I find that I work all day every day, for weeks in a row. I realise that my body is telling me that this needs some balance.
When older, I see myself living in the countryside, surrounded by nature, dedicating most of my time and energy on social work and philanthropy. I love what I do now and I have a lot to achieve, but escaping to nature is something that centres and grounds me.
You always look immaculate. What looks or designers are catching your eye this year?
Since YOOX-Net-a-Porter invited me to be their global ambassador, I am lucky enough that I don’t need to spend time shopping! They send me their consignments before fashion week, so that I can select and buy as I wish.
I always used to go for the big names like Dior and Valentino but especially since working with Mary Katrantzou, I look for emerging designers. Mary is a true genius. We are very close friends as well. I opt for independent designers because it shows an appreciation for young, creative talent. There’s also a risk in a Chanel or a Gucci that you will run into someone with the same dress! Vintage couture is also an interest of mine – I love William Vintage.
Another vision I have is that some time later, I will build a fashion museum in China. So when I select items now, I consider if it is truly relevant and importantly, if it will remain timeless and iconic in years to come. That’s what matters most.