Handmade in NYC and founded in 2011 by designer Wing Yau, WWAKE jewelry began as a textile experiment and has since expanded into the fine jewelry category. In a very short period of time the line has found popularity amongst bloggers, celebrities and more. I met Wing though Astird of Upstate and Metalepsis Projects (click links for Astrid's NYCalled features) and traveled to her cool Brooklyn based studio to get the scoop on her Canadian roots, the brand's beginnings, and her NYC experience thus far. Read the interview below!Lexi: Can you tell me about your background and education?
Wing: That's a long story! Well I was born in Vancouver, Canada and went to RISD for school (Rhode Island School of Design). I studied sculpture and when I finished school I didn't know what to do, I didn't have a studio. I had finished my thesis project and got bored of making things because it was too challenging to make huge sculptures and also have them conceptually sound.
Lexi: So you never studied jewelry making in school?
Wing: When I graduated I had no background in jewelry specifically. I just always liked it. I always collected interesting jewelry and I fell into making it after school because I was experimenting with textiles. I grew WWAKE based on textile experiments - it was a lot more about taking on conventional materials and making them into something wearable. But as I did that and eventually tired to sell it, I started to understand the value of metal jewelry - instead of wearing down it wears in and it retains its value. I realized there were more subversive ways I could be nontraditional while still being artistic. I also love fine jewelry because it caters to my purest sensibilities.Lexi: Can you tell me a little bit about the brand in general and the concept behind your designs?
Wing: We have a costume line which is heavier in texture and made from base metals but the forefront of WWAKE is our fine jewelry, which we want to connect conceptually with our customer. For example, we have all of these hidden gemstones, some tucked away on the back of the rings, which are intended to be very personal to the wearer. We also have these earrings, which I love because their movement captures a moment in time. I think to capture that action, something so ephemeral, is precious. It can be difficult to communicate that concept so using something like gold, that is inarguably precious and retains its history, helps.
Lexi: You're very passionate about what you do. Did you ever imagine designing jewelry full time?
Wing: No! I just thought I was going to be a gallery girl and studio artist on the side but I just fell into this and I love learning about the fashion industry and connecting with everyday people.Lexi: What do you want a customer to feel when they're wearing your jewelry? How do you translate your concept to the customer?
Wing: Ideally I want them to feel more connected to art in general. They don't need to be that well educated about it but I want them to feel that sensibility. What I do is about translating that art experience. It's about having my idea present in this object and that object connecting to someone.
Lexi: How did you build WWAKE from where it started to what it is now?
Wing: I had a lot of people give me great advice and, even though I wasn't trained in jewelry design, I have a background in casting from RISD. What RISD didn't teach was how much you can outsource. When I realized you can outsource the casting and mold making it made things so much easier and less daunting.Lexi: What are some of the challenges you faced in building your business?
Wing: For me it was really hard to turn everything into a business. I was really interested in making art but the deadlines and trade shows were challenging. It was also difficult learning how to work with vendors. I had a hard time pitching my values and concept because not everyone was convinced that it would sell to their customer. Persuading vendors to buy into the fine jewelry was tough considering they weren't expecting that at first. I had originally pitched a costume line and even though it was all conceptually sound, it didn't make sense to vendors. Overtime I started to learn the happy medium between creating/selling traditional versus non-traditional jewelry.
Lexi: Were there any challenges related to New York specifically? Tell me about your experience in the city.
Wing: I was in a long distance relationship that went on for three years. I was in Vancouver and he was in NYC and we got to a point where we were either going to break up or we were going to get married. So I made the move to New York...and things are great! It's been such an incredible transition for me to come to New York and run the business full throttle. I thrive off my friends and also have the support system of my husband. I don't talk about it a lot because I am so young and sometimes being married can be this social barrier at my age but on the flip side, getting married so young is awesome. It's been interesting being married and not expecting that you ever would be. We really back each other and we're growing things together in a New York way. We don't doubt our relationship ever which is so reassuring when everything else is in transition.Lexi: When you say build your lives in a "New York" way? What does that mean?
Wing: It means not sleeping or seeing each other as much as you want and honestly I don't even know what kind of lifestyle I'd "want" because all I've ever wanted is to work this hard. Jake (my husband) works just as hard too. I think that's super New York because if you're going to develop your passions within our separate industries (he's in the music industry) then you have to just jive with the New York schedule. It's not an ideal lifestyle but I wouldn't have it any other way. I mean we live this crazy because we're happy doing it...otherwise we'd move!
Lexi: Where do you get your work ethic from?
Wing: RISID really does instill this crazy work ethic in you and when I was in Vancouver I knew I wouldn't stay. I was working at a coffee shop and living with my parents and doing a lot of random jobs to help me save money. I finally got a studio after going crazy making things in my bedroom for so long. I was working really weird hours. I'd work double shifts at the coffee shop and then go into the studio. At the time I didn't even know what I wanted to do, I was just building something.Lexi: Did you just always feel that your hard work would lead to something great, even though you didn't know what?
Wing: I just wanted to do something. I was really at a loss. I couldn't get a cool creative job in the art world and I didn't have a portfolio to pitch myself as a designer. I didn't know what else to do so I ended up just make stuff.
Lexi: How did you keep your faith? Did you ever think things wouldn't work out?
Wing: My parents are crazy hard workers and I think that aside from that work ethic I naturally value working hard and understand that if you're truly focused you will get what you want. It's all in your hands at a certain point, ya know? I truly believe that. I think if you're focused on the goal and work hard why wouldnt you get there?
Lexi: You have to be fearless...
Wing: You do have to be fearless and I have a tiger mom and my dad is reserved and wise. That combination helped me get over my anxiety as a teen. I had more access to resources than they ever had so they didn't entertain a helpless attitude.Lexi: So how do you feel now that the company is in a strong place?
Wing: Well I never want to feel unchallenged but I'm excited about where we are. Putting together our first business plan was a stepping stone and I was so happy to establish a vision for the next four years. I mean we have real, loyal customers! That gives me assurance moving forward.