Advene on Direct to Consumer, Organic Awareness and Creating Value
Yijia Wang and Zi Xuan combined their values with design and business skills to create an ethical line of luxury accessories, Advene. Launched in 2019 with only a handful of precisely engineered handbags made using state-of-the-art Italian craftsmanship, the brand has grown steadily ever since thanks to close relationships with its customers and mentors.
Speaking from New York, Zi and Yijia explain what inspired them to address fashion’s deeply set design and production problems, the importance of customer feedback in a direct-to-consumer model and how human ingenuity can power the industry in exciting new directions.
Advance Copy: Zi and Yijia, welcome to Advance Copy. Would you mind introducing yourselves and your roles at Advene?
Zi: I’m the Designer and Co-Founder of Advene. I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in Accessory Design. After graduating, I worked for Marc Jacobs and Coach for five years as a handbag designer.
Yijia: After graduating in Quantitative Economics, I moved to New York to work for a marketing agency doing data analytics and helping develop marketing strategies for big brands. I then went on to do a Masters in Design Studies from Parsons School of Design because I think design innovation is serving customers better [than] marketing. That’s also why we got together and started Advene.
Can you tell us about your personal backgrounds?
Zi: Growing up, my parents gave me freedom to spend my spare time however I wanted to and I wanted to be a Manga master. Over time my interests changed and in high-school I wanted to become an author. I grew up in Beijing and my first Bachelors degree is in Chinese language and literature. I then did an exchange programme in the UK where I was exposed to the fashion world, and immediately after coming back I applied to fashion school in New York.
Yijia: I also grew up in China and both my parents are professors so I grew up in an academic environment. My mum was a professor in garment engineering so I was influenced by fashion from very early on. However, it wasn’t until starting Advene that I started to investigate the whole industry. I soon realised that I wanted to study something even more to the core – the design of the product itself.
Zi: What Yijia and I have in common is the extreme enthusiasm and passion for how design can affect the users, change their everyday life and change society in general. When I design products, the core is so much about looking into how the customer will wear the bag, the relationship between the product and their everyday usage. And how it will affect the [lifespan of] the product from creation to usage and the end of life.
“A lot of design decisions are made based on trends rather than how products are made.”
What was the moment you realised that sustainability mattered to you personally to a point that you wanted to dedicate your time building a sustainable business?
Zi: A lot of design decisions are made based on trends rather than how products are made. Because of tight timelines things need to be made quickly. People tend to buy [things] for a season and then throw [them away]. We feel like there is a need to change that and to make decisions through a sustainable design lens. When the longevity of products is considered, it will create better consumer behaviour. When you look at sustainability it’s not only about using certain materials, it’s not just about that one aspect – it’s about the whole spectrum of design from the beginning to the end. From how you trace your material to how the product is made and how the people making the product are taken care of to how the customer is using the product until the end of its lifespan. For us, sustainability is about that whole scope rather than just one aspect.
Yijia: I’ve been paying attention to environmental issues and ethical production issues from very early on. In high-school I worked on social innovation projects and in college I worked on projects for the World Bank about ethical and environmental production. So that’s been a long interest of mine. Zi and I realised that during the product production process there are aspects, as Zi mentioned, that are either ignored or the prioritisation is the monetisation of the trend rather than making products that serve people or the environment better. We realised we need to do something differently than what’s currently happening in the industry.
“We want our products to accompany you through all your daily adventures.”
Let’s go back to how you started Advene. Having worked in marketing and fashion design you saw first-hand how hard the job of running a brand is – but you still decided to try it yourselves.
Zi: Yijia and I talk about our everyday discoveries, we go to galleries and shows together, and we always exchange our ideas in terms of how we look at design. I left my previous job and Yijia was about to graduate from her Masters, so it was the perfect time for us to think about our next step professionally. We always had this idea of building something together and exploring our vision [of] design and how we create products. That was at the beginning of 2019.
Yijia: We took a trip to Germany because it was the 100-year anniversary of Bauhaus and we are largely inspired by what they were trying to do 100 years ago. We want to create value for customers, but also for society in general with better externalities in terms of environmental or ethical production issues.
There seem to be added layers of art and philosophy to Advene’s inspirations. The brand name comes from the French literary theorist, Roland Barthes?
Yijia: The short story – Advene is for adventure because we believe everyone has adventures in their everyday life. We want our products to accompany you through all your daily adventures. The longer version is about Roland Barthes In Camera Lucida he talks about [how] some art can speak to him and that’s the nature that he calls Advenience. We think that’s the beautiful nature of either art or design that can really speak to you, so we named ourselves Advene.
“Challenge yourself to create a design that can stand up sculpturally by using the efficient engineering of patterns rather than continuously adding fillers.”
Another important element at the core of Advene is materials. I found this section of your website so informative. Could you explain the key design elements of your bags that are different from a standard handbag?
Zi: This is a very good question and it’s also one of the motivations for me as a designer – to look into the core structure of handbag design. Making something sculptural is a very straightforward process – you add fillers and the bag will stand up. However, the bag will feel very stiff to touch. My interest lies in how you can maximise the material used and also challenge yourself to create a design that can stand up sculpturally by using the efficient engineering of patterns rather than continuously adding fillers. Our iconic design, the Age Bag, definitely has the sculptural look but when you touch it you still feel the softness of the leather. It’s a very soft-to-touch handbag that allows you to have the functionality of a bucket bag and of a top-handle bag, while still containing that artistic aesthetic.
When I design bags, the choice of the material, how it’s constructed, and how the patterns are pieced together is very important. But also when we decide to use a certain material, how that material is made is extremely important to us. That’s why when we are looking at tanneries we use LWG gold-standard certified tanneries and the leather is 100% traceable, which means you know where the raw skin is coming from to how it’s processed and how the waste is being collected through an eco-friendly process. For our hemp fabric, it’s an organic crop which means that the hemp itself doesn’t need any chemical treatment, it’s GOTS certified and also has the waterproof treatment. We make sure that from a sustainable aspect we meet all standards, but also from a functionality aspect. We look at everything holistically.
“Part of our inspiration is from Bauhaus so accessibility is always something that we’re concerned about.”
For brands that are interested in using more sustainable, traceable materials the economic and time factors always pops up as a barrier. With Advene you are proving the opposite as your prices are very competitive in their category.
Yijia: Part of our inspiration is from Bauhaus so accessibility is always something that we’re concerned about. We want a large group of people to enjoy the design, so making the pricing accessible is very important. That being said, our direct-to-consumer model means more than 90% of our sales come from our official website. That can hugely help with accessible pricing because we don’t need to deal with wholesale mark-ups. As customers ourselves, we understand that sustainability is not the reason why somebody has to pay a premium. Good products, good design, is always the priority when people are making purchase decisions. And if the product is made sustainably and ethically that’s always a better alternative and that’s the responsibility of the brand.
Zi: Adding to Yijia’s point, since currently all of our products are made in Italy and our materials are sourced in Italy, we know that the prices for a lot of our products are actually quite high (the raw cost) but by going D2C we’re able to have a realistic, accessible price point. Going forward, if we ever partner with any wholesale partners, we’re willing as a brand to take a little bit less of the earnings, but still be able to maintain that relatively accessible price point. We really hope to have the benefit actually land to the customer’s side. On the flip side, we don’t do many markdowns. Again, we want customers to make conscientiousness purchase decisions so that when they decided to buy it’s not because it’s cheap, but it’s because they are impressed by the design, because they are committed to using it for a longer time and because the bag is well made.
“By going D2C we’re able to have a realistic, accessible price point.”
It’s very admirable of you to have those thoughts in mind that are not purely entrepreneurial, ego driven. What have been the pros and cons of operating as a D2C brand so far? Is your strategy to continue this way or would you like to collaborate with multi-brand stores?
Yijia: We always want consumers to be our primary party to serve. That’s why we want to invest strongly in D2C because we can have this direct connection with consumers. That being said, it’s very important to build up brand awareness. This brand awareness isn’t necessarily only coming from wholesale partners, it can come from everywhere – magazines, press, blogs, influencers and celebrities. Because we launched with a very strong product, we received organic exposure not only from magazines such as Vogue, Wallpaper* and Bazaar, who were impressed with our design and are willing to feature us again, but also from celebrities and influencers. Hailey Bieber was spotted with our bag just four months after we launched and Kendall Jenner wore us twice. The direct-to-consumer business for us has been growing quite strongly for the past year. It benefits us hugely because we can get direct customer feedback. This organic community will also help us with our future product development and future brand building.
Zi: That’s really important; the first-hand feedback from customers that’s going to directly affect the design of our next product. That’s the beauty of D2C. It’s that kind of intimate relationship that we can continue to build. It’s something that inspires us every single day and that core feedback can really nurture the future growth. We really benefit from the D2C model and it’s a core pillar for growing our business.
Yijia: And because we proved that our products can have this strong growth, we started conversations with wholesalers because we have a lot of first-hand data to prove that we can be a good match for their platform. Our strategy is to start with D2C and initiate this connection with wholesalers later in the business.
Something that I love about your website is the list of people who you have collaborated with or who hold a special place in your heart. I’m curious to hear a couple of the stories behind these portraits and how these individuals crossed your paths.
Zi: We don’t have a photo of founders there. We sit alongside everybody who has been through the process together with us to build Advene. So many things are a team effort. You watch a movie and at the end you have a list of all the crew but why don’t you have that for something like fashion where it really takes a whole village to make it happen. For us to make a decision it’s really a collaboration with our manufacturers, material suppliers, with our photographer, copywriter, with everybody. To name a few, of course, our hero Davide. He is our production manager based in Italy who helps us and really is our go-to person. He has so much experience in good design, and will give you honest and transparent opinions on your products and what materials to use. And then of course our photographer, Youn Jung Kim. She has been working with us from day one and every campaign that we do we work collaboratively with her.
Yijia: All our collaborators we essentially worked with them from day one. From when we just launched, they believed in us and they shared their love and support endlessly.
Zi: Imagine building a brand when you know zero about how to build a brand, you need to make a lot of phone calls and write a lot of e-mails. You don’t know them in the beginning but then at the end they become your mentors. Those mentors are extremely important to us as we grow our brand.
I love the open feelings of gratitude because we’re in an industry which is very secretive and not everybody wants to sing everybody’s praises, especially if we’re speaking about production and manufacturing.
Zi: Thank you. We actually launched during the height of Covid, two weeks after election day in the US. So you can imagine the first three months have been really quiet for us, but we feel so lucky to have our voice translated through our products, through whatever we post on the Internet, and then that gradually translates to the people that in the end become our customers. We feel extremely lucky and I think we continue to hold this gratitude and positivity for 2022.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Ria Jaiswal.