Inspiring Women: Zi Xuan and Yijia Wang Are Reinventing Sustainable Affordable Luxury With Their New Brand Advene

by Freya Drohan

This Women’s History Month, we’re putting a well-deserved spotlight on female founders in the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle space. Next up, Zi Xuan and Yijia Wang, the longtime friends and co-creators of advene. With their fledgling brand, the duo are mining their respective experience immersed in the fashion and analytics industries to reimagine what the everyday, functional yet chic, and ethically-created handbag should look like. The result is their new Age Bag, a hero tote which combines sleek, minimalist, and thoughtful design with a non-negotiable backstory (ethical sourcing, transparent construction, and responsible production). The Daily caught up with the pair to hear how it all began—and what’s still to come.

What are your respective backstories?
After graduating from Fashion Institute of Technology, Zi gained multiple years of experience working as a handbag designer for Marc Jacobs and Coach in New York City. She has experience working with designers and vendors across the globe and has an in-depth understanding of North America and Europe fashion trends and markets. Yijia moved to New York in 2015 and started working as a marketing analytics professional, using data to model and predict consumer behavior. She specialized in developing actionable branding and marketing strategies based on data analytics and marketing mix modeling. Yijia graduated with a BS in Quantitative Economics from Tufts University, and an MA in Design Studies at Parsons School of Design.

How did you meet and what drew you to working with each other? How do your strengths compliment one another?
We have been friends for five years, and since we met we have been sharing ideas about developing innovative designs and how design can better serve the public. For Zi, looking at the fashion industry and informed by her real-life experience, she saw a critical problem: the craftsmanship and intention behind product design is getting lost along the supply chain. Industrial manufacturing divorces the end product from its original design context, resulting in goods that bear no trace of the materials, people, and passion behind their creation. Yijia also saw the same silos in the marketing sphere, where brands are focused on making their voice heard, rather than thinking about what their voice should be about and what kind of product development and innovation could deliver that ethos. Our different backgrounds and expertises, one in arts (handbag designs and art direction) and one in science (quantitative economics and data science) bring very different points of views and approaches when we try to solve problems. However, because we are seeing similar discrepancies in our industries and both want to find better solutions for these problems, we can work towards the same goals with a more comprehensive perspective. For example, while Zi focuses on the product development with manufacturers, Yijia takes care of the consumer research and data collection to compliment design decisions.

 

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A post shared by advene (@advene_design)

You were both always on the lookout for the perfect handbag. At the time, what were you searching for but unable to ever find?
All these problems we described in the previous answer were underscored when Yijia went looking for the “perfect” handbag—one that would suit her eco-conscious values and aesthetic adventurism. We started digging deeper into the market and quickly learned that consumers need to choose between price, style, and sustainability. Right now, the options are either affordable handbags with generic shapes by conscientious brands, or handbags of premium quality and unique design but with a four-digit price tag. Customers always have to pick a side, and we think they deserve better.

Was starting advene together something you discussed for a long time or did you jump right in?
We have been sharing design and consumer market ideas frequently with each other since we became friends, but didn’t solidify anything immediately. Fast-forward to 2019, we visited Germany during the 100-year anniversary of Bauhaus while we both took a temporary gap from our careers. Reflecting on how Bauhaus revolutionized modern designs and created industrialized products that are beautiful, functional and accessible to the general public, we realized that there are also needs for that in the accessories space. So we founded advene after the trip, with a mission to offer premium accessories that are thoughtfully constructed, ethically and sustainably made, and fairly priced.

What does the name mean?
advene comes from advenience, a term coined by philosopher Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, for art that stirs something inside you and brings you to an adventure. We want our products to be everyday art that can inspire and empower your next adventure.

advene Age Bag campaign (Courtesy)

Tell us about your non-negotiables as a brand?
We are releasing one product at a time; we only launch products crafted to stand the test of time. We’ve devoted ourselves to responsible sourcing, making sure to use the most sustainable materials for every aspect of design and construction. We are currently using 100% traceable cow leathers sourced from food byproducts that would otherwise end up in a landfill. They are produced in a scope-C gold-standard tannery certified by the Leather Working Group—one of only 13 worldwide. This certification guarantees that, from rawhide to finished leather, every step of the process is held to the highest standards of environmental impact and ethical production. We are committed to transparent constructions. Our bags are engineered without the unnecessary plastic fillers that are typically inserted into handbag linings. The structure and shape are purely supported by efficient engineering using supple cow leather and buttery soft suede leather as interior facings. At the same time the construction should be functional for daily uses.

How are you meeting these goals?
We conducted in-depth research and experiments. We visited dozens of suppliers, ranging from tanneries and bag manufacturers to textile labs and hemp farms. Through countless conversations, prototypes, and lab tests, we developed intimate relationships with several production partners who wanted to solve the problems with us. By engaging them every step of the way, from ideation through production, we are able to not only track and monitor the social, environmental, and human impact of each bag, but also challenge the traditional ways of material sourcing, construction, and development to reimagine how modern handbags can be.

What was it like launching during the pandemic?
It was an interesting moment to launch a handbag brand, but we wanted to get feedback from consumers, so we launched it anyway. We were challenged by the fact that it was difficult for customers to physically engage with our bags during the pandemic—even though we would love to bring Age closer to our customers, so they can feel the buttery soft leather and play with the versatile construction. Therefore, we’ve launched 3D, augmented reality, and live video consultations to help bridge that gap and bring a human touch and connection to our customer service experience.

 

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A post shared by advene (@advene_design)

Apart from being an ethical and responsible brand, what else do you think marks you apart?
We believe good design can move sustainability forward. In addition to the conscious consumers, we want to reach out to people who don’t necessarily prioritize sustainability when making their purchases, but are attracted to our design and hopefully they will learn more about the effort we made and sustainability later. That’s why we are very keen on original, unique designs, that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also function well in daily life. We always try to optimize form, function and sustainability at the same time—all three together sets us apart.

How are you building a community?
We gained many followers thanks to the unique design of Age. We then navigate them through our social accounts and website to tell our stories, so that they understand the mission. We try to engage customers to participate towards the mission by themselves. For example, we encourage them to opt-in for minimal packaging instead of box packaging, and more than 90% of our customers chose this option for their orders. By sharing behind the scenes look at our journey in an authentic way, and by involving customers to be a part of the journey, we are building a community of people not only interested in fashion and design, but who are also familiar with and feel connected with our values.

On the design front, where are you seeking inspiration from?
We are obsessed with the natural beauty of raw materials. From natural leather to natural hemp, all the way to our packaging. For example, when we were designing our packaging, we came across greyboard—a very humble material that is used as the bone structure for boxes that is usually laminated with another layer of paper. We thought, It has such a wonderful, raw yet refined texture on its own, why cover it up? Together with our packaging engineer, we created this FSC-certified greyboard box that is elegant and versatile enough to be kept and repurposed. The natural ribbon details around the boxes embody our ethos of high design, low impact.

You’ve launched with the beautiful Age bag. What do we need to know about it?
We spent a year designing the handbag that we couldn’t find on the market. At every step of the production process, we innovated a new playbook, from sourcing 100% traceable, natural materials and minimizing the use of plastic fillers to engineering an entirely new shape that is made to stand the test of time, wear, and weather. The leather we customized is exceptionally smooth with a fine grain. It maintains the elegant appearance of smooth leather, yet can tolerate scratches, water exposure, and general wear and tear from daily use. The thickness of the leather adds to the long-term durability and resilience of the handbag. A subtle buttery shine highlights the natural folds of the bag without compromising its sculptural integrity. Our leathers are entirely sourced from food byproducts and 100 percent traceable. They are produced in a scope-C gold-standard tannery certified by the Leather Working Group, of which there are only 13 worldwide. This means that, from rawhide to finished leather, every step of the process is held to the highest standards of environmental impact and ethical production. Beyond materials, we reimagined handbag construction, crafting a pattern that does not rely on the plastic fillers that are traditionally hidden inside linings. The structure and shape are purely supported by efficient engineering using supple cow leather and buttery soft suede leather as interior facings. Because Age’s structure is purely supported by raw materials, all elements need to be right in order for it to stand on its own. We spent months perfecting a custom leather that could manifest our vision, and held ourselves to rigorous standards of craftsmanship — we adjusted the pattern six different times until it was right. To create a unique sculptural shape without plastic fillers is outside the traditional handbag construction “playbook,” and adding functionality so that the bag is surprisingly spacious and friendly for everyday use just adds another layer of challenge. For hardwares, we stripped it down to only the most essentials: two magnetic snap closures to keep your belongings secure and four metal feet for support and protection. So again, we are trying to optimize both form and function. Collaboration between creatives and craftspeople is what made this unprecedented structure possible.

 

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A post shared by advene (@advene_design)

What’s next for the brand?
Our first product is just the beginning. Once we’ve established ourselves as the brand that doesn’t compromise on style or sustainability, we will expand into new product categories to further accessorize sophisticated and adventurous women. Rather than introducing a suite of new products in the seasonal manner of traditional fashion houses, we plan to introduce one product at a time, applying the same methodology and painstaking attention to ethical and sustainable production that we established with Age. Down the road, we dream of building a collaborative design incubator where we could bring other creatives, artisans, and engineers together under one roof to share ideas and build off each other’s creativity.

What’s your overall goal with advene?
We are committed to driving change through practice, creating accessories that respect the environment and its natural resources—imagining a better future in which innovation, transparent construction and beautiful design can exist together seamlessly. We hope we can become a trustworthy name for consumers who align with our values, while holding on to our belief that beauty and integrity should be one and the same.

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