Trafford-based Wicker Wings has been designing and producing handmade modern wicker handbags since 2015.
The business, founded by Belinda Yu and her brother James, initially operated from home before moving to a studio in Trafford Park in 2018. Belinda realised soon after they received a big order from Net-a-Porter and Selfridges that they needed help to improve its manufacturing processes.
Through GC Business Growth Hub’s Manufacturing Growth Fund, Belinda initially received support to implement lean techniques. She attended a Lean Lego Game workshop, which helped Wicker Wings to improve its processes and increase productivity.
Last year it recruited a designer through an introduction from the Hub to the University of Salford. The Hub also put Belinda in touch with the Department for International Trade which has helped them to expand across the globe. Wicker Wings now has customers all over the world, including countries such as Australia and America.
The company, which employs five staff in the UK and a team of artisan weavers in Indonesia, has plans to launch a new style of bag later this year.
The wicker bag business which started at the kitchen table and has now gone global
An idea that started at the kitchen table and a conversation with their grandmother, inspired Belinda and brother James Yu to start Trafford-headquartered Wicker Wings.
The business has been creating modern, sustainable wicker handbags using traditional Chinese methods since 2015. The sister and brother duo were inspired after finding out their grandmother used to hand-weave wicker baskets in China before she moved to the UK.
Wicker Wings initially traded from home and, three years later, moved to a studio in Trafford Park.
Founder Belinda Yu spoke to the GC Business Growth Hub about how the “incredible” support from the Hub has helped the company to become smarter with their manufacturing and grow.
Rich family past inspires contemporary company
My brother and I started Wicker Wings in 2015 and the idea for our business came from our grandmother.
One day we were sat with her at the kitchen table. I wanted a new handbag and I was a bit bored of the standard bags. We discovered our grandmother used to weave wicker baskets for a living in China before she moved to England. And so, inspired by her stories, Wicker Wings was born.
We wanted to shine a light on our grandmother’s past in a contemporary way. With Wicker Wings we are creating something completely new but by using traditional crafts of wicker weaving.
We went on a workshop organised by the Hub to understand how to apply lean principles to our business, which helped us massively.Belinda Yu, Co-Founder
Sustainability from a seed
Wicker Wings is not just about making beautiful products, we really want to champion traditional handicrafts and sustainability. Shoppers nowadays are making more conscious purchases and we do everything we can to be sustainable. We also want to slow down fashion and create classic designs.
There is no machinery involved in wicker weaving and the baskets are made by hand by our skilled artisans. The rattan seed is planted on a farm in Indonesia, and we have half a dozen weavers who weave the baskets. The baskets were originally handmade in my grandmother’s hometown in China but we had to move this to Indonesia just before the pandemic as the demand for naturally woven products in China was on the decline.
Our vegetable tanned leather is produced in Italy using the oldest methods of tanning and natural materials such as tree bark and flora. This process has a much lower environmental impact than popular chrome tanned leathers. All of the raw materials are sent here and everything is then assembled at our studio in Trafford Park.
We are small team of five. Everything is stitched, prepped and assembled in the studio by the team. We oversee the whole process and our 79-year-old grandma is still heavily involved in the business. She will pop into the studio every now and again to help with production.
Incredible support on your doorstep
The Hub is an incredible organisation to work with and to have that help on your doorstep is amazing. My brother and I studied business at university but it’s not the same as running your own company.
In 2018, I started working with my advisor Geoff Crossley and he has really helped me with the organisational side of our business. When we started Wicker Wings, we were manufacturing everything out of my garage and it was chaotic! We didn’t have the right tools and I had a six-month-old baby who accompanied us on road trips when we were searching for suppliers. When we got a huge order from Net-a-Porter and Selfridges, we soon realised the way we were working was not sustainable. Geoff really helped us to make things more efficient. Before working with Geoff, I never really understood ‘lean’ manufacturing. We went on a workshop organised by the Hub to understand how to apply lean principles to our business, which helped us massively.
He also helped me to access financial support and connected me with lots of people, including the Department for International Trade, to help us reach an overseas market. He put us in touch with the University of Salford who ran a competition for us and that’s how we met our in-house designer Alex from Wigan. Alex got in touch with us when he was leaving university and he has been working with us over the past year. Through Geoff, we got access to grants which helped us to grow. He also supported me with general manufacturing issues. I know Geoff will be there for whatever I need and he’s always true to his word.
Inspiring mum and advice for entrepreneurs
My mum is my biggest inspiration – not just as a businesswoman but as a mum.
She moved here 38 years ago from China, didn’t have two pennies to rub together and couldn’t speak the language. The move was purely so that she could give her family a better life. My mum and dad opened a Chinese takeaway 35 years ago which they were still running up until a few years ago. Nothing is an issue for my mum. She is the most hard-working person I know. As a working mother, I know first-hand how hard it is to run a business and balancing home life at the same time. My eldest is 10 and youngest is seven and I remind myself that I am doing all this because I want to set an example to my children. I want them to grow up realising you have to work hard to get anywhere in life.
My advice to anyone starting a new business is to stick at it. You will have so many ups and downs but you have to you believe in what you’re doing. Just never give up. Keep at it and carry on.
What’s next for Wicker Wings
We have come a long way and learnt so much since we first started our business. We are now a worldwide brand. Our biggest markets are the UK and USA and we also have customers in Italy, Australia, Japan and Dubai.
Our ambition is to continue to grow. At the start of last year, we had branched into new styles and colours and were ready to launch but then the pandemic hit everyone really, really hard.
Ninety per cent of our confirmed wholesale orders were cancelled but it allowed us to take a step back and it has definitely made us stronger. We have now launched our new website and our next step is to grow our wholesale and distribution.
This year is a very exciting year because we are branching out to lots of new categories but everything will still be wicker. We will also be launching a new style of bags – watch this space.