Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.
If you’ve enjoyed a scented candle in glass, perhaps one with a lovely gold foil on the front or with letters artfully arranged, you may have been enjoying the fruits of the work of today’s guest, a Kiwi who has had great success in international fragrance, an entrepreneur now based in London who has also been a champion for the new wave of Kiwi companies.
Christopher Yu is the MD of United Perfumes. He went to the UK to work as a lawyer, fell in love with the luxury world, helped reinvent the world of the scented candle by growing Diptyque, and then relaunched the Cire Trudon and Fornessetti candle brands. His company works with the world’s biggest brands, and he has also long worked to try to help make NZ a place that an international success could come from. To talk perfume, the UK, and brand New Zealand, we welcome Christopher Yu.
These luxury brands have great history, Cire Trudon especially, with hundreds of years of extraordinary providence behind them. With the New Zealand perspective, a country that doesn’t have a long history of being recognised as a home of luxury or of great craftspersonship – more of a primary industries place – how do you go about creating luxury in a country like this?
Any time I speak to a New Zealand brand that I meet, I try to get through to them that I was born here, I’ve been away for 18 years now, and I look at New Zealand and I’m so proud of everything. And I’m so fascinated by how it’s kept such a strong personality from an outsider’s point of view. Anyone outside of New Zealand looks at New Zealand as this jewel and then most New Zealanders here are like “ah, I don’t really know what’s special about us.” I think that’s, in a way, what makes New Zealand special, just to be obtuse for a second. There’s a certain naïveté here and we don’t know what we have. I think with luxury it is that gentleness and that non-traditional, non-pushy in-your-face, old school idea of luxury that makes this country so special. There’s a reason why there are now more small leading hotels and lodges in this country than any other country per capita. There is this amazing view of service in New Zealand that’s really genuine and authentic. And there’s a casualness that is non threatening but at the same time relaxing, and that is the new luxury. I think that’s the way we’ve got to look at it as New Zealanders. Not to ape the old luxury of Europe which is gold and gilded and maximal, but more look at what we are great at and what is authentic about New Zealand.
I think there’s a huge history of craft in New Zealand if we look at our own history here with Māori culture. I’ve literally just been at Wainuiomata marae this morning dropping off some flowers – my mum has a chain of florists so I was just doing some deliveries for her – and I walked in and there is an immediate warmth and amazing feeling that I couldn’t quite place. Then I quickly looked around and you could see all the cloths and the mats and the carvings and you think “that is craft”. Those skills can be applied in an aesthetic which would definitely have resonance with an international market. So I think luxury for New Zealanders and New Zealand brands is really about finding their own voice and not trying to be like the old codes of luxury of the old Europe. Of France and Italy and the UK. And I think that’s where New Zealanders find their success. If you look at our most successful exports in luxury – be it food like Peter Gordon, or Karen Walker in fashion – they’ve found their own aesthetic and they really march to their own beat. I think that’s really where us as New Zealanders will find success overseas.
Tell me a little bit about some of the stuff that you do to try and help advance that idea of a New Zealand brand?
I come from a family of immigrants and my parents on both sides came from China and Hong Kong in the 50s, and they were really welcomed by New Zealand. I’ve been so blessed in that I talk about growing up here never feeling racism, never feeling marginalised, and fully part of the country. And encouraged to be an individual and encouraged to celebrate both my Kiwiness and my Chineseness. I think the way that I look at New Zealand now from an overseas point of view is that there is so much to share. And if anyone is interested in sharing what they’ve created here in New Zealand in an overseas market, I’ve always really wanted to help purely because I believe in paying it back and paying it forward. I truly believe that the next view and the next taste and trends will come from down under. No one in the early 90s would have predicted the influence of Scandinavia on interior design, they were the most surprised themselves. No one would’ve suspected back in the 80s the influence of Japan on design and luxury. I truly believe that the next wave will come from New Zealand and that comes from the bottom of my heart.
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