Spend a few minutes talking to jewelry designer Jessica Hendricks Yee and there’s no doubt you’ll leave the conversation feeling more inspired than you were before. Hendricks Yee founded The Brave Collection, a jewelry line that boasts an impressive array of pieces handcrafted by female artisans in Cambodia. After traveling there during college, the designer became captivated by the beautifully vibrant culture steeped in Buddhist tradition. Upon learning about the heartbreaking genocide that overtook the country in the 1970′s and the current, very real, problem of human trafficking, Hendricks Yee decided she needed to contribute to the conversation. DSTLD spoke with the entrepreneur from her studio in Manhattan to learn more about her business and journey into philanthropic jewelry design.
DSTLD: Tell us a little bit more about yourself. You were born in Paris?
Jessica Hendricks Yee: My Dad was working in Paris for three years, so my parents had me at the end of that trip. I was born in this apartment right near the Rodin Museum so I have such a dreamy visual. I have always had this connection back to Paris and to Europe, and feeling like it’s part of my identity and story even though I came back when I was a baby. I grew up outside of Manhattan. My Mom had a jewelry store and I grew up watching her come up with the concept and opening. She works with amazing designers who make pieces by hand, so I grew up seeing that connection between an artist and a consumer who puts that piece on her body and really fell in love with the fashion, retail and design space. I grew up in a really entrepreneurial family. Over dinners, we would talk about the businesses we wanted to start. The concept of creativity and entrepreneurship was always the norm.
DSTLD: How did you come up with the idea to start The Brave Collection?
JHY: I taught English in Thailand when I was in school and went over to Cambodia and fell in love with the people and culture and spirituality. I learned during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970′s that 1/3 of the population was killed, along with 90% of the artisans. I really wanted to create something that would support this creative community. I was a theater major at NYU at the time, so I was immersed in this amazing school and couldn’t believe girls my age were not able to go to arts school because the creative community is so tiny.
They had to build back up from nothing, and with so many issues with human trafficking and other countries coming out of political unrest and poverty, I really wanted to create something that shed light on this conversation and talk about it in an empowering way. I really wanted a direct opportunity to connect with these woman by supporting them and giving them an opportunity to have a career in the arts and in fashion, while also supporting non-profits that work with survivors of trafficking.
Hendricks Yee wears DSTLD’s Black and White Long Sleeve Boxy Tee
DSTLD:Do you work with a variety of non-profits or one specifically?
JHY:We work with a bunch. We’ve worked with a few in Cambodia and a few domestically. Right now we’re working with Free to Shine, based in Cambodia, and they’re amazing. They work with girls in rural communities to provide them with one-on-one mentorship. They have a mentor come in and check on the girls once a month to make sure they’re staying on track and staying in school and have everything they need to thrive.
“When girls start dropping out of school, that’s when they become incredibly vulnerable.”
DSTLD: Where do you draw inspiration from when designing your pieces?
JHY: The Cambodian culture is the main source of inspiration because it’s so beautiful. The Cambodian people built Ankor Wat, which is the largest religious monument in the world. It’s a city of ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples and there’s such an incredible amount of craftsmanship there. That same culture has been so decimated and being able to share a little bit of the culture and its history through design is important to me to help preserve it.
The alphabet is beautiful and its something I had never seen before. I remember showing up in the airport in Cambodia for the first time and seeing the letters. It was beautiful. The letters are really where my inspiration started, especially with the word “brave.” From there, I started thinking about the other elements of the culture, so the lines of the Buddhist flag are one of our motifs that we use. The other is the shape of the water buffalo tooth, which is the shape that’s inspired by what you see on the roofs of Buddhist temples. It all goes back to sharing a bit of their culture and this idea that you’re wearing a piece on your body that comes from somewhere else and holds a story.
Hendricks Yee wears DSTLD’s Black Silk Cami
DSTLD: What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?
JHY: Being in Vogue was really exciting. Growing up as a little girl and looking at Vogue, then being able to see my bracelet in the magazine was a really big moment for me. With The Brave Collection, being able to see how we’ve helped stop the cycles of poverty. We’re working with women who create our pieces who had to drop out of school when they were younger, and who had a very limited skill set and opportunities for employment.
“To be able to see their kids and their daughters stay in school now because they can afford it, and to literally change a reality for a family, that definitely feels like a proud moment.”
DSTLD: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
JHY: Somebody once said to me, “there’s two kinds of people in the world - there’s people who do things and people who talk about things.” It’s really important you don’t just sit around talking about the things you care about, but that you actually activate them and find ways to do things to support your values.
DSTLD: Tell us about your personal style.
JHY: Having really good basics is kind of my jam. I like to have those pieces that are really day to night and are good for every environment. I’m always in different situations and my days are packed. I often don’t get to go home until after a late meeting or a dinner, so a great tee or great blazer that fits perfectly and jeans that are second skin are definitely my uniform. And always really good jewelry. I feel like if you have good fabrics and good jewelry, you’re set.
“It doesn’t have to get super complicated.”
DSTLD: And, finally, what’s your favorite DSTLD piece?
JHY: The Destructed High Waisted Mom Jeans I have are so comfy and the material is amazing. When I don’t feel like getting dressed I put them on with a tank and it’s heaven. Oh, and my black silk slip dress. I wore it to my birthday party with a kimono and it was the best. I love it. I actually wore it the other day too with the white tank and it was such a DSTLD full look.
Hendricks Yee wears DSTLD’s Destructed High Waisted Mom Jeans
Moments captured by DSTLD’s co-founder and co-CEO Corey Epstein.
Jewelry by The Brave Collection.
Stay Social: @thebravecollection