I’ve heard plenty of brand founder stories centered around a similar concept of need: for better T-shirts, for cute activewear, for well-fit jeans — you name it. And (at the risk of sounding cynical) I often find myself biting my tongue as I immediately think of countless other options catering to the same niche. But when model Yumi Nu tells me she created Blueki, a line of edgy, wardrobe-building essentials, because there are so few cool, contemporary clothing companies catering to larger bodies, her story checked out. In the years (of which let’s just say are many) I’ve been working in fashion, I’ve come across precious few interesting and adventurous indie options in the plus-size market. There’s ample choice within trend-driven fast fashion chains and well-made basics-driven labels, sure, but nothing hitting that sweet spot in the middle for stylish girls in the know.
“When, like everyone else, I had all this downtime in 2020, I thought ‘Maybe I should use this time to start building a long-lasting wardrobe that I can have for years,’” Yumi explains to me over a Zoom call. As an industry darling (she’s been featured both in Sports Illustrated and Vogue) whose literal job is to make other people covet the latest and greatest fashion out there, the 26-year-old certainly had a solid baseline of knowledge to begin her search. Still, she came up short.
“The big problem that I started to realize is that there are so many fast-fashion brands that do plus size well — they're on the nose for what's trendy and cool, what I and my friends would want to wear,” she explains. “But it's unethically made overseas by God knows who, and the quality is so bad that you wear it a few times and then it starts falling apart.” On the other hand, she expounds, there’s plenty of thoughtfully crafted classics in larger sizes but the designs can be, well… underwhelming. “They tend to miss the mark on what's cool and what's trendy,” she says frankly. “And it ends up being like Little House on the Prairie, picnic basket-looking. It doesn't hit with how my generation of people want to shop, typically.”
And so, Nu decided to dedicate the extra space in her schedule to something else: conceptualizing and launching Blueki, which just debuted in the fall of 2022. Named for her mother’s surname Aoki (it means “blue tree” in Japanese — get it?!), the range currently centers around 3D knit pieces available in sizes XXS through 6X, all $350 and under. The slinky silhouettes, which include going out-ready options like cut-out long-sleeve tops and cropped, off-the-shoulder sweaters, are understated enough to wear with a variety of things, but far from boring. They’re also, Nu says, merely a starting point for her as a designer.
“I’m starting to get more into the cut-and-sew world as well, which has been on my mind from the beginning,” Yu says. She tells me that designs which require a multi-piece pattern can quickly complicate a clothing business. For now, her current process works so well because it requires minimal human labor and allows her to be nimble with production; every item is made-to order in an ethically run factory, which saves a tremendous amount of emissions, water, and money. “And when I get into my cut-and-sew stuff, I'm going into the garment district and paying artisans that have worked there for 20, 40 years that are specialists,” she explains. “I want to do pre-sale on small batches. I don't want to create more than I need to, especially because we're in such a high-consuming world. And I think that I just want everything that I make with Blueki to feel very intentional and curated.”
This sort of intentionality is apparent both in the design details — a flirty bare shoulder here, a romantic gothic font there — and impeccable fit. Rather than use one person’s body to scale each item up or down, Nu creates different sizes of each sample and enlists friends of varying body types to put them through their paces. From there, she’ll make very specific adjustments across the size spectrum; many of the larger pieces come with extra bust support or slightly skewed proportions. "This is knitwear, so it’s going to form to every body differently. It might just lay straight on an XXS [body], whereas, someone in the plus-size range might need extra space on the hips.”
So far, Nu says that the love and care she pours into every piece has really paid off — as have her connections and platform within the industry. “I think it's been a really great response. I'm very grateful and privileged that I do have this small fan base of people that automatically were intrigued and supportive,” she muses. “It was just a really automatic support, which I didn't expect, but was very grateful to receive.” Still, getting a fledgling brand off the ground and sustaining it longterm is not for the faint of heart, no matter how robust their network may be.
“I think people are under the impression that this a big business, but it's just me, and it can be hard and limiting,” Nu says, noting that she had no idea how expensive launching even a very small ready-to-wear line would be until she was fully immersed in the process. Blueki is not only self-funded, but caters to 12 sizes in a very considered way — something that is not only a financial strain, but a major commitment of time in the midst of a busy modeling career. Still, when it all feels overwhelming, Nu reminded herself of why she’s hustling so hard to build a resource for women who have historically been excluded from fashion’s inner circle. “I want to make everything that I and my friends ever wanted to wear, and to be very community-based — I want to fill this gap in the market that is very unfair to a lot of people,” she says, and tells me she’s working toward a more comprehensive collection with varied price options and brick-and-mortar stores down the road. “I'm very passionate and have very big dreams for this.”