Ethan K. Opens Up About Crafting Out His Own Artisanal Path in Luxury.
Meet Ethan Koh. – fashion designer, entrepreneur, and fourth generation member of the family behind one of the world’s leading crocodile tanneries – Heng Long Leather in Singapore. Though the daring entrepreneur hails from a family that specialises in supplying exotic skins to top luxury fashion houses such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton, Ethan Koh chose to stamp his own footprint in the world of luxury handbags and accessories with his own label – ETHAN K.
With his collection available at Malmaison in Singapore, Harrods in London, and SAKS Fifth Avenue in the U.S., ETHAN K. has undoubtedly won the hearts of many with a discerning appreciation for exotic leather skin handbags the world over. In paying tribute to where his journey as a luxury bag designer begun, Ethan was recently back in town to unveil his latest KITE Collection at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore.
#UNCOVERED – ETHAN K. in Singapore
COVERED : Congrats on the unveiling of your new KITE Collection. The ETHAN K. brand has certainly come a long way since starting out with leathers at your father’s tannery.
ETHAN K. : Yeah, thank you. It is today a 4-generation business. My father took the business to a different dimension and it’s been a pleasure for me to carry on the family’s line of artisans.
On Artisans Born-and-Bred in Singapore
COVERED :So how does it feel to be a true-blue, born-and-bred Singaporean brand? Being a small and young country, you often hear “whispers on the street” about how local artisans are young, and lack that cultural background and traditions. Rebuking those “whispers”, how does it feel to be flying the Singapore flag high in that sense?
ETHAN K. : Singapore has definitely come very far too in just the last few decades, from being a fishing village to developing into a regional financial hub, but As such, I see ETHAN K. as something more than just handbags. We want to share our unique culture and way of life with the world. It is because we are a small country with many different races living together, that we have come to enjoy a unique entrenched culture. This is how I was inspired as a kid. All of the beautiful colours that I have in my designs are inspired by Asian fruits, plants and spices. They are all unique to Singapore. Look closer at my designs and you’ll even see Asian fruits like mangosteen, jackfruit, or durian on the clasp of my bags.
When I mention the word Singapore to many people, they always mention the chewing gum ban. I instead tell them that we’re not just known for that, nor our efficient business structure nor casinos, and that we do have artisans and many different talents here as well. This is all possible because we are such a unique country. The last 10 years have been about building the nation, and I foresee the next 10 years being about sharing our talents and unique ways of life with the world.
On His Inspiration
COVERED :I see. In terms of design inspiration, is there afamous or iconic designer that you have looked up to over the years?
ETHAN K. : Well, one of my favourite bags is the Doha bag. I am based in London, so my creations are a mix of the East and West. In Paris, I once met a Qatari Princess and she was wearing a necklace. I saw her necklace and was inspired. A lot of my bags are inspired by my encounters with people. I also think functionality is important. For example, there’s a special long chain on this bag that you can turn, and you can add another chain such that it becomes a cross body bag. This is one of our bags that are selling extremely well. But also as you mention, the family story is extremely important to us. Colonial history and architecture, especially the presence of mosaic tiles have inspired us as well. Take, for instance, another unique clasp that we have invented in the last few months. It is reminiscent of our architecture in herald hill and our old family home.
Other than that, a lot of my bags are very whimsical. One was inspired by a French bulldog, owned by a customer in Los Angeles who loves to bring her French bulldog everywhere. My whimsical animal collection is inspired by childhood fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson.
On That Milestone, Breakthrough Moment
COVERED : Any significant milestones or hallmarks where say, somebody prominent recognised your talent?
ETHAN K. : Well, I would say that I have been very fortunate up till today. When I had just graduated in fashion about 4 years ago from Central St Martins, and was on the way to a conference in Marrakesh, I met a lady on the plane. She saw my bag, was very excited and told me to design a bag for her. This lady, unknown to me at the time, turned out to be the Chief Merchant at Harrods. Following our chance meet, I then started drawing out more designs, and she began ordering a few more bags from me. She subsequently became the President of Saks Fifth Avenue in the U.S., where ETHAN K. is also available at today.
COVERED :Oh wow, that is quite a story.
ETHAN K. : Yes, I would say my career has been like a kismet. As with every entrepreneur, we all start out with a dream in hope that it becomes a reality, but I think visualisation is very important. Just last month I was having a drink with my friend at 5 Hertford Street in London when someone told me that Elizabeth Hurley needed a new bag. I subsequently went into Gucci, bought a shirt, and went into a club. And, at that club, I bumped into her. Elizabeth Hurley ordered a couple of pieces from me. So I think that if you have the creativity, and you are open to what the world brings to you, things happen.
About that Upcoming Men’s Line and Upcoming Events
COVERED : Amazing how opportunities come to those who are prepared to chase their dreams. So also, I heard a little rumour that you are about to launch a men’s line soon. Could you tell us more about that?
ETHAN K. : Yup, we plan that this line will be launched in 6 months, and at Harrods. I think that whilst in the past it was largely only women who love bags and colours, in the last few years, men all around the world have started to become increasingly sophisticated. In the last 10 years, luxury was about a status symbol. In the next 10 years though, I think luxury will be about expression beyond just a status symbol. I think the best way for men to express themselves is through beautiful messengers, surpassing just a canvas messenger and the monogram that we have today, to more of a bespoke experience. Because luxury is not just material, it is also an experience.
COVERED : In Singapore, any plans for an upcoming event presentation or even a show?
ETHAN K. : Absolutely, we have a unique way and theme every year. So, within the next 6 months we will be having a special event with an art gallery, because our customers are also art collectors.
On What Aspiring Designers Need to Know
COVERED : One last question – any words of encouragement for aspiring bag designers or designers in Singapore in general?
ETHAN K. : I think that first of all, it is very important to have a dream. Second of all, you have to be crazy enough to pursue it. Singapore is such a safe country, I mean, it’s so well situated. We have to be thankful for where we are, dare to bring different, and be different from others. We shouldn’t be afraid to express our opinions and work hard for it. There is no shortcut to success and most importantly, you have to value your opinion and know your customer.
Connect with ETHAN K.
Photo Credits: All photos in this story are owned by COVERED Asia unless otherwise credited.