Ethan K: Crocodile skin bags for the win

Ethan K: Crocodile skin bags for the win

Bentley collection

Text: Norman Tan

A concoction of exotic skins, semi-precious stones, and a good dose of whimsy. Designer Ethan Koh talks about his new bag collection for British luxury marque, Bentley

For those who are unfamiliar with Ethan Koh, he's the Singaporean designer who, amongst other things, made a royal wait a full year to get her crocodile bag. Yes, even Princess Eugenie of York had to take a number and get in line — a long line that included the likes of Elizabeth Hurley and wife of Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell.

Born into a family with generational experience in artisanal tannery — the renowned Heng Long International — Koh's bags and clutches have been an international hit for its beautifully coloured exotic skins and, iconically, his fun use of semi-precious stones as clasps; all carved in Tuscany, may we add.

Back in town to launch a new collection for the British luxury marque, Bentley, we sat down with the designer to discuss patriotism, whimsical creations, and the song that best encapsulates his brand.

Tell us about the genesis of your brand, Ethan K?
The company was started about six years ago. It was really a hobby of mine. When I was in school in Central St Martins, I really loved the art of crocodile skins. When I was a kid, I grew up with a tannery at the back of my home. But one of the main reasons why I started Ethan K was because I felt that luxury had become too mass market. Today, you see the same brands and the same bags in every city, so I really felt that there was really something unique that I could offer customers. Also exotic skin bags were always so boring. It's always designed for like, your 60-year-old granny and I just wanted to bring this fun touch to it. 

Who bought your first bags?
So when I was in London, I sold a couple of bags to my mother and her friends and, you know, I started to have the funds to do a couple of bags for myself. One day when I was walking in Mayfair, I bumped into a lady and she liked my bag and she even went to find me in my student hall afterwards. And she turned out to be the Crown Princess of the Gulf States. What we really wanted to do was to educate customers; because for Ethan K, luxury is not just about selling a product, it's about selling a dream. 

Someone buys an Ethan K bag to be part of an exclusive club. But it's not for a status symbol. It's more than that. It's an appreciation of quality.

How have you incorporated this 'dream' element into your creations?
Today, you can see a lot of exotic animals in semi-precious stones, such as amethyst and tiger's eye. I would say I'm one of the few young designers to incorporate the use of semi-precious stones as clasps for my exotic skin handbags. And these clasps are all inspired by the childhood fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson, so they are very whimsical, like the hedgehog. 

And the hedgehog has become your signature.
I think it symbolises adventure and freedom, and that's what I feel that I am. And of course, you see some Asian fruits here like the mangosteen that is part of the new SG50 collection that I'm doing for Harrods in London — it will be in their window for two months till the end of November. Although I'm based in the UK, Singapore is still my home, and I really wanted to find a way to best represent that in the bags.

Hence the red and white colour palette...
Yeah, it's inspired by the flag. It's funny, having travelled all around the world the last couple of years, when I talk of Singapore, there are still a lot of people that don't know where it is. In the US, some of them think that Singapore and Hong Kong are the same place. So, what I really wanted to do was educate my customers on my culture and my roots. I think it's so important to have a soul, especially when you're building a luxury brand.

But you're also releasing a special collection with Bentley?
I was having breakfast with my father one morning a couple of years back. He just bought his first Bentley and he was like, "Wow, it would be amazing for you to do a special collaboration with them!" At that time I giggled and put that idea aside, but when I actually sat inside a Bentley — especially having studied in the UK for a couple of years and having met a lot of amazing bag collectors of mine who also have Bentleys — what I realized was that when you're inside the car, you feel like you're in your own living room.

So you found a synergy between Ethan K and Bentley?
Exactly. Also, my favourite Bentley is the Flying Spur and I think that both of our brands are quite synonymous in the sense that Bentleys are mostly bespoke. You can choose your stitching and lining and I really like how the steering wheel is handmade by one person as well. When I was speaking with them, I think the values are quite similar.  And that was the starting point of the collaboration.

How do your pieces incorporate that Bentley comfort and luxury?
There are 11 designs in the collection and they all bear the trademark Bentley quilted interior. It's the first time that an exotic bag company has even tried to do this soft double-padded quilting. In the beginning, it was really very hard for us to conceptualise it, and it took us a year to make this happen. 

People always play music when they're in a car. What song do you think encapsulates either you or your brand at the moment?
Well, that's a very difficult question. But I think at the moment I'm leaning more towards the metallics and psychedelics in my collection. Next year, we will change the collection to be more futuristic so I think its 'Float Away' by Freak Me. That's my favourite track. I mean, what I really wanted to do with Ethan K moving forward was to really introduce the pieces and make it more youthful. In the past it was usually the customer in their 60s that appreciated our products, but at the moment, it's even people in their 20s and 30s because they realize that a beautiful crocodile bag is also an investment. We're educating the clients to buy better, not just spend more. 

How would you describe your clientele in just a few words?
I would say that it's a very confident person, international, and intellectual as well. And also sophisticated. I think that an Ethan K bag doesn't appeal to the average luxury customer; it's appealing to collectors. Someone buys an Ethan K bag to be part of an exclusive club. But it's not for a status symbol. It's more than that. It's an appreciation of quality, that's the real difference.

Ethan K bags are available at Harrods in London, Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, and Malmaison by The Hour Glass in Singapore.

The Ethan K for Bentley collection is only available through private order.
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