Singaporean handbag designer Ethan Koh talks magical gardens, myths about exotic skins and London’s Asian food scene
Like a genie who fulfils wishes, Ethan Koh has realised women's wildest handbag fantasies since launching Ethan K at the age of 22. A descendant of a Singaporean leather-tanning family — whose business was acquired by LVMH in 2011 — he was encouraged to work on a label after being stopped on the street by admirers of the pieces he made for himself. While Ethan K has come a long way from solely producing bespoke pieces, custom orders still account for around 60% of the company's output. The brand counts Dita Von Teese, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Cattrall and Helen Mirren among its long-time celebrity patrons.
Having started Ethan K to challenge the stuffy perception of exotic skin handbags, London-based Koh often gives his minimal silhouettes quirky finishing touches. Well-known its novelty clasps, the brand's latest collection stars an origami menagerie — including Koh's signature, intrepid hedgehog — guaranteed to delight women of all ages; even more understated hardware like prismatic onyx turn-locks feature eight lucky facets, in a cheeky nod to Chinese superstition. And, despite the timelessness of the Ethan K DNA, Koh does make the occasional concession to trends; for the first time, he's issued hits like the Wendy bag in hip, very 2018 mini sizes.
While Koh visited Singapore to catch up with his regular customers and to take custom orders at Ethan K's debut popup at Pedder on Scotts, we spoke to him about his well-heeled clientele, running a company and the UK's Asian food scene.
How did you decide on the jungle theme of this Pedder on Scotts pop-up?
As a designer, I'm never just selling a product, but an experience as well. My displays are always verdant or plant-themed because nature is magical: it connects us to our humanity. This year, I worked with The Ritz and Christie's on a showcase inspired by the former's gardens, and there's a subtle, forest-y ambiance in my installation at the Galeries Lafayette, which I created with Juan Pablo Molyneux.
Ethan K is built on uniqueness and classical luxury. Do you anticipate a broader cultural movement away from mass-produced goods anytime soon?
Fast fashion and street style have accelerated luxury's shift to the casual, and people's desire for, say, a beautiful ballgown, is not what it used to be. That's the moment we're in now, but I don't see it staying. I foresee a return to elegant dressing, because looking at the responses to Christie's auction of Audrey Hepburn's archives, for example, the appetite is clearly still there.
How have you developed such a loyal following?
In the past, companies like Van Cleef & Arpels formed genuinely lasting relationships with customers like Grace Kelly and Romy Schneider; these women's styles weren't constantly changing according to trends, and they really knew how to appreciate the product. My customers are, similarly, collectors who value longevity. When they get the Ethan K DNA, they're with me for the long haul. The language of elegance is universal, whether you live in Korea or Kazakhstan.
Which tropical fruit is your favourite?
Ooh, that's a hard one. I'll go with mangosteens!
Which restaurant would you recommend to visitors to London?
Kiln, which opened this year in Soho. I think the UK is only touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Asian cuisine, but there's a growing interest in it.
Which museums would you recommend people visit this holiday season?
The Dali Museum, the V&A Museum of Childhood and the Musée D'Orsay. If I could make an observation, the way the French and British curate are very different; the British are far more functional and linear in their thinking, while the French are all about fantasy and emotional impact.
What were you last inspired by?
The ceiling of Crosby Hall in London.
Your first handbag was a lily-clasp clutch for your mother. Is there another piece of yours that holds as much sentimental value for you, and who was it made for?
I'm designing a bag for a client that incorporates elements of all her family's Persian heirlooms. It's taken us two years to conceptualise and execute, and I can't wait to see the finished product.
What novelty clasp would you like to add to future pieces?
I was recently inspired to create a platter of strawberry profiteroles — with a tiny bee resting atop it — by the dessert tray at The Ritz.
Your family's company, Heng Long, was acquired by LVMH in 2011. Is there a little part of you that wishes independent craftsmen and businesses could still operate without the interference of fashion's big-money players?
I don't think that's true. I didn't start out with huge backers, and my company is still privately owned. Ethan K is entirely supported by clients that love our work. A lot of the big brands have lost their way through over-expansion, and as a result the conglomerates are realising the value of independent businesses with small, but devoted followings. Investment isn't just about pumping money, it must also be about understanding and appreciating what it is you're investing in. Growth at all costs can't be the sole consideration in such partnerships, maintaining the unique spirit of the craftsman must be prioritised as well.
You've studied your craft and built up a lot of industrial experience since childhood. Is there something to be said for training and education, in a time where totally unskilled designers are making big names for themselves?
Having grown up with a family in the leather business, I started my Ethan K not only with a lot of technical knowledge, but with a built-in DNA. Style always needs to be met with substance. Without it a brand cannot be successful, as the appeal of fashion is not purely visual: it's symbolic. People purchase meaning, because without a soul, bags are just bags and dresses are dresses.
Debates about sustainability are often reduced to an all-or-nothing conversation. What does it mean to you?
The term been so misused in the last few years. I believe in responsible supply chains, but if you push the view of sustainability as it is currently presented by the media, there would be no globalisation. The exotic skin trade is very misunderstood. The biggest threat to wild crocodiles now is not hunting them for use in leather goods, as it was in the past, but habitat loss. Most skins are now farmed, and crocodiles are harvested for meat as well as skin, which is a pretty thorough use of the animal.
Ethan K's Pedder on Scotts pop-up ends 23 November.