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Ethan Koh describes his eponymous business of bespoke ultra-luxe bags, hand-made from the best alligator and crocodile skins money can buy, as "the best-kept secret in the world." That's why his main stockists are Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue, where his clients are willing to fork out thousands for a customised clutch that's slightly larger than a smartphone (they stand out at red carpet events) and he caps production at less than 1,500 bags a year. Plus, there's a waiting list of six months or more for one of his creations.
Mr Koh is the fourth-generation scion of traditional Singapore family business Heng Long - a tannery for top-grade exotic animal and reptile skins - that is an important supplier in the global luxury bag business, so important that luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) bought a majority stake in the company several years ago.
He grew up next to the tannery in Upper Serangoon Road, learning about the bag-making business while still a student in London. With a £3,000 (over S$6,000 at the time) loan from his father, he started selling his own designs in 2009 when he was just 22, after a stranger approached him on the street and asked about the turquoise crocodile tote he was carrying. He officially launched the business two years later, and more than half his business comes from customised bags.
The Ethan K brand is only six years old but you've been flying the Singapore Bag, so to speak, on the international stage since you were very young. Do you ever stop to consider how a small brand made such an impact?
When I started Ethan K it was because I loved the craftsmanship and artisanal aspect of the products. As my passion evolved, I realised it was about making my family's business known on the international stage. Then I realised I was also flying the Singapore flag - not just the bags but also a unique culture. A lot of the designs are inspired by personal experience and encounters involving Southeast Asian culture. For example, the recent Kite Collection (clutch bags with kite-shaped cross-sections) comes from memories of my dad and uncle playing with kites in the garden. The bag colours are inspired by Asian fruits, plants and spices like mangosteen (my favourite), durian, cinnamon and cardamom.
You were a pioneer in terms of making crocodile-skin bags relevant to a younger, more fashionable crowd. Is that something you consciously set out to achieve?
My father persuaded me to start the business - he told me not to waste my talent. From the beginning, my vision was not about just selling a bag. In the past, 'luxury' and 'status symbol' were synonymous. I want Ethan K to reflect the changing times and how more than 60 percent of our business is personalised, special-order bags. Luxury in the past was about creating desire but in the last five years, the segment has lost its way a little - it's much more about opening new stores and selling.
To some extent the luxury market failed to connect with the next generation of consumers. The online market is important but we go the old-fashioned way. This is a niche business and it's not just about growth, it's about creating a unique culture.
Your clients include royalty, celebrities, society types and style icons. Tell us a little about the people who give each bag its own identity.
When I first started, I wanted to create a cult following of bag enthusiasts. A lot of customers are contemporary art collectors and people who appreciate art; I am creating more for them than someone who simply wants to go to a party. A lot of the bags are a result of conversations we have with clients. The "Alla" bag is named for (Russian fashion mogul) Alla Verber, who wanted a bag that was easy to reach into when her phone rang - so I designed a separate "trap door" (now patented) that easily flips open. Last December, I happened to be standing outside a restaurant that Elizabeth Hurley was in. When she heard I was there she came to say she wanted a bag with a monkey clasp, so I designed one - the Hurley bag will be out later this year. Another loyal client is (art collector and gallery owner) Pearl Lam, who has about 50 of my bags. I also designed a bag called "The Erica" for a client who specifically wanted space for her glasses, keys and phone.
Your bags are distinctive because of the vivid colours inspired by tropical fruits, the special details like animal- and fruit-themed clasps. How did those come about?
My grandparents were fruit wholesalers so my tropical fruit motifs were inspired by them. The decorative clasps, such as a blue jade piece covering twin mangosteens, are made in Italy and often feature semi-precious stones combined with fruits and animals like hedgehogs. There's a clasp that resembles a durian shell and I personally like frog motifs, which symbolise good luck.
Have you had any requests for bags that are over-the-top?
Nothing is too outrageous. I've done a guitar case for a musician and a crocodile skin backpack for the Korean DJ Raiden (for a cool S$29,000). It reflects their personalities.
I also made the largest crocodile tote bag in the world for the Chief Merchant at Harrods (Price: a staggering £88,000, or S$156,000) although I didn't sell it in the end because my dream is to one day have a handbag museum that showcases our creativity and the themes we've had.