In a while crocodile …

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It’s not often that bags have such animal magnetism, but Ethan K’s famed feasts for the eyes are different – very different. More than just another snazzy name on the luxury accessories market, there’s not only a recognisable face and a pair of skilled artful hands behind the brand that’s got everyone talking, but a dutiful made-to-order appeal. When it comes to 27-year-old Ethan Koh’s stylish world, nothing dilutes the glamorous punch that his bags pack, no matter how big a tote or how small a clutch. One doesn’t often stop to think about the many intimacies of handbags and the bearing this has on an article of such superb quality in which fashionable function meets extravagance and plays with fascinating forms in what is essentially a bespoke business service, something which Ethan has always stressed.

World renowned as the self-styling “bag magician” with the one and only eye for exotic skins, at Ethan K it’s his way or no way from the initial brief for a new crocodile creation to the precious final product, all of which Ethan personally overseas in order to strengthen his expanding haute couture standing. On the cusp of that expansion, which has seen Ethan take up permanent residence at the world’s first Ethan K boutique in Harrods over the past month, we spoke to the cognoscente pocketbook pro to find out what it takes for him to create his signature treasures, where that signature panache has taken him so far, and whereabouts he hopes for it to take him in the near future.

First things first, who is Ethan K?
Ethan K is a marriage of my Asian heritage, skill and my journeys around the world. Each one of my bespoke creations tell a story of the skills I learnt from the four generations of exotic skin tanning expertise that runs through my family, my life in London which has inspired so many of my creations and the people who I have met along the way. I grew up with my family tannery at the back of my home in Singapore so I have always had a special interest in the artisanal secrets of tanning exotic skins.

When I first moved to London to pursue my dreams, I was inspired by my surroundings and this is why you can see door handles in Mayfair or a grand mirror at Claridges adorned as clasps on my bags. As a 27-year-old designer, I want my personality to shine through to my creations which is why the colour of each bag is inspired by the Asian fruits and spices that I grew up eating in my native Singapore.

In the industry you are widely known as the handbag hotshot behind some seriously exotic skins, but in your opinion Ethan, what do you think makes a skin “exotic”?
When selecting the skin quality comes first. At Ethan K, I only use the centre cut of the belly of the crocodile – this is the most precious part of the skin. The human touch also makes the skin exotic and special- for example I personally observe each skin in the early morning light, then in the afternoon light and finally under artificial light at night. This gives me a perspective of how the skin will look when it is finally transformed into an Ethan K creation.

In an effort to find out a little bit more the tricks of the trade, I am curious to know how you go about measuring the quality of reptile skin in order to separate the best from the rest?
In the process to choose the best crocodile skins, the four c’s are crucial to observe. Firstly there is the cut and at Ethan K we only use the most precious part of the skin – the belly. Secondly there is carat which, like diamonds, suggests that crocodile skins are measured by the quality of the skins and in essence are graded. Finally the colour and clarity are factors that determine the skills of artisans working on them. I only trust my hand selected artisans in Tuscany to cut the skin.

You come from a dynasty of artisanal experts in the exotic skin trade, what have you learnt from four generations of scale-savvy skill masters?
One of the most important lessons I have learnt is to respect tradition. It is so important to observe the traditional techniques that my great grandfather learnt from the British exotic skin traders, when Singapore was still a colony. This is why we use techniques like “Bombe Shine” – a method by which we rub an agate stone onto the skin which results in a shiny finish to the skin. Also this is why each bag is hand cut and stitched my artisans who themselves have generations of experience.

Aside from the family ties, your devotion to creating luxury goods with the highest quality raw materials has seen you try your hand working with the exotic leathers selection teams at the likes of Hermes and Prada. What do you learn during your time at such prestigious fashion houses?
My previous experiences reinforced in me the idea of luxury and artisanship. More than anything it was a catalyst for re-introducing what true luxury once was and the importance of bringing it back.

I am most interested to find out about how you approach the “handbag” at Ethan K, possibly in comparison to some of the accessory offshoots of the major design houses we previously mentioned?
When I first moved to London I was living in Mayfair – the British architecture and the Art Deco influences were major inspirations behind my debut collection. Within this collection you can see octagonal clasps inspired by the door handles of Mayfair homes and there is a mirror in each of my creations – inspired by the grand mirror at Claridges.

On my regular walks through Hyde Park, I recalled the fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen that my mother would read to be as a child.  Seeing the swans at the Serpentine and the Hedgehogs in the early hours of the morning inspired me to design my Wildlife Odyssey Collection and most recently, The Wizard of the Secret Garden collection. The other hugely important factor for me is the personal relationship I have with my clients. I know most of them like friends- and this personal relationship enables me to be inspired by their personalities. I have designed creations for clients based on their favourite buildings in Paris, or their favourite flower and even the colour of their manicure.

Under your leadership, where is your creative flair taking the Koh name and reputation?
Attention to detail is paramount at Ethan K and the close relationships I have at each stage of the process is what shapes the level of craftsmanship. Having the knowledge of four generation of exotic skin heritage, I design and select skins for each of the handbags for my client. Therefore, the most important thing is that to maintain the quality, standard and techniques of each step of the process. I think that is what craftsmanship used to be and is the essence of luxury-giving luxury a soul.

On commencing the brief for a  new Ethan K original, do you have a favourite form for your bags?
I only make about 900 bags a year and no bag is ever made exactly the same to preserve the integrity of the style. This is what my clients appreciate as well- that they are carrying something specifically designed with their personality in mind.

How much of an active involvement do you have in the production of your exotic skinned items?
Exotic skin is not always easy to tan as many factors can have an impact on the skin itself. During each stage of tanning process the skin is checked to make sure quality the skin is preserved and the colour of the skin comes through. As mentioned earlier, I am involved in each of the stages from tanning the skin until finishing stages. I personally make several trips to Singapore to examine the skins and determine the quality of each. I will measure the skins against my cutting patterns to ensure there that they are in an adequate size and when the creation is finally ready I will inspect it again. Each piece must meet my final approval.

Your colour schemes incorporate an array of opulent jewel tones, could you tell us a little bit more about why you choose to work with such statement vibrant shades?
The smell and colours of Asian fruits and spices have always surrounded my family home as my maternal grandfather (my maternal grandparents were fruit and spice traders) planted so many beautiful plants around our garden. When I started designing, I often walked to the local markets, past the beautiful Asian flavours and soon enough I would take these fruits and spices back to the tannery and create colours from these. With the colour scheme of each bespoke creation inspired by the fruits, flowers and spices of Asia when I am available to greet a selection of lucky clients around the world, they are also able to taste the fruits, smell the flowers and witness the vibrant colours first-hand.

It’s clear that word about your couture creations is spreading around the world, and quickly, how does it feel seeing your brand become an international business and what do you most attribute to its growth?
By having great support from people such as Helen David of Harrods, Alla Verber of TSUM and Marigay McKee, Director of Saks Fifth Avenue, it is their lifestyles that inspire my bag creations. Many of my clients love the element of surprise for each of my bags- such as the whimsical stories of a Wizard transforming a hedgehog into the clasps or meaning behind each semi-precious stone used. I contributed in each of the making process until its finish. I visited the bag making twice a month in Tuscany as well as analyse the skin in Singapore.

Going by our zesty creations, the Ethan K woman must be quite a woman, could you describe her a little bit more for us?
For all human beings, their first home is where they live and for women their second home is their handbag. It carries their emotions and why my clients consider it an emotive purchase. My clients understand luxury and want to acquire art rather than fast fashion.  The Ethan K client is the woman who already has an array of bags in her wardrobe but who wants something truly special. I allow my clients to be part of the creative process with me and while they tell me their favourite manicure colour and what they did on their last holiday I am inspired to create a bespoke design for them.

Your reputation spans the furthest reaches of the globe and thus there is always a cultivated sense of the jet-set that goes hand in hand with you and your work. Where does travel fit in with your luxury goods domain?
One of the great joys of designing is that I am able to travel a lot. I remember the first time moving to London to undertake my studies. Now, I usually travel between Singapore, Hong Kong and New York meeting with the tannery, my ateliers and my lucky bespoke clients. My journeys around the world have taken me to some of the most special places. When I was growing up, I would imagine myself travelling in the elegance of the past, when the journey was still considered to be as important as the destination. A privilege available only to the very few. This is what led me to create my Voyage Collection.

If you could single out the one influence that has epitomised your work from the word go, what would it be?
Journeys. This includes the journey that my family has taken over four generation as well as my journey from Singapore to London to pursue my dream of designing precious creations. Each of the handbag and clasps are inspired by my inspiration from each of the places that I have visited around the world. For instance, the spirals of the column at Place Vendome in Paris which inspired the handles of one my bespoke orders and even the beautiful Brook bag inspired by the straight lines of my first home in London and in Mayfair.

by Liam Feltham

Images courtesy of Ethan K

Find the new Ethan K boutique in Harrods‘ Luxury Accessories hall on the first floor.

About The Author

Glass Online fashion writer

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