Luxury is in the DNA of Singaporean designer Ethan Koh who was born into a family with a predisposition for minute details, excellent craftsmanship and exceptional quality. His great grandfather was a trader who learnt the art of leather tanning from the British in the early 1900s. This expertise was passed down to Heng Long International, a tanning conglomerate that today supplies luxury houses all over the world. A fourth generation leather artisan, the 24-year-old Koh has forged a name for himself, for his Ethan K line of exotic leather accessories, that is sold at Harrods in London, and upmarket boutiques in Moscow and Paris.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I’ve worked at my father’s tannery on the leather selection team since I was a teenager. I’ve also been very fortunate to have undergone internships at Hermes as well as other luxury houses. Observing the workshops at my father’s tannery as a child, which was at the back of our home, then working there, inspired me to become a designer using precious materials. I admire my father for his great entrepreneurial skills as he managed to run one of the top five tanneries in the world, supplying to the likes of Hermes and Prada. I also admire my brother, Albert Koh, for his passionate work and knowledge of luxury skins. As the operations manager, he enabled me to realise my grandiose ideas.
When did you first decide to pursue a career in fashion?
Aged 18, I designed my first bag inspired by the Alstroemeria flower, utilising the ultra-luxurious skins of the Niloticus and Porosus crocodiles. The first bag I ever created was a clutch for my mother and I took great pride and pleasure in seeing carry the bag. Her friends spotted the bag and that’s when I started to think I might have the beginnings of a business.
You studied in London, at both Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion. What made you decide to make that shift overseas?
I find London very inspirational and cosmopolitan, because of its culture and the fact that it’s one of the world’s most stylish capitals. It was the ideal place for me to grow as a designer. Both Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion are considered the best fashion schools worldwide so that’s a no-brainer.
How did the experience of studying abroad mould you as a designer?
I am inspired by many things – architecture and interiors, the people I meet, and also my personal heritage. My debut collection, launched in January 2011, drew directly upon inspirational people and places – especially the Art Deco embellishments in Mayfair, where I live. I was also very fortunate to meet the many individuals from different countries, like Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Russia, who are now my friends and ambassadors for the brand.
Describe the highlights in the meteoric five years after creating the clutch for you mother in 2006.
My proudest moment so far has definitely been my collaboration with Harrods. There have also been two other milestones; namely the unveiling of the Ethan-K Wildlife Odyssey Collection in July last year and the launching of the brand in Tsum, Moscow last December. The launch of exotic leather accessories for men in September last year was also a highlight.
“We are not rushing to make more; instead we are concentrating on producing the finest quality.”
Although you were born and raised in Singapore, you have chosen Mayfair as your personal and business base. Why is this so?
Mayfair is an area in London known for bringing together people from all over the world. The elegant women that walk the streets of Mayfair are my inspiration.
Describe the process of your bespoke service.
One of my clients asked me to create a crocodile bag for his wife, in an olive green that matched his leather sofa. I travelled to their home to analyse the colour and texture of the furniture in order to create the colour they wanted. In addition to the leather’s colour, the client has creative control over minute decisions from the type and colour of the lining, metal closures, and zippers to a personalised name embossment and date of production, making the article a truly personal creation.
What projects are you currently working on?
The Ethan K brand is planning to expand geographically. Moreover, a new collection will be launched in July 2012, to include more exciting clasps in semi-precious stones. Later this year, a short film will also be produced to show the Ethan K heritage, and we will be moving to our new Ethan K ‘Private-Salon’ in Knightsbridge, London.
As a young entrepreneurial designer, what challenges do you face?
Starting my own business at the age of 23 means that I have to be very entrepreneurial. With a limited budget, creating luxurious objects is a challenge. However, I come from a family with artisanal know how, so exotic skin is in my DNA, and my family has been very supportive.
What are you looking forward to achieve in the future?
I hope to have a beautiful Ethan K boutique in each of the world’s major fashion destinations. This is just the beginning of what I hope will be a very exciting, long journey. We are not rushing to make more; instead we are concentrating on producing the finest quality.