Under the skin: Interview with bag designer Ethan Koh

Under the skin: Interview with bag designer Ethan Koh
Ethan Koh’s first bag was a crocodile clutch for his mum while studying at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Surveying the backwater bayous of Louisiana and Mississippi by helicopter and checking on farm-bred crocodile eggs tracked by GPS are just some of bag designer Ethan Koh's extraordinary experiences as a teenager.

The Singaporean, now 27, was born into the rarefied world of crocodile skin business. His grandfather Koh Long Cheok and father Koh Chon Tong set up Heng Long tannery in Kovan Road in 1977. Over the years, it made a name for itself in the designer handbag industry, supplying crocodile leather to brands such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

More than a decade on, those cream-coloured crocodile eggs, not much bigger than those laid by chickens, have since hatched into crocodiles which have grown and likely been tanned. The youngest Koh, who is single, has come into his own as well.

His five-year-old Ethan K brand, a label specialising in high-end crocodile skin bags, quickly made a name for itself in the luxury world.

Stocked in top department stores such as Harrods in London and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Ethan K bags have appeared in magazines such as British Vogue.

They have also been spotted on the arms of celebrities, such as singer Rita Ora and actress Kim Cattrall, and members of royalty such as Princess Eugenie. The bags also appeared in a Rolls-Royce commercial in 2012.

Dyed vivid colours such as calamansi green and topped off with semi-precious and precious clasps in the shape of animals, the bags retail from £2,000 (S$4,250) for a clutch to £7,000 for a day bag. The bespoke bags, which he designs from scratch in collaboration with his clients, start at £5,000 for a clutch and £25,000 for a day bag.

Next month, the label will open its first standalone store, a 200 sq ft space, on the ground floor of famous British emporium Harrods. The young brand is already stocked at the Egyptian room at Harrods in London, as well as multi-label stores in Moscow, Paris, Kiev, Dubai, Singapore, New York and Seoul.

"I was in shock," says the baby-faced Koh, of being offered the opportunity to open his own space, in an interview with Life! at his 7,000 sq ft family home in Braddell Heights during a quick trip home from his base in London. "Every morning, I wake up grateful that I'm still running my business."

The brand now produces about 700 to 800 bags each year, the majority of which are bespoke orders.

Some people in the fashion industry say the brand's success has ushered in the era of a new Singaporean luxury label.

Born in 1986, Koh was the youngest of three siblings including older sister Stephanie, now 34, and older brother Albert, now 31. The Heng Long tannery was located behind the family home in Kovan, which meant exposure to the family business came at a young age.

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