Under the skin: Interview with bag designer Ethan Koh

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.

"My family imparted a love for crocodile skin to me," says Koh, citing family dinners when his father and grandfather would discuss the business at the table.

His father, who is still the managing director of Heng Long, recalls taking little Ethan with him on visits to the tannery. "I used to work in the tannery until very late," says the 63-year-old. "I would take Ethan with me sometimes as a way for me to spend time with him."

The air smelt overwhelmingly of salted fish, the younger Koh recalls, thanks to the imported crocodile skins - coming from places as far away as South Africa, Australia, Zimbabwe and the United States - which were preserved in salt.

Over the years, his father and grandfather taught him how to measure a crocodile and prepare it for cutting, how to grade and dye the skin, and appreciate the workmanship involved in the laborious process at the workshop.

A self-described happy but quiet child, Koh preferred being indoors and could easily spend hours playing with colourful ribbons. As the baby of the family, he got his older brother to climb the mango and coconut trees in the backyard and bring back the bounty.

Those elements of his childhood make themselves apparent in his bag designs. The bright colours of the bags are inspired by hues such as the pink-red of dragonfruit, he says, and he is considering introducing clasps in the shape of fruits such as durians or lychees.

About half of Ethan K bags are made from Heng Long leather - for which he gets no family discount - and his brother Albert, who works at the tannery, helps him achieve the look he needs for each bag. This can mean dyeing the skin a specific shade, "skiving" the skin thin for a lightweight bag or applying the agate-polishing "bombe shine" method for shine.

Koh says, compared to his brother Albert, who was more interested in the specifics of tanning skills, he was more of a daydreamer growing up.

He doodled a lot while studying at Maris Stella High School and became interested in fashion after reading about fashion pioneers such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior and feeling a bit of their risk-taking spirit within himself.

The young boy was given a rare glimpse into the world of luxury fashion when he tagged along with his father to business meetings at ateliers in Paris.

The fashion awakening continued, thanks to visits to the Hermes conservatory and private museum as well as to Gaston- Louis Vuitton's private home. His father was there to discuss business with the fashion houses, such as the colours to be used in the bags next season.

Koh designed his first bag when he was still a student studying for a diploma in entrepreneurship at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. It was a black crocodile clutch embellished with a gold-plated alstroemeria lily clasp for his mother.

His father gave the skins to him when he said he was making the bag for his mother, Mrs Maureen Koh Soo Leng, then the human resource and payroll manager of the business.

After national service, he bucked the family tradition of studying business and enrolled for a degree course in fashion management at the London College of Fashion.

While attending college, he interned at the luxury houses his family supplied skins to, including Hermes and Louis Vuitton, learning from the artisans various aspects of leather craftsmanship and the history of how famous bags such as Hermes' Birkin were created.

He took bag-making courses at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design so he would know how to make a bag from start to finish.

"A genuine artist sources for his own paint, inks and paper," he says of knowing and overseeing the entire process. "Because it all affects how the finished product will be presented."

Serendipity played a big part in his success. While studying in London, he started carrying a crocodile bag that he designed and it attracted the admiring stares of women on the streets. An admirer turned out to be a member of royalty from the Gulf States and another was a journalist from The Financial Times who wrote about his bags.

The orders for bespoke crocodile bags started streaming in and his father encouraged him to start a business to capitalise on the momentum.

The elder Mr Koh said: "He had more experience with crocodile skin compared with others and knew the basic principles. I'd prefer to let him try, even if he failed."

He loaned his son $5,000, which the designer was able to pay back within two months. But the elder Mr Koh decided to gift him the money.

While bespoke orders make up more than 80 per cent of the brand, there is also a ready-to-wear collection, which was launched at a presentation at The Claridges hotel in 2011. He has since created two more collections, which are characterised by rich colours and whimsical hardware designs, such as clasps in the shape of hedgehogs and frogs, giving the bags a more youthful vibe.

"People might think that exotic skin bags are designed by old people for old people," says Koh of the misconceptions people have of crocodile skin bags, which he intends to overturn.

He has more than 500 couture clients who order bespoke bags. A bag takes about seven to 10 months to complete.

Crocodiles can take up to 10 years to reach the right size needed for some bag models, which partly explains the high prices of the bags. Many of his ultra- wealthy clients buy in bulk and so, Koh travels around the world to attend to them personally. He spends more than 20 days in a month travelling and can be in London on Monday, in Dubai on Wednesday and in New York for the weekend.

The night before his second interview with Life!, he had been up on the telephone till 4am with a client in Singapore, who has more than 30 of his bags, discussing the details of her orders.

The constant travelling leaves him little time for his family and friends. "I wish I had more time for my friends and family, but I think all this will come in time," says Koh. "While I'm young, I should still explore."

When he does have free time, he visits parks and museums in London, where he is based. The designer, who has a sweet tooth, also loves to bake.

Part of his success can be attributed to his charming and friendly demeanour. He seems genuinely surprised at his own success.

But he is already thinking of branching out into jewellery and, possibly, shoe design. The hardware from his bags translates well to jewellery pieces, as evidenced by the designer who often wears them as brooches and rings.

The attention to detail extends to the rest of his attire. Koh, who boasts a signature collection of more than 100 colourful bow-ties, designs a lot of his own clothing through a tailor in Tuscany.

For example, a navy blazer he wears features a purple lining - his favourite colour - and eight buttons on each cuff, a nod to the Chinese belief that eight is an auspicious number.

While he is based in London, he still considers himself very much a son of Singapore, flying the red and white flag in the world of luxury with his colourful bags inspired by the fruits and flowers of his childhood.

"Asians seem willing to be colonised by European luxury brands," he says, of his hopes of raising the profile of Singapore through his work.

The fast-growing Ethan K brand - he now has 10 staff in London and Singapore handling logistics, public relations and stockist relationships - is wholly owned by Koh. While many investors have come knocking on his door, he seems unlikely to relinquish control for now. His family business sold a majority stake to luxury conglomerate LVMH in 2011.

"I'm a Sagittarius, you know, I've always liked my freedom. When you start out, you have to be the master of your own universe."

My life so far

"My left retina got detached when I was 18 years old and it took more than five surgeries to correct. Maybe it's why I see life differently."
Koh on an experience that gave him more drive

"Globalisation has meant that you see the same stuff everywhere. Luxury, to me, is truly bespoke."
On the popularity of his bags

"I would have loved to be a patissier. I have a big sweet tooth for anything, from Laduree macarons to pralines to kaya pandan cake."
On a possible alternative career

"I'm on the path to success. I think I could call myself successful once I have standalone flagship stores in the major cities."
Designer Ethan Koh on whether he considers himself successful

"I admire Hermes for its heritage and Bottega Veneta for its leather. But I also admire artists such as Dale Chihuly because of their uniqueness."
On brands he respects

This article was first published on June 23, 2014.
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