Ethan Koh, the 25-year-old fourth-generation tanner and founder of a London-based fashion business, on modern luxury, artisanship — and how to pick the perfect crocodile skin.
Tell us about your family business in Singapore
My family has been in the crocodile skin business for four generations, so I am a fourth-generation artisan – it’s in my blood. I grew up with a tannery behind my house. My great-grandfather met a British artisan in the early 1900s and he learned the art of tanning and colouring crocodile skins from him, and that got passed to my grandfather and then my father.
It grew from a small business to one that supplies to Hermès, Prada and other luxury brands. The business is now 51% owned by LVMH, but my brother Albert is very much involved in the whole production progress.
So how did Ethan K come about?
I started designing bags when I was 14 or 15. I designed one for my mother and her friends liked it and started ordering a few. While I was studying at the London College of Fashion for my BA I was fortunate enough to have done internships in Tuscany at Vuitton and Hermès where I learned to understand their heritage and the importance of artisanship.
I began Ethan K in 2009 with £3,000 and my break came when I was carrying my laptop case on the bus and I met a journalist. She was fascinated – she took out my laptop and folded the bag in half, and she talked about how it could be transformed into a clutch. She wrote an article about me – at the time I only had five clients, but after that more than 30 women wrote to me to order a bag.
What makes crocodile skin so special?
It is one of the most complicated skins and just like with a diamond, working with crocodile skin is all about the cut. The belly of the crocodile is the most expensive bit, the bit you want on the central and back panels of the bag, and you really have to know where to place the cut to maximise the beauty, to work with the round and the square scales.
When you talk about diamonds you talk about carats, and that is like the carat of the skin. The wider the skin goes per centimetre the price goes up exponentially. The skins come from places like Louisiana and Australia, and I select them personally at the family tannery. Then I have to personally reselect them at the point of manufacture with the artisans who make the bags, so it is really a very strenuous process, and that is why it takes seven to nine month to create a bag. But I guess that is also why they come out so beautiful.
Who makes the bags for you? And how hands-on are you?
Most of them are manufactured in Tuscany, and I go there twice a month. Sometimes they are small ateliers run by a husband and wife – it’s a very small community. In a way I feel that I am preserving a craft. In today’s era of fast fashion and mass production, with a lot of companies moving their production elsewhere and even setting up big schools for artisans, we are very concerned with the art of being small. Everything is handmade.
We think of ourselves as modern artisans. My bags are known for being very lightweight, and that’s because my brother Albert in the tannery personally wraps the skin over a metal pole for more than 12 hours to stretch them thin enough for us to work with.
What does your father think about your business?
At first he was very sceptical. He said: “How are you going to compete with the big brands?” But we are in no way trying to compete with the big brands. We are like a small family-owned restaurant in Italy that is full every day, and we don’t see a hurry to expand because we are not trying to compete in terms of quantity and set up a big store.
Our clients are special people, and for us luxury is more than going to a big shiny shop and buying a bag that you’ve seen in a celebrity tabloid. It’s a very different philosophy. Bespoke is at the centre of what we do.
What about the future? Do you dream of becoming a major fashion brand?
We have grown very organically, by word of mouth really, and the business is currently still 100% owned by me. We are approached by investors who say: “How many more pieces could you craft” or “how many times can you increase the business”, but we are happy for now. Our dream is to have a beautiful store in London.
Next year we are opening a maison in Sloane Gardens that will tell the story of the brand – and the family business. Who else has the heritage of growing up with the tannery behind the house? When I go back I still see my father rubbing the skins together and talking with the artisans. We are not in a hurry to mass-produce, being small makes us close to our customers and that’s how we prefer to have it for the next five years. It’s a labour of love.