Ethan Koh is a fourth-generation descendant of the Singaporean family behind Heng Long Leather—a tannery for exotic skins which supplies some of the world’s top luxury brands. Koh founded Ethan K in 2009 as a maker of vibrant bespoke crocodile skin handbags, which proved popular with royals. He told Alexandra Newlove about capturing the millennial imagination, his most unusual bespoke requests, and his advice for the next generation looking to make their mark
Tell us about your family’s business background and how this shaped your idea for Ethan K? Our family comes from four generations of crocodile skin heritage. One of the reasons I started Ethan K is I felt that luxury had become too mass-market. Within the last five years I have successfully taken the brand to an international level, in the sense that it started as an exotic skin bag label and has now become a fully-fledged luxury brand. We have grown from a small collection of clutches, into day bags, small leather goods and jackets. We [at Ethan K] see that there is a change in the luxury industry in the last couple of years. Our products reflect that demographic shift and the fact that the luxury consumer is looking for more than just a status symbol.
The vibrant colours you use and the details on the clasps are also inspired by family history, can you tell us more about this? I was brought up in Singapore, and though I live in London and am pretty much international, my roots are still incredibly important to me. Ethan K is the perfect marriage between the East and the West. Where I come from in South-East Asia there are [many] unique countries, fruits, spices, and all these are creative touchstones of my collection.
When the family had a tannery at the back of our home, there was a beautiful garden where palm trees and coconut trees grew. We can transform all these to different vibrant colours. But luxury and creativity are also about finding the similarity between cultures. I travelled during the summer between some amazing places in the south of France, the Mediterranean, and the tropics in Brazil. This modern creative conversation is all about connecting the dots, both in this collection and my future ones as well.
A lot of luxury brands are struggling to capture the millennial market. What has Ethan K done differently?Every luxury brand today needs a unique point of view. Luxury is not just selling a product, it is selling dreams and emotions, and the current luxury consumer is different from before. As social media use increases, world education increases, wealth increases, millennials are really searching for something more intrinsic. This means that product storytelling is a huge part of our work, as well as the spirituality that relates to the charms—like the hedgehog and the frog [clasps]. We have just launched our Origami Safari Collection, which is taking the classic animals into an origami shape with more clean lines. Over the last two years, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie have carried our clutches into Ascot, which is also part of the creative conversation.
Tell me about a time you have had a really unique request from a client. When I first started Ethan K, I bumped into someone on the street who turned out to be a crown princess of a certain country. I met her in the future, she was from one of the Gulf States, and said she would love her bag to be in white crocodile with a dark brown handle to resemble a coconut tree at her palace. Today, she is a big collector of Ethan K.
I also had the pleasure of meeting James Blunt last year, he really wanted a backpack that he always carries, that he will take on his world tour. I am working on a special men’s backpack with a guitar clasp on the bag.
What has been one of your proudest career moments, so far? I would say every achievement, I cherish. My proudest moment was when the Duchess of York wore my piece to Royal Ascot. Also, being invited to speak in 2016 in San Francisco, at the Financial Times Luxury Conference, where I was invited to close the conference. That really proved that I have a unique view of luxury. Other interesting facets of Ethan K include last year when we did a special collaboration with the oldest family jewellery house in Europe, Mellerio dits Meller, and we created an £88,000 ($122,000) bag with a brooch, diamonds, and sapphires.
Do you have any advice for next-generation entrepreneurs from successful business families? Of course we are very fortunate to have come from great families, but of course there is also pressure that not many understand. For me, I successfully branched out to do my own thing, and as a young entrepreneur it is very important to follow your dreams and trust your instincts. Life is, of course, a balance between trusting your gut and being realistic. But being young and not being afraid to fail is an important part of entrepreneurship that I think the next generation should really explore.
What is your five-year plan for Ethan K? I really see that Ethan K is not just a bag brand. In the next five years we will be evolving into different lifestyle categories… I would like to go into special products, and maybe [set up] a tea salon. I personally feel the link between art, luxury and culture has been diluted and Ethan K will modernise not only the selling of exotic skins, but also act as a bridge between old luxury and the modern art world.