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Singapore Artisan Spotlight: Ethan K Handbags

Ethan Koh was born into a family steeped in the exotic-leather tanning tradition, offering a perfect route into the resplendent world of luxury bags.

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    SLIDESHOW: “Creating a beautiful crocodile skin bag isn’t the kind of skill you can learn from a book,” says Ethan K, who grew up surrounded by exotic skins, living a stone's throw from his family's tannery in Singapore.

    Why do we so love the exotic? Be it cars or cuisine, people or pets, the exotic speaks to the adventurer in all of us, fuelling our fantasies with images of strange customs and faraway shores. The exotic is unusual, unconventional and largely undiscovered. But, most importantly, the exotic is unobtainable, out of reach to all but a select few with the nous, the charm or the capital to make their dreams a reality.

    Nowhere is this more true than in the world of exotic skins. For consumers and designers alike, the market can seem daunting. Both the finished products and the raw materials are extremely (some might say reassuringly) expensive, while the skins are rare and challenging to work with, requiring the imagination of a skilled artist and the touch of a master craftsman.

    Singaporean designer Ethan Koh (trading as Ethan K) knows this all too well. Born into a family steeped in the exotic-leather tanning tradition, he was raised only a stone’s throw from the tannery, surrounded by the craftsmen, tools and techniques that transform simple reptile hides into highly prized exotic leathers. Whether it was nature, nurture, or a combination of the two, this serendipitous background was a boon to the young Koh, offering a route into the world of luxury bags.

    “Creating a beautiful crocodile skin bag isn’t the kind of skill you can learn from a book or by researching on the internet,” explains Koh. “The barriers to entry are very high, not just because of the skills and knowledge involved but also because the skins themselves are so expensive. There are also big issues with accessibility: it’s not just about finding a tannery and just buying the skins from them, you really need to know which ones do things the right way.”

    Such knowledge was instilled in Koh from a young age. Previously a trader from the Chinese mainland, his great grandfather learned the art of leather tanning from the British after arriving in Singapore in the early 1900s, passing down his skills first to Koh’s grandfather, who founded the tannery, and then to his father, CT Koh, whose passion for colour and craftsmanship laid the foundation for his son’s success as a designer.

    “When my father was young he loved to play with kites,” Koh recalls. “But he was frustrated that kites always came in single colours, and he wanted a more colourful kite that could easily be distinguished from his brother’s and his cousins’. So he began experimenting, borrowing chemicals from the dying companies and breathing new life into his kites. He soon realised that he could create some incredibly vibrant colours, the kind that you see in my bags today.”

    Colour is certainly one of Koh’s trademarks. His debut collection, launched in 2011 and inspired by his home in London’s historical Mayfair district, was a real feast for the eyes, boasting a panoply of bold shades from bright emerald green to intense violet. More recently, his Wildlife Odyssey collection maintains an emphasis on vibrancy while complementing the coloured skins with decorative clasps, zippers and tags bearing recognisable animal motifs. Future collections will be further adorned by colourful semi-precious stones, each cut in a striking octagonal faceted manner that harks back to one of Koh’s most recognisable clutches: the Mayfair.

    While colour is a defining feature of the Ethan K brand, it is certainly not the only one. Likening his crocodile skins to the king of gemstones, he believes that four different material factors define the quality of his bags.

    “For crocodile skins there are always the four Cs — just like diamonds,” explains Koh. “First, there’s cut, meaning you must use the correct cut of the crocodile skin. This is an art that many designers don’t know. For example, if I’m designing a 40cm handbag, I would have to ensure that the crocodile has grown in the farm for about seven to 10 years, which gives rise to a 45cm belly that matches the centre panel.”

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    “Second, there’s carat, since just like diamonds, crocodile skins become exponentially more expensive as they get larger, simply because they’re much rarer. Larger skins are more valuable and so larger crocodile skin bags are considerably more expensive. Finally, there is colour and clarity, since the colour and quality of the skin are determined by the skill of the artisans working on them.”

    Koh is also a passionate advocate of exotic skin artisans: the dwindling band of highly skilled craftsmen that bring his creations to life. With production sites in three countries (Italy, France and Singapore), he is effusive in his praise for their work, while lamenting the declining interest in their craft. “To find a good artisan is just like finding the right partner,” says Koh. “Since my bags are my first love, I want to find the person who can make my love the best it can be.

    “There used to be more amazing artisans who did exotic skin bags but, because of the economic downturn, many are leaving the craft and there is often no apprentice to continue the work,” he continues. “One of our workshops in Italy was forced to close and one of the artisans couldn’t find work, so he became a bus driver. It’s so sad that this person couldn’t put their skills to good use. I really feel that we should make more effort to protect these artisans and their craft.”

    Despite these obstacles, Koh’s business continues to thrive. His growing client base comprises affluent Europeans, Asians, Russians and even Middle Eastern royalty, many of whom compete for access to his most creative designs. To keep pace with this demand, his ever-expanding couture business will soon move to a private salon in Sloane Gardens, Knightsbridge, where the most loyal Ethan K clients can discuss colour and embellishments over a pot of lapsang souchong.

    “We’re having difficulty keeping up with demand,” Koh confesses. “Most of our clients are referred by word of mouth and through mutual friends. If you own an amazing bag, you want to share with your friend as well because it’s a totally different feeling from just walking into a store and buying something. I think it’s fair to say that my bags bring my clients happiness.”

    Therein lies the appeal of the exotic. For those with the means to purchase one of Koh’s creations, there’s always something bigger, better and more beautiful just over the horizon: just out of sight, and just out of reach. The perfect bag may well be a pipe dream, but Ethan K is more than happy to assist with the search.