At 22, Ethan Koh walked around London with a crocodile leather bag, drawing the admiring gazes of women, including a member of royalty from the Gulf States.
What they did not know was that the bag was Koh’s own creation.
Today, 30-year-old Koh is the youngest Asian designer with his own boutique in London’s Harrods, with Carina Lau, Elizabeth Hurley and royalty for clients.
Prices for his bags range from $4,000 to $25,000, with many one-of-a-kind designs. A significant part of his business comes from customised orders, costing up to $45,000.
Despite his status, this designer takes pride in his Singaporean background, where it all began in the Northeastern estate of Kovan.
Growing Up On Kovan Road
His grandfather and father had set up Heng Long tannery in 1977, supplying crocodile leather to brands such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes.
As such, his childhood was a “stone’s throw from the craftsmen, tools and techniques”.
The air would smell of “salted fish” and although he has never skinned a crocodile, he did learn how to “measure and prepare it for cutting and how to grade and dye [it]”.
Visits to Louisiana crocodile farms also gave him “invaluable insights into the farming process not many have”.
It was a very normal progression to get involved in the family business when [it] was literally in our own backyard.
As a student, Ethan expresses that he has always been a “daydreamer” who doodled a lot.
Learning about “fashion pioneers such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior” also inspired him, and formed within him a “risk-taking spirit”.
He created his first bag during his poly days, as a gift for his mother.
Ethan ended up breaking the family tradition of studying business and instead opted for fashion, interning at Hermes and Louis Vuitton where he studied everything he could about leather craftsmanship.
These internships let me realise my desires [and] be surrounded by beauty.
“A strong foundation [from growing up] in the East and studying and traveling in the West made for a culturally unique dialogue and point of view.”
International, But Local
It was the interest for his bag in London that launched the brand. Bespoke orders began “streaming in” and his father encouraged him to “capitalise on the momentum“.
With a $6,000 loan from his father, Ethan launched Ethan K with enough success to return the loan 2 months later.
Ethan K is about “creating desire”, Ethan says, and a cornerstone of the philosophy is about cultural diversity and travels.
A key feature of his childhood are his father’s brightly coloured kites, he shares.
Frustrated that kites only came in single colours, senior Koh had “experimented” with chemicals from dyeing factories to create “incredibly vibrant colours”.
It is also through these colours that Ethan wants to put Singapore on the map of luxury.
For his 2017 KITE Collection, Ethan emphasised features important to his heritage and childhood in Singapore, such as twin mangosteens and durian clasps.
“My grandparents were fruit wholesalers so my tropical fruit motifs were inspired by them,” he told The Peak.
The brand is 6-years-old now, and produces 1,500 bags every year.
Each bag requires 7-8 months as Ethan emphasises quality. He admits that this is why they have trouble supporting demand amongst their affluent client base.
“It is still amazing to meet global icon, and I never fail to appreciate the way they recognise the love, care and passion in each piece.”
In 2017, the Harrods space has already brought in $3 million in revenue.
However, this number does not include sales from other stockists as well as bespoke orders, which account for over 50% of orders.
Change Is The Constant
“That is my goal, be it in 5 or 10 years,” Ethan adds finally.
“The goal is to continually challenge and constantly reinvent myself and my objects of desire.”
Featured Image Credit: Frederick Ardley