Five Minutes with Designer and Entrepreneur Ethan Koh
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"My great grandfather was a fisherman in Singapore, [when] it was [still] a British colony. He learnt the art of exotic tanning from British traders and passed on this knowledge to his son,” says Ethan Koh, the designer and entrepreneur behind the Ethan K, the Singaporean accessories brand known for its use of exotic skins in bespoke bags and clutches. After his grandfather and father opened the family tannery, Heng Long Leather in Singapore, Koh describes growing up surrounded by the tanning process and being inducted into the ways of “the secret family techniques.”
Though his father wanted him to go to business school, Koh spent his teenage years in Italy at bag and shoe ateliers and learning from his father’s tannery- he even crafted his first bag for his mother while studying. Koh later chose to travel to London and study at Central Saint Martins, “because I could see the opportunity to create a couture house that could represent my creativity.”
Koh strives to apply the skills he’s learned from his family’s heritage of craftsmanship. In January 2011, the Ethan K Debut Collection, consisting of 18 bags for men and women, was unveiled at the Claridge’s in London- marking the moment that Koh transitioned from being a designer to being a design and an entrepreneur. Koh counts learning to trust his own instincts as one of his biggest lessons, as well as improving his overall managerial style and skill level.
The designer has also made an effort to cultivate patience and build “a team that compliments my strengths that supports the company’s growth.” Relying on word of mouth for brand awareness, Koh believes that genuine feedback balances out their ideas and vision. How does he describe an entrepreneur? “Visionary, dynamic and unique.”
What motivated you to start your accessories line?
One of the reasons that I started Ethan K was because I felt that luxury had become too mass market. At Ethan K, luxury is about exclusivity and luxury with a soul, we are close to our customers and feel that it is most important in today’s world. Our clasps are hand crafted in Tuscany, Italy, and I work personally with the artisans. At the same time, I wanted to go back to the era where clients could meet the designer and have bespoke creations made-tailored to their personality and a symbol of the connection between the artisan and the client.
What influences your collections?
People and places have inspired many of my creations. The Wildlife Odyssey Collection is inspired by the fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen, which my mother would read to me as a child. Each clasp is delicately hand-carved by my ateliers in Tuscany and have a different meaning. The people I meet are also one of the biggest sources of inspiration for me. My Icons Collection combines a collection of special creations that are inspired by the unique encounters I have had with extraordinary people around the world.
What is your creative process like in designing an item?
Inspiration can strike from many things. Also, the color of each skin is inspired by the fruits and spices that I grew up with in my native country Singapore. My maternal grandparents were fruit and spice traders, so I would be surrounded by these at home. Every time I visit Singapore, I go to the fruit and spice markets and take my buys to the tannery, where my brother and I use a special technique to match the natural ingredients to the colors of the skin. I want my clients to carry a piece of my heritage with them.
What moment in your career was most discouraging?
At the beginning stages of launching Ethan K, when I met customers who were very brand-conscious and had a different approach in the luxury industry, they would often say that my brand would have an opportunity in the marketplace. Even many of my university lecturers tried to discourage me at the start. Fortunately, I felt [my] calling was greater than their advice. With my family’s support -which was important to me- I created Ethan K.
In your opinion, how much “risk-taking” personality characteristic is involved in being an entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur, I don’t take total risks, but instead, take calculated risks. When I have a gut feeling about an opportunity or possible venture or opportunity, I embrace it. When there is no risk, there is no success. My background in Singapore bears a lot of similarity to Dubai and the rest of the Middle East. Singapore used to be a fishing colony, whilst Dubai was a desert many years ago. So the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive in both cities.
What are your personal hobbies?
I am an avid reader and collect books on history, art and culture. I believe the past makes us who we are today and while not being stuck in the past I feel that life evolves in cycles.