Ethan Koh: The Croc Prince

My biggest strength is… I’m a dreamer.
My biggest weakness is… I’m a dreamer.

“I wanted to be a teacher,” Ethan Koh announces. “I had a white board at home with many colourful magnets, and I was always making my siblings and cousins sit and ‘learn’.”

The question was: What was your dream job as a child?

Well, on behalf of Rita Ora, Liz Hurley, J Lo and bagaholics the world over, can I just say, THANK GOD he had not followed that dream. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a teacher, but if Ethan Koh the teacher had happened, then Singapore, nay, the world, would not have Ethan K, the luxury bag designer whose creations have been spotted in the hands of royals — of both the Hollywood and real-life monarchy variety. (On top of the aforementioned trio, he also counts Kim Cattrall, Hailey Baldwin and Princess Eugenie as fans.) The bag designer who, within just six years of launching his eponymous label, became the youngest Asian designer to be offered a boutique space at Harrods. The bag designer who has not only made a name for himself but also for his country (yeah, that’s us ✌🏻), in London, New York, LA, Paris, Munich, Hong Kong and Seoul where Ethan K bags have stockists and are causing quite a bit of excitement among the fashion — and social — elite.

The moment I laid eyes on his bags, I understood. And as soon as I held one in my hands, I knew I could never let it go (but alas 😭).

With Ethan K, the man and the bags, it is all about the details. Everything about each and every one of his creations — the colour, the shape, the stitching, the hardware, and even the mini handheld mirror in the pocket of each bag — whispers perfection and artistry. (“In this era of instant gratification through social media, I still believe that true perfection is achieved through craftsmanship and skill that require time as well as patience,” says the Central Saint Martins alum on his website.)

And the man himself? He is understated and soft-spoken, but it’d be hard to miss the 30-year-old with his signature panama hat, spiffy blazer, oversized croc-leather bag (his, of course) and the cutest accessories featuring some of the nature-lover’s favourite creatures such as the bumblebee and his lucky charm, the frog.

A few weeks ago, when the London-based designer returned for a quick visit, he invited us to his family home for this interview, where the self-professed dreamer spoke about the reality of success: Getting it done.

“I RELY ON MY INTUITION MAINLY.”

Growing up, what were some of your interests?
EK:
I loved to cook. I loved baking cakes and pastries for the family and relatives whenever there was a gathering.

So how did bag designing come into the picture? What and when was the eureka moment for you?
EK:
I guess you could say it all began when my father “loaned” me a crocodile skin from the family tannery* from which I created my first bag for my mother. She then carried it to an evening gala where a number of her friends noticed her exquisite bag. One thing led to another and the rest, as they say, is history.

What were the challenges you met along the way?
EK:
I don’t really believe in challenges. I consider them to be just another opportunity in disguise which requires me to be creative in finding the solution.

What about the highlights since you’ve launched Ethan K?
EK:
It’s been an interesting six years since Ethan K first started and there has been plenty of exciting moments, but I must say that the highlights, to name a few, are perhaps to have been the youngest Asian designer to be offered a boutique space in Harrods, having had the honour of designing for members of the royalty and being given the opportunity to speak at The International New York Times S.E.A Luxury Conference with Suzy Menkes.

How would you define success?
EK:
Success is being able to realise my visions and to have made my dreams a reality while always being fuelled by passion, and having fun while doing it.

By that definition, do you consider yourself successful at this moment?
EK:
I always believe that you are only as successful as your last incredible work, so I am constantly finding ways to reinvent myself.

What do you reckon are the traits you possess that have gotten you this far?
EK:
Creativity and resilience.

Your work must require an endless supply of inspiration and ideas. Where do you look for them?
EK:
My travels around the world, my affinity for nature, and those long conversations with my extraordinary clients that inspire me to create truly one-of-a-kind pieces of couture.

How do you get unstuck in the face of a creative block?
EK:
I take myself out of the situation and don’t pressure myself. I love reading and get back into the groove of things quite organically. And when all else fails, a bottle of wine.

Self-doubt — how do you overcome it?
EK:
A strong belief in yourself, and the knowing that the feeling of self-doubt is only ever temporary. I rely on my intuition mainly.

What’s your mantra — in life and in business?
EK:
Get it done!


  

HAPPINESS IS SIMPLICITY.

Growing up, what were some of your interests?
EK:
I loved to cook. I loved baking cakes and pastries for the family and relatives whenever there was a gathering.

So how did bag designing come into the picture? What and when was the eureka moment for you?
EK:
I guess you could say it all began when my father “loaned” me a crocodile skin from the family tannery* from which I created my first bag for my mother. She then carried it to an evening gala where a number of her friends noticed her exquisite bag. One thing led to another and the rest, as they say, is history.

What were the challenges you met along the way?
EK:
I don’t really believe in challenges. I consider them to be just another opportunity in disguise which requires me to be creative in finding the solution.

What about the highlights since you’ve launched Ethan K?
EK:
It’s been an interesting six years since Ethan K first started and there has been plenty of exciting moments, but I must say that the highlights, to name a few, are perhaps to have been the youngest Asian designer to be offered a boutique space in Harrods, having had the honour of designing for members of the royalty and being given the opportunity to speak at The International New York Times S.E.A Luxury Conference with Suzy Menkes.

How would you define success?
EK:
Success is being able to realise my visions and to have made my dreams a reality while always being fuelled by passion, and having fun while doing it.

By that definition, do you consider yourself successful at this moment?
EK:
I always believe that you are only as successful as your last incredible work, so I am constantly finding ways to reinvent myself.

What do you reckon are the traits you possess that have gotten you this far?
EK:
Creativity and resilience.

Your work must require an endless supply of inspiration and ideas. Where do you look for them?
EK:
My travels around the world, my affinity for nature, and those long conversations with my extraordinary clients that inspire me to create truly one-of-a-kind pieces of couture.

How do you get unstuck in the face of a creative block?
EK:
I take myself out of the situation and don’t pressure myself. I love reading and get back into the groove of things quite organically. And when all else fails, a bottle of wine.

Self-doubt — how do you overcome it?
EK:
A strong belief in yourself, and the knowing that the feeling of self-doubt is only ever temporary. I rely on my intuition mainly.

What’s your mantra — in life and in business?
EK:
Get it done!

I always believe that you are only as successful as your last incredible work, so I am constantly finding ways to reinvent myself.

Complete the sentences:

The first thing you do when you wake up is… Greet my favourite Vanda Orchids.

Your biggest strength is… that I’m a dreamer.

Your biggest weakness is… that I’m a dreamer.

Your ideal weekend consists of… Reading books from my personal library, reconnecting with nature, and sketching.

If you could custom-make an Ethan K bag for any woman dead or alive, she would be… Jackie O.

Your biggest pet peeve is… Superficial people.

Things we’ll definitely find in your bag are… My sketchpad and colour pencils.

Your WoW Woman is… Elizabeth Hurley and Helen Mirren.

Happiness is… Simplicity.

* Just in case you were wondering, this would be the Heng Long tannery at Kovan Road, which Ethan’s grandfather and father set up in 1977 — the same tannery that supplies crocodile leather to Hermés and Louis Vuitton. In fact, LVMH bought a majority stake in the business in 2011.

Photography // Karman Tse