Luxury Under the Skin: Ethan Koh and the Art of the Super Bags

Ethan Koh may be only 24, but he is already a veteran in the art of bag making, with an exquisite bespoke collection in high demand amongst elegant ladies who lunch, high flying businesswomen and glamorous royals, as well as an increasing number of women in the know able to recognize their Birkin from their Kelly (and obviously able to afford them too). Surprising? Not so much when you know that his family has been providing the world’s leading luxury houses with rare exotic skins for four generations. So when most of his contemporaries were still playing with their Legos, the young Singaporean was learning secret techniques in the family’s tannery at the back of his house, before polishing his skills through internships at Prada and Hermès and degrees at the London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martin’s. Here the talented Mayfair-based designer talks to Chic-Londres about his craft and his brand, Ethan K.

What inspired you to become a designer? I was brought up to love the beauty of exotic skins, being the fourth generation of a family that considers tannery as an art form. So I learnt at a young age how to treat the skins by hand through secret family techniques, such as using an agate stone to polish crocodile leather in order to give it shine without the use of lacquer or oil. I started developing ideas to create my own bags as a teenager, so designing for me is at the same time a new adventure and a continuation.

Which are the crireria used to rate skins’ quality? Exotic skins are like diamonds, with quality grades betwen1, 2 and 3 depending on size, age and marks. Beautiful exotic skins are very rare, as the farming of rare animals is a highly regulated and very expensive business: for example, a 30-centimetres large bag requires the use of a crocodile aged between 8 and 13 years, which means a massive investment for the farmer. As aresult, there are only four farms in the world able to provide the very best quality. then, preparing the skin in our tannery takes between two and six months for one single bag, which is why those bags made of luxurious skins can never be mass produced.

Which are the brands that you find most inspiring? When I worked in Prada’s ateliers in Tuscany, I learnt the level of passion and craft that goes into making quality bags, while my internship at Hermès taught me the meaning of true chic and the importance of heritage in a brand. I also hugely admire Bottega Veneta, for the very subtle way it expresses elegance, not through a logo but through the quality of its materials and make.

How do you define your brand? All my bags are bespoke and are created through the collaboration between myself and the customer, so there is no risk to walk into a party and see someone else wearing the same. It is all in the details, with a style that combines modernity with a classic sensibility. I want my collection to be timeless and last a lifetime, as far as possible to the concept of so-called “It bags”. As a result, my clients tend to be highly educated and sophisticated people, who use their bag to project their own personality and wear them, literally, as a second skin.