A Calling and a Career: The Handbags of Ethan K
Every kid grew up on a playground, I grew up with a canary and mango trees. It’s my tropical heritage, and it’s where my love of colours stems from.’
To hear Ethan Koh describe his youth in Singapore is to be swept off in a fantasy. One sees hot rainwater trickling glassily from the wide, flat leaves of palms. Lush plants in forest green, moss green, spring green, yellow green garland the skyscrapers. Fat fruits lie lazing by tree roots. Chirruping birds and chuckling insects strike up a daily symphony. Sunsets arrive in billows of light. With all of this in mind, you might be forgiven for thinking Ethan has drawn upon these memories to name his latest collection of handbags Mystical Landscapes.
But though his native Southeast Asia will always shimmer somewhere in his designs, Ethan is greatly inspired by our British Isle. ‘Looking up to the midnight London skies, I feel like the stars are watching over me. A sparkling blanket of jewels warms my shoulders in the crisp, cool air,’ reads the introduction to the Mystical Landscapes lookbook. And it’s not just what’s up above that inspires him.
On weekends away with British friends he describes the charm of our countryside and the huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ lifestyle. The textures and patterns in particular have imprinted on his imagination: gently floral Victorian wallpapers, velvet curtain drawstrings, gamekeeper tweeds and equestrian attire have all been noticed and dutifully interpreted by Ethan’s lively mind. He shakes our traditional motifs free from the musty and the staid, marries them with exotic Asian flashes, and serves up an authentic East meets West product.
But though Ethan has mastered the art of fusing cultures he still notes subtle differences between his customers. ‘Asian customers are mostly from cities, so they want functional. Korean businesswomen have an extremely busy life, equally in Hong Kong the pace of life is faster. Whereas my English clientele lead a charmed life. They prefer fantasy.’ Generational aspects also make a difference.
‘The luxury consumer is constantly changing,’ he continues, ’10 years ago the Asian consumer would come to Italy and all they wanted was a Ferragamo shoe. Since then they have really educated themselves, become contemporary art collectors and are looking for something bigger than a brand. They want a special experience or a connection to the creator.’ And while his original collections were very classic crocodile handbags, the time for a more playful twist has come. Mystical Landscapes is vibrant and versatile, multi-coloured and multi-material. Even the bags’ names are bright; there’s the Naughty Twinkle, The Bowl and Big Bliss, to quote a few. The collection reflects the luxury buyers’ move away from status symbols and logomania into a whimsical world of accessories that reflect their personalities. ‘Let’s not forget the handbag is the second home of the woman!’ Ethan laughs, ‘they don’t want what everybody has anymore, they want to show their individuality!’
It is ironic perhaps, that in an age of digitalisation the human element has returned. Ethan K’s growth has been very organic, as a niche brand they never advertise and gained many early customers through word of mouth. Today, Ethan K is stocked in the likes of Harrods (his earliest supporters), Galeries Lafayette in Paris, TSUM in Moscow and Malmaison by Hourglass in Singapore. His private clients make bespoke orders, meeting with the designer himself. In fact, Ethan’s mantra is ‘luxury is a conversation and an evolution. Not just an invention’. It is this openness which makes Ethan the man so endearing, and Ethan K the brand so exciting.
Unlike many designers nowadays who preach their message from high-up Fashion Olympus, handing down back-breaking stilettos and impossible size-nothing separates for us to suffer in, Ethan works with his customers, whom he affectionately calls ‘collectors’. An Ethan K bag then, is a work of art, an object of beauty to be admired. Nor is this an overblown comparison. The quality alone sets them aside: a mini-clutch can take years to make, personalised bags even longer. As a fourth-generation artisan, descending from a pioneering family in the exotic skin business, Ethan is a craftsman with over a century worth of insights. An education at London College of Fashion added yet another string to his bow.
Today Ethan still sketches his designs, sources skins from tanneries in Italy to be hand-painted in an atelier and sits down to consult with his clients. Who, by the way, include the likes of Princess Beatrice and Sofia Ritchie. The handbags have made it to the MET Gala, the Golden Globes and Royal Ascot. And everywhere an Ethan K bag goes, so does the hedgehog, his signature clasp. To Ethan the hedgehog represents adventure and a sense of humour. It’s nimble, magical, hard on the outside, soft on the inside. A little reminder that life is, above all, fun.
‘I loved bags, and it became a business’, Ethan says simply. And sometimes life really is that simple. You surround yourself with what you care about, and you find yourself in a mystical landscape. Or maybe Ethan said it better when he said, ‘it’s a life fulfilment, not a business one. That’s what makes my job so easy.’
To learn more about Ethan K please visit their website
Or to hear about our last London Fashion Conversation with Ethan Koh, check out our page