Hubert Burda Media

10 minutes with Ethan Koh

The exotic skin bag designer tells us what he feels the real meaning of “luxury” ought to be.

He takes Instagram pics with Elizabeth Hurley, names tote bags after Carina Lau and designed a blue cornflower bag decorated with a bee for Princess Beatrice, with whom he lunched with. More than just a designer who has made a name for himself in the international market, the eponymous Ethan Koh of the Ethan K accessory line is possibly the only bag designer to have actually spent his growing up years in a world-class leather tannery (owned by his family). Singapore-born but London-based and trained — at Central St Martins — Koh flies the flag not just for Singapore design and craftsmanship, but has clear ideas on how the concept of luxury needs to evolve. In the midst of unveiling of his new Matryoshka Alla Series of bags, he spared us 10 minutes to chat.

One of the reasons why I started Ethan K was because I thought luxury had become too mass market. You go to any High Street in any city and you’ll see the same stores in the same formats. Whether it is a client from Saint Louis, Atlanta or Singapore, I think the new luxury customer is looking for something special, and sometimes they may not know what that is. Our goal is to enlighten them with the possibilities.

In the last few years, there has been no more element of surprise in the world of luxury. It’s like meeting a magician and expecting him to turn a hat into a bird. That’s how jaded people have become. What I bring is an element of surprise. People usually think that exotic skin bags are for old, boring people. But we’re not. So our philosophy and themes are so important.

Luxury is not about buying the most expensive or buying the latest item of the season. Luxury is about understanding — understanding one’s culture, one’s philosophy. Most luxury goods today come from France and Italy. At Ethan K, our products are a marriage of East and West. We offer a nice connection between Singapore, where I’m from, and the UK, where I’m based. Singapore is a great melting pot of cultures, and I take this exoticism to the West. We have an artisanal team in Singapore and in Italy, so we have a unique exchange of techniques. We make less than 1,500 pieces a year and we keep a close connection with our customers. We still want to keep that soul.

Inspiration comes from anywhere. I’m even inspired by door knobs and ceilings. I was recently at my friend’s house in Chelsea and I saw some beautiful six-sided stars in his living room. Now I’m creating a special collection called Drive by the Stars for later in the year. I just felt that stars represent so many things — as time passes, everything is faster paced and everyone is rushing on to the next thing, people forget to pause and look at the stars. At the beginning when I started Ethan K I thought I was selling a bag, but actually I’m not. It’s all about the fantasy.

Ethan K is available at Malmaison by The Hour Glass, #01-01 Knightsbridge, 270 Orchard Road