Under his skin
There is nothing more frustrating than investing thousands of dollars in a gorgeous, limited-edition bag from a luxury brand only to find your best friend had the very same bright idea. What felt like a potentially unique purchase quickly loses its lustre as you negotiate who will wear it at the next big social event.
Suddenly the idea of ordering a bespoke bag doesn't seem so indulgent. A bespoke bag is just like haute couture - although there is even more opportunity to get involved in the creative process than if you ordered a Chanel dress. It's something very personal, crafted to your very own taste and specifications.
But finding someone who can make a high-quality bespoke handbag is not an easy task. Nevertheless, there is a coterie of women around Asia who have made the discovery, having heard by word of mouth about a young London-based Singaporean designer named Ethan Koh, whose exquisite exotic-skin bags have quickly become a byword for luxury.
The scion of a Singapore tanning dynasty that supplies the likes of Louis Vuitton and Prada with beautifully buffed crocodile and alligator skins, Koh was groomed from an early age to understand the necessary skills to produce luxurious leathers. But rather than follow his father C.T. and older brother Albert into the family business, it became clear early on that his sensibilities were more drawn towards the world of design.
Koh designed his first bag at the tender age of 13 and gave it to his mother (she still wears it today). He continued his interest in accessories for years, creating bag after bag, before that interest turned into a true passion when he secured an apprenticeship at Hermes.
After honing his craftsmanship skills at the Parisian luxury-goods brand, Koh borrowed GBP3,000 from his father and - in a strange case of honour - used the money to buy leather from his own family business, at the same rate as the rest of their clients. He launched his first line of hand-made bags soon after, through a small factory in Italy, and word began to spread, with his affluent friends and acquaintances in Singapore and Hong Kong ordering his tailored creations.
Last year, he launched his first core collection of tightly defined styles, available online from CoutureLab and Quintessentially Gifts, where a crocodile clutch sells for GBP1,700 and an alligator weekender for GBP13,700. Now Tsum in Moscow, L'Eclaireur in Paris and Harrods in London have endorsed him, the latter with an area in their newly expanded Egyptian Room handbag department, opening this month.
'The core of my business though, is my bespoke clientele in Asia,' says Koh, now 24, when we meet in Mayfair's Connaught Hotel - one of the many London buildings that inspires the young designer.
'I want to grow this business organically,' he says with modesty, but also with a sense of determination. 'I'm a young designer but an artisan as well, so I like to see my bags through the whole process.'
His smitten international clients are known to fly him into their hometowns to create a one-of-a-kind bag. They want to add their creative stamp to a design, and like to learn the process.
'If they are a connoisseur of luxury things, they want to go on that creative journey with me,' he says.
There is a client in Paris who ordered his bag in a particular olive green that matched her drawing room sofa, so Koh sent a photograph of it to his brother in Singapore to find the perfect fit. A Russian client with an obsessive wardrobe full of Margiela and Hermes pieces ordered four crocodile bags in different colours to complement his particular sense of style, while another client ordered a bag to match her Chopard diamonds.
In fact, he says: 'Choosing a croc skin is like buying diamonds; you need to know your species'. He uses the three C's, usually used to describe the quality of diamonds, to explain the quality of the rare material: cut, colour and clarity. The bigger the scales, the better the quality - which tend to be from aggressive crocodiles that are more difficult to farm.
While all the exotic skins are produced in Singapore, Koh works closely with artisans in Tuscany to make the bags. The designs - classic yet modern, and inspired by architectural details - are understated.
'The brand is about discretion,' he says. 'There is no logo or ostentatious hardware to distract from the skin's natural beauty.'
There is only a discreet Ethan K signature, but you would have to look inside to find that - which means that while you know where it was purchased, your friend doesn't.
SENSE OF SCALE
Ethan K's stylish day bags, evening clutches and classy men's laptop and weekender bags begin their journey in Singapore, where Koh chooses and matches the skins. The intensely hued, buttery-soft crocodile skins are made from the finest specimens of the small-scaled crocodylus porosus from Australia (also used by Hermes), the larger-scaled crocodylus niloticus from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the alligator mississippiensis from Louisiana, where they are farmed in conservation-controlled areas.
Koh also uses python, ostrich and lizard in his range. Since each crocodile and alligator has its own characteristics, it is a slow, painstaking process to match the skins. There are more than 25 steps involved to prepare the skin so that it eventually ends up with a beautiful bombe shine (using a skill devised in the early 1900s, the scales are hand-polished with agate stone to make them rise and shine) or a silky matt finish. As his father C.T. Koh says: 'Tanning is a science; finishing is an art.'