The Wizard of the Secret Garden
By Robin Jay
It may sound like a fairytale, but the story of Ethan K is every bit true. In just three years, this remarkable 28-year-old young man, hailing from four generations of exotic skin tanning heritage, has launched a haute couture line of handbags that’s taking the fashion world by storm. Combining his knowledge of exotic leathers, particularly crocodile and alligator, with his whimsical style inspired by memories of his childhood storybooks – like Rapunzel by Hans Christian Andersen – Ethan infuses colors of Asian fruits and spices from his native Singapore to create his latest bespoke collection: The Wizard of the Secret Garden.
“I remember as a child, my father would piggy back me to the tannery, then at the back of the family home. I watched my grandfather grading the skins and the artisans coloring and finishing them. Exotic skin is in my DNA,” Ethan said. “Interestingly, my father, Mr. CT Koh, started having an interest in color when he was playing kites with his siblings. He ran to the family tannery, mixed the color dyes and started painting on kites. That was where it all started; some of my bags bear kite motifs reminiscent of our family story.”
All in the Family
Ethan continues to source his precious crocodile leathers from the family’s tannery in Singapore. “Since a young age, passion, diligence, attention to detail, especially our Asian values of trust and respect, have been ingrained in me and our business culture. You can see it in the progress we have achieved over generations, from my great grandfather being an immigrant from China to Malaysia then to Singapore, and through his hardship starting the tannery by chance when he met a British artisan at a train station during his adventures.”
And, following in his ancestors’ footsteps, Ethan has enjoyed quite an adventure himself. “One of my favorite encounters is when I bumped into Saks Fifth Avenue President Marigay McKee, who was then Chief Merchant at Harrods, on a flight to Marrakech. We started talking about a bag her mother gave her. She wished someone could make it for her in crocodile, and so I did months later and she was ecstatic! I told her that the bag, with the octagonal clasp in semiprecious stone, would bring prosperity and positivity to her life. I guess my stars really did align, as she later launched my line of handbags when she became the president of Saks Fifth Avenue. “Another fond encounter was when I was at a press interview at a restaurant speaking about how I hoped Pearl Lam, one of Asia’s biggest art collectors, would be one of my muses someday. When I looked up, she was sitting at the other end of the restaurant. It felt like Kismet.”
The young designer says he started Ethan K because he felt luxury was becoming too mass market. He travels the world to select the best artisans from Singapore to Italy to France. During the summers, when he was in Central Saint Martins London School of the Arts, he would travel to Tuscany in Italy and work with artisans from Prada and other design houses to learn the craft. “I view my pieces like art and make fewer than a thousand pieces a year currently whilst still growing organically. At Ethan K, luxury is about exclusivity and with a soul – we are close to our customers and feel that it is most important in today’s world. Our clasps are handcrafted in Tuscany. I personally work with the artisans who hand carve the semiprecious stones, too.”
Ethan attributes his inspiration and attention to detail to his mother. “She is an incredibly classy lady. She values style and substance over hype,” he said. “She always knew that from a young age, I was very artistically inclined. She would buy me ribbons and I would make them into flowers. I was very interested in baking and loved to decorate the icing on cakes with the Asian fruits and spices I was surrounded by at the family’s gardens. I started the Ethan K with a small loan of $4,000 from my father. I designed a few bags for my mother and her friends, which they enjoyed wearing. I loved bags and it became a business, not the other way around.”
Ethan says the crocodile and alligator trade he deals with is a sustainable program. “In the past, there was a misconception of them being endangered, but it was found that it was due to the destruction of natural habitat that led to the decrease in species. At present, the farmers utilize a percentage for meat and also skin for leather goods. They are priced high due to the rarity and helping the farmers to keep the species alive.
“I love seeing a design go from a sketch to reality. As a creator, it touches my heart to see the satisfaction on the client’s face when she receives
a bespoke creation.”
You can find Ethan K handbags at Saks Fifth Avenue.