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Ac­ces­sories de­signer Ethan Koh was in Hong Kong to re­veal his new col­lec­tion, but the talk of the town con­cerned the ar­rival of his Ethan K la­bel at Ga­leries Lafayette in Paris

AT A LUNCH hosted in Up­per House’s Café Grey, all eyes are on ac­ces­sories de­signer Ethan Koh, in town briefly to show­case his lat­est col­lec­tion, which fea­tures a cap­sule col­lab­o­ra­tion with Florence Tsai, jew­ellery de­signer and so­cialite. A pop-up dis­plays a range of gor­geous ac­ces­sories, and the ladies cir­cle Koh non­stop, want­ing his sig­na­ture on the bags and, of course, the in­evitable selfie. Chat­ting in a pri­vate cor­ner of the cafe, the con­ver­sa­tion is jump-started with a sim­ple query: who is your muse? “There’s no muse,” he says. “I de­sign for the peo­ple who gen­uinely ap­pre­ci­ate beauty. The con­ver­sa­tion is about ad­ven­ture; there’s no one woman who in­spires me but there is an Ethan K spirit. It’s about travel, about sto­ry­telling.” And what a story Koh has. His ul­tra-lux­ury bags in ex­otic skins are cov­eted and col­lected the world over; stock­ists in­clude Har­rods and Saks Fifth Av­enue. His clients – many of whom he knows per­son­ally – can dish out any­where from HK$6,000 for a small clutch to a stag­ger­ing HK$912,000 for a croc­o­dile-skin tote. “But that was a one-off piece,” he says, laugh­ing. His busi­ness, how­ever, is no laugh­ing mat­ter. He’s the fourth-gen­er­a­tion scion of Sin­ga­pore fam­ily busi­ness Heng Long Leather, a tan­nery for fine-grade ex­otic skins that sup­plies to the global lux­ury bag busi­ness, which has been jointly owned by the lux­ury con­glom­er­ate LVMH and the Koh fam­ily since 2011. Koh grew up next to the tan­nery in Up­per Seran­goon Road, learn­ing about bag-mak­ing from a young age. He later went to Lon­don to fur­ther his stud­ies, but didn’t re­turn home “like a good lit­tle

boy”. In­stead, aged 22 in 2009, he set up shop and started sell­ing his own de­signs. “Home is Lon­don. Sin­ga­pore is home away from home. Lon­don feels like my wife, Paris my lover and Sin­ga­pore is my mother!” he says, chuck­ling heartily. “I still have fam­ily in Sin­ga­pore. My fa­ther is in­volved in the tan­nery and my fam­ily is very closely knit. They hope that I move back ev­ery time. But life has re­ally taken shape for me in Europe.” Let’s go back to his lover, by which we mean Paris. The break­ing news as we go to press is that Ethan Koh has ush­ered his la­bel into Ga­leries Lafayette, one of the most fa­mous depart­ment stores in the world, in a stun­ning new Ethan K space de­signed by the ac­claimed Juan Pablo Molyneux. When Molyneux and Koh met at The Con­naught ho­tel in May­fair, Lon­don, they quickly re­alised the sim­i­lar­i­ties they share in their ap­proach to cre­ativ­ity. “You are your­self only when you are dream­ing,” said Molyneux to Koh. “The part­ner­ship was quite or­ganic,” says Koh. “The time­line was not, but the part­ner­ship was. When the buy­ers [from Ga­leries Lafayette] were look­ing around Har­rods a few years ago, they chanced upon where I was. At that time, I had a theme called Vi­brat­ing Trees, Imag­i­nary Gar­den. They saw this crazy dis­play and said, who is this de­signer? This started the con­ver­sa­tion. They first said, we can of­fer you the space in two years.” But the fates in­ter­vened as changes oc­curred and he was called again “in two months to set up shop”. And the spec­tac­u­lar shop is fi­nally open. “The cus­tomers are very in­ter­na­tional,” says Koh. “They’re look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent to­day. “The cus­tomer is well versed in ev­ery­thing and her wardrobe has ev­ery­thing she al­ready wants, so she wants some­thing be­spoke. She wants some­thing spe­cial, some­thing spec­tac­u­lar. We have a prime spot in the mid­dle that faces the bal­cony and they’ve given me am­ple free­dom to cre­ate some­thing fan­tas­tic. They’ve al­lowed me the cre­ative free­dom to ex­press; lux­ury is not just about see­ing the prod­uct, it’s about the ex­pe­ri­ence and it’s all about ty­ing them to­gether.” Koh re­veals how his work is in­spired by his en­coun­ters with peo­ple or places. For ex­am­ple, the for­tu­itous meet­ing with Florence Tsai that brought him to Hong Kong. As she says, “[Ac­tress] Ca­rina Lau is a huge fan of Ethan K and has a large col­lec­tion of his bags. We were all in Europe and Ca­rina was meet­ing Ethan at an event and she told me to come along – that’s when we first met and I loved the bags and Ethan him­self and this col­lab­o­ra­tion hap­pened quite quickly.” As the two chat, she places her own Ethan K bag on the ta­ble, show­ing her favourite de­tails and in­tri­cate de­signs that make it spe­cial. Koh says, “I still get ex­cited when I see a woman walk by with my bag. Ab­so­lutely. “Steve Jobs’ wife has a few of my pieces and I know ex­actly which ones. I have a short-term mem­ory but if I’ve worked with a cus­tomer, I know ex­actly what they have and how many pieces. They have my num­ber – now the prob­lem is, as the brand has grown, I have about 486 What­sApp mes­sages that I haven’t replied to. But it’s a great prob­lem to have.” As we wind down, Koh con­cludes, “It’s very easy to lose in­ter­est and pas­sion in this busi­ness when it be­comes all about fig­ures and the bot­tom line. I’m al­ways thrilled when my de­sign be­comes a re­al­ity and the re­al­ity is hang­ing off a woman’s arm. It’s the kind of ful­fil­ment that’s more than money can buy.”


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