4 Questions With Handbag Designer Ethan Koh

By Sarah Stallmann
In Style

Handbag designer and Singapore native Ethan Koh knows two things very well: Luxury and leather. For more 100 years, Koh’s family has fine-tuned the art of tanning exotic leathers and sourcing the world’s finest crocodile leather to designers including Hermès and Prada. Now, Koh, the first designer in his family, has taken the family heritage to the next level, crafting handbags that are worthy of a standing ovation. Brightly colored and fully customizable, each Ethan Koh bag is made to enhance even the flyest fashionista. We were honored to catch up with the designer last week at Saks Fifth Avenue where he made an appearance to personally welcome his new St. Louis-based clients into the wild and wonderful world of Ethan K.

Photo courtesy of the designer.

Photo courtesy of the designer.

ALIVE: What was your inspiration to start designing handbags?
Ethan Koh: In the early days, I always felt that a handbag is the second home of a woman, so I admired the beautiful crocodile purses my mother carried. It’s so wonderful to be able to translate my artistic vision into an object. That was how everything got started.

ALIVE: Tell me a little bit about your familys history in the industry. How did you get started designing and at what age?
EK: The journey started in the early 1900s when Singapore was a British colony. My great-grandfather founded the tannery in the back of the family home, so I was exposed to this trade at a very young age. As I was growing up I did internships for Hermes and Louis Vuitton, which also really sparked my interest. One of the reasons I started Ethan K. was because I felt that luxury had become too mass-marketed. You could go to every major city or every airport and see the same brands and the same bags, so I really felt like I could cater to this special group of people who love something special.

ALIVE: What inspires you when crafting bags for your collections?
EK:
When I’m creating a bag, I’m always inspired by something very whimsical, which you can see in my creations. I’m inspired by the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen—you can really see that in the clasps that I design for the bags. When I was a child, I always carried a fairytale book. My inspiration for the colors of the bags comes from tropical fruits, plants, and spices. Nature also plays a big part in my inspiration.

ALIVE: Do you have any words of advice for those hoping to break into the handbag industry?
EK: Customers are number one, employees are number two, and share holders are number three. Our customers are the center point of our universe. We’re not designing for the women of our imagination, we’re designing for real women and real people. It’s important for emerging designers to understand their customers. Ever since I launched in Saks Fifth Avenue, I learned that the customer in New York who likes a tote may not be the same as the customer in Atlanta who loves clutches.

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