The Lap of Luxury
Handbag designer Ethan Koh turns more than a century of family history into a bright future in fashion.
Handbag designer and Singapore native Ethan Koh knows two things very well: luxury and leather. For more than 100 years, Koh’s family has fine-tuned the art of tanning exotic leathers, sourcing the world’s finest crocodile skin for designers, including Hermès and Prada. Now, Koh has taken his family heritage to the next level: crafting brightly colored, fully customizable handbags worthy of a standing ovation. We caught up with him at Saks Fifth Avenue, where he announced the launch of his spring collection, “Midnight Magician,” and made an appearance to welcome his new St. Louis clientele into the wild and wonderful world of Ethan K.
ALIVE: You’re the first designer in your family. What made you decide to go that route?
Ethan Koh: I felt that luxury had become too mass-marketed. You could go to every major city or every airport and see the same brands…so I really felt like I could cater to a group of people who love something special. I use crocodile for my bags because I come from four generations of crocodile skin heritage. In the early 1900s, when Singapore was a British colony, my great-grandfather founded a tannery in the back of the family home, so I was exposed to this trade at a very young age. Growing up, internships for Hermès and Louis Vuitton also sparked my interest.
ALIVE: What inspires you when crafting bags for your collections?
EK: When I’m designing a bag, I’m always inspired by something very whimsical, which you can see in my creations. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales have always played a large role in my creativity—as a child, I always carried a fairytale book. My inspiration for the colors comes from tropical fruits, plants and spices.
ALIVE: How did you connect with Saks?
EK: I ran into Marigay McKee, the fashion director of Harrods at the time, on a plane. She thought my bags were beautiful and told me about a bag given to her as a child by her mother and said she wanted it designed with crocodile skin. She became my customer, and then Harrods launched my first range fairly soon after I graduated from Central Saint Martins. [Then] she became the president of Saks Fifth Avenue and said I should share my handbags with Americans—and now, here I am!
ALIVE: How would you describe the Ethan K customer?
EK: The Ethan K customer is someone who is sophisticated, confident and very discerning. She really knows what she wants. It’s a beautiful handbag, and it’s a symbol. It’s something that is very intimate and shows your inner creativity.
Courtesy of Ethan Koh.