Handbag designer Ethan Koh certainly does not do things by half measures. In these uncertain times, when consumer spending is on the decline and many brands are scaling back on new launches, he has decided to buck the trend. This month, the Singapore-born designer, who is best known for creating luxurious bespoke crocodile skin bags, is releasing two collections. Named Masterpieces and Essentials, the pieces were designed over the past months during the country’s circuit breaker period and the reopening phases.
It was this time of isolation for the designer, who is usually quite the man about town — both in London and Singapore — that has inspired this prolific creative period. Although he is normally based in London, Koh returned to the little red dot in March as the pandemic situation worsened in Europe. It was during this time of lockdown that he concentrated his efforts on designing.
“I was in a very introverted mood and was not communicating with many people besides a few close friends. Instead, I focused exclusively on my designs, and that was a very healing time for me,” says Koh. A lot of time, he adds, was devoted to the minutiae of handbag design, such as refining the proportions of the bags and updating classics such as his minaudieres, which are a red carpet favourite.
Now, as the world is collectively trying to resume a semblance of normality in daily life, Koh too is marking this watershed moment in history by launching both collections at the same time.
Fashion lovers on the hunt for a one-of-a-kind investment that will transcend the test of time will want to check out the three-piece Masterpieces series. The tightly curated range of bags are crafted in highly sought after Porosus crocodile skins, embellished with semi-precious stones or diamonds, and include hand-painting finishings. For instance, the Triple Lock Doha, the first Ethan K bag to be fully lined in Porosus crocodile, was years in the making, Koh reveals, as he first had to source for seven identical ethically farmed hides to have sufficient material to make the bag.
“People are at a stage where they are really questioning their purchasing choice. However, appreciating luxury does not mean buying more but buying even better. Like art, these are unique pieces that speak to the collector,” he says.
Then there is the seven-piece Essentials collection, which is Koh’s response to a more relaxed and utilitarian sense of fashion favoured by younger fashionistas. “The whole purpose of a beautiful handbag is for a woman to use it. Millennial customers have multi-purpose and multi-functional lives and I wanted to create designs that reflect their changing lifestyles and aesthetic preferences,” he says.
With a focus on smart, ergonomic design, key pieces from this range include a mini briefcase silhouette, which is roomy enough to hold a range of digital devices. The bag also comes with multiple straps so that it can be worn as a crossbody, shoulder bag, evening clutch or pouch. Other statement pieces that will appeal to the Instagram and TikTok generation are the Divine Box, which sports multiple hedgehog embellishments (a key Ethan K motif), and the compact Private Eye’s attention-grabbing eye illustration.
“You can go from your stay-home notice to your staycation,” Koh quips.
In a nod to the next generation’s preference for streetwise style, the bags in this range are made in a mix of calf leather, denim and canvas. An occasional well-placed addition of exotic skins ensures the bags stay true to the Ethan K DNA. While there is a significantly lighter touch of exotics, Koh says this does not mean the bags are not as luxurious as his previous designs. “Materials like denim and canvas are more relatable, but that does not mean they are cheap,” he says. “It takes as much effort to put leather and exotics together harmoniously with other materials, and we even create special canvasses for the bags.”
The best news of all for Ethan K collectors in Singapore is that the new collections will be available to peruse in an appropriately socially distant setting — the new secret atelier located in a heritage building in the River Valley precinct. The by-appointment-only space, which Koh launched earlier this year, has recently reopened for private viewings and commissions. An e-commerce site is launching soon too.
The elegantly appointed atelier will also stock Koh’s first scented candle and eau de parfum fragrance collection, which features notes that have captured his attention during his erstwhile globetrotting days. From the scents of rolling vineyards, olive groves, pine forests and lavender fields of southern France and the Mediterranean coast, these fragrances offer an olfactory escape in these times of travel restrictions.
“These scents pay homage to places that have inspired me in the past years, and now that most of us are staying home, I like to think that they evoke good memories and feelings of joy and beauty.”
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