The Bag Man Cometh – Interview with Ethan K

Ethan K is the new wunderkind of the bag world – still only 25 he has only just finished Central St Martins London Fashion School. His animal skin bags sell for many thousands of pounds and his bespoke, tailored pieces are much sought-after – here he talks to us about luxury, travel and how he makes those exquisite pieces…

Ethan, you make the most wonderful bags – where did this vision and passion come from? When did you make your first bag?

Thank you so much!

Exotic skin craftsmanship is part of my DNA.  I’m a fourth generation artisan in working in this highly specialist area.

In the beginning of the 1900s my Great Grandfather from China was a trader travelling the world. He learned the art of exotic leather tanning from the British in Singapore and developed the skill and attention of a master craftsman. He passed his passion and knowledge to my grandfather and then my father.

I grew up with my father’s tannery at the back of my home and cannot remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated and inspired by the workshop and its artisans.

It was simply my destiny.

I love the craftsmanship and art involved in working with and perfecting leathers and I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetic qualities of the finished skins.

I am also intrigued by the intimacy of handbags as an extension of one’s self, they complete a look.

Aged 18, I started designing my first bags inspired by an exotic flower, utilising the ultra-luxurious skins of the Porosus Crocodile.  The first bag I ever created was for my mother and the first brief case for my father.  I take great pride and pleasure in seeing my family wear and style my work.

The personal touch – of offering a bespoke service – is an inspiring, rewarding route to understand my customers.  My love of bags lead to me launch ETHAN K two years ago.

The skins you use give so much depth and feel – how do you go about selecting the right animal or material?

I find drawing an analogy between exotic skins and diamonds very helpful in understanding what to look for: Cut, Clarity, Colour and Carat. Both embrace the worlds of nature, science and art and both have the ability to stir the emotions. I always work with the ‘centre-cut’ of the skin and look for even, well defined scales and clarity in their natural beauty.

The front and back of a high quality bag should be made with one piece.  For a luggage bag such as my ETHAN K Ale Ale, the alligator skin is at least eight years old – and very precious.

A good quality piece will present a true and solid colour that enhances, not hides, the idiosyncrasies of the skin and will wear well and even improve with age. I am lucky to have access to the most advanced cosmetics department – at my father’s tannery – in the world.

Exotic skin items should be ultra lightweight.  My materials are skived by hand so that they are fine, malleable and soft.  The leathers should retain their shape if you scrunch up and feel smooth like silk, yet be hard wearing.

Which skin I choose for ETHAN K bags depends entirely on the size and aesthetic I am working with but I do find alligator works well for large pieces: holdalls, jackets and so on, while crocodile works beautifully for clutches through to 40cm sized bags.

How do you define the notion of luxury?

Above all, to work only with the very best, most exceptional materials.

You cannot hurry luxury – it is a journey – and there are no short cuts or gimmicks when it comes to quality, attention to detail and giving a discerning customer an experience never to be forgotten.

You’ve travelled a great deal – how have your experiences overseas shaped what you create?

The people and places I meet and visit are tremendously inspiring for me.  I grew up in Singapore and know Hong Kong very well but I have been lucky enough to explore much of Europe, which I love.  When working at my father’s tannery I visited Paris a great deal and had internships at Hermès and Louis Vuitton.

I have got to know Tuscany very well as many of my bags are hand crafted in tiny ateliers there.

And London is where I have studied – at Central St Martins and the London College of Fashion – and is today where my business is based.

My first ‘Dome’ and ‘St Tropez’ bags, aged 22, were inspired by my travels and conceived in my humble studio in Mayfair, while still a student.

With my new ETHAN K travel case collection, I wanted to capture the nostalgia and romance of the most amazing crocodile trunks my Great Grandfather travelled the world with.  They’re now vintage but have almost improved with age – such cases are true collectables.   I also found myself inspired by the era captured in Edward Hopper’s paintings, whose work I always try to catch at galleries when travelling.  My suitcases really are travel companions in their own right.

I feel very privileged in that I am able to authentically marry my experiences in the West and its rich heritage in luxury with a sensibility that honours my heritage from the Far East.

Where have you been that has particularly caught your imagination?

In London’s Mayfair, I love the architecture and opulence of the area’s art deco embellishments. Many details which have caught my eye have been referenced in ETHAN K work.

With my latest collection for women:  ETHAN K Wildlife Odyssey – my creative touchstones were the flora and fauna of the exotic Far East where I grew up and my favourite fairy stories as a boy.  The designs feature handcrafted clasps in the likeness the hedgehog, frog and snake, with eyes created from gleaming semi precious gemstones.  Colours range from algae green and ink purple to vibrant beet, mandarin and melon.

When you are in London where do you tend to spend your time – which restaurants, bars etc do you like to hang out in?

  • Coburg bar at The Connaught – you’ll often find me here as it’s a favourite spot.  I’ve referenced adornments in its interior in the design of one of my most popular bags The Mayfair.
  • KAI in Mayfair for great quality Chinese and when I’m getting homesick.
  • La Petite Maison in Mayfair serves amazing Mediterranean dishes.
  • The Arts Club in London is a cool hangout place. The plush velvet and leather chairs in front of the ‘fireplace’ in the drawing room bring a unique ambience to the usual ‘tea’ rooms.
  • For simple, relaxed dining, I also enjoy JAKS on Walton Street.

What are you favourite hotels, bars and restaurants around the world and what’s the one meal that has really blown you away?

There are so many

  • The Hotel De Paris in Monaco serves the most amazing roasted chicken at the La Salle Empire.  Fresh Poulet de Bresse is used, I believe – Bresse is a region east of Lyon, and the main city is Boug-en-Bresse.

Others:

  • The Bouillabaisse served at the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne is amazing.
  • The Four Seasons Hotel in Geneva serves the best Beef Carpaccio with Black Truffles!
  • Le Royal Monceau has the most eclectic selection of fusion dining and I’ve had many memorable evenings there.
  • I love the whole experience in Geneva at La Reserve – it’s so relaxing.
  • Wolfgang Puck’s CUT serves the most amazing meat and the onion ring loaf is to die for.
  • Bar Mathis in Paris is such a cool spot to hangout and never fail to visit when I am in town.
  • Not to forget L’Eclaireur in Rue Sevigne which always has a strong following of hip celebs where the cool and ‘eclectic’ shop.

When I go back to my home country of Singapore, I love to catch-up with friends at the Lantern Bar at the Fullerton Bay Hotel – it has great architecture and a lovely view.  The shabu beef at the Fat Cow, found in the Camden Centre, should also not be missed!

I also quite often wander to the Raffles Hotel, which is intrinsically linked to Singapore’s past as a British colony and is just by Stanford Road where artisans in producing exotic leather goods use to live.

Finally, I spend a lot of time in Hong Kong and here I like to frequent the Sevva because of the excellent views and you can’t go wrong with the Peninsula Hotel.

What does the next 12 months have in store for you?

I only graduated from the London College of Fashion last summer so am at the very beginning of my journey with ETHAN K.  I feel very honoured to have been able to already collaborate with Harrods in London, TSUM in Moscow, L’Eclaireur in Paris.  ETHAN K is also launching in Harvey Nichols Dubai from May and I am speaking to further, very select, international luxury emporiums.

Bespoke will always remain the cornerstone to my business though and this continues to thrive.   The interaction with my clientele, the journeys I venture on with them are very precious to me and always inspiring.

I have just launched a new range of suitcases, available in crocodile and ostrich and also jewellery cases as part of my made to measure service, which is also exciting.

Bags and luggage are my passion but you can be sure that I will always work with exceptional exotic skins.

To access the ETHAN K bespoke service, customers can email privateorders@ethan-k.com

Further details can also be found at: www.ethan-k.com

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Hg2 | A Hedonist's Guide is a luxury city guide series coveted by travellers who value both style and substance when it comes to soaking up a city. Irreverent, inspired, and, above all, intelligent.

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