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How this father-and-son duo is building a luxury leather legacy

Luxury handbag designer Ethan Koh and his “tanning king” dad Koh Chon Tong on building brands in exotic leathers and beyond.

Created by Singaporean luxury bag designer Ethan Koh, Ethan K creations are carried by a high-profile clientele, including celebrities like Hailey Bieber and Carina Lau, and royals such as Princess Eugenie of York.

The nine-year-old brand has gone from strength to strength, evolving from one that offered primarily bespoke exotic-skin bags to one that also sells more accessibly- priced designs along with lifestyle products such as candles and fragrances. Its physical footprint is also growing. Having established a retail presence in cities such as London, Paris and Los Angeles, Ethan K opened its first “gallery” in Singapore early last year.

Its 34-year-old founder has come a long way since designing his first bag, a black crocodile clutch with a gold-plated lily clasp, for his mother while studying for a diploma in entrepreneurship at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Seated opposite his father, Koh Chon Tong – who co-founded Heng Long tannery with Ethan’s grandfather in 1977 – at his elegant yet cosy River Valley Road show space, the designer recalls, “I used to work in my dad’s study and I’d be designing bags with skins laid out all around me. He would go, ‘What are you doing? This is not the way to run a business. Come with me to Europe to see how things are done.’ Of course, I went.”

Heng Long is highly regarded in the luxury industry as a supplier of alligator and crocodile skins to top brands. In 2011, LVMH acquired the tannery in a deal worth $161 million. The senior Koh continued as the managing director for several years and is currently an adviser.

Says the soft-spoken gent, “During his school holidays, Ethan would join us when we participated in overseas exhibitions, and when we visited the offices and factories of luxury brands such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton. I think it was from there that he developed his creativity and passion for bags.”

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After completing national service, Koh – the youngest of three siblings – headed to London to study fashion management at the London College of Fashion, as well as bag-making at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

Despite his initial surprise at his son’s change of course – “He thought that I would attend business school in the US,” says his son – he was supportive of the latter’s passion and played an active role in getting Ethan K off the ground.

With a smile, he says, “When Ethan first started his business, I used to fly to London to visit his gallery or his space at Harrods and attend his events.” He also helped to train Ethan K staff in those early years, imparting his knowledge of customer service and the finer details of quality exotic skins.

The business veteran has always been there for his son, taking pride in his achievements even if praise is not always explicitly expressed. “My father’s attitude is, you can always do better. He’s all about what is your next step? How can you keep your customers coming back?”

These are questions the younger Koh is ably answering. Even as he diversifies his client base by offering accessibly priced, younger collections such as his new Essentials line – with pieces such as the calfskin Mini Briefcase, which retails for $1,900 – his five-digit exotic-skin pieces like the brand’s signature top-handle Alla bag, remain in high demand among its well-heeled collectors. “Customers are now looking for timeless pieces that will hold their value,” he says. “They’ve gone back to good value and materials, and quality craftsmanship, rather than just trends.”

Business aside, there has been another upside to the pandemic for the family. While he usually divides his time between London and Singapore, travel restrictions have kept him here for the better part of last year. Gesturing to his father, who can’t help beaming at this point, he says with a laugh: “He’s so happy about that.”

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