Image: Brijesh Patel
December 01 2011
As a nationalistic (or, more accurately, regionalistic) luxury snob, I have tended to the view that Europe enjoys a monopoly on luxury as a concept. On the whole, America cannot do luxury; as a nation it is predicated on exactly the opposite point of view and I believe that in the late 18th century radical MPs of the ilk of Charles James Fox dressed in what for the time was the incredibly restrained buff-breeches-and-blue-coat look to show their solidarity with the unpretentious revolutionaries across the ocean.
My theory is that while Europe has limited natural resources, it takes dumb raw materials from other countries – be they animal hides, precious metals or gemstones – and transforms them into objects with which we fall in love – the original and best definition of value-adding that I know.
But does luxury travel? Of course, we can export luxury goods and it seems to me that without luxury goods our economies would be a great deal worse off than they are already. But can we graft European savoir faire on to local tradition? This question was raised in my mind when I heard that Hermès was going into the sari business. This would appear to be part of a strategy for world domination: Hermès already has interest in a company in China that, if I am not mistaken, goes by the name of Up and Down and from what I can tell is in the business of flogging Chinese-made luxury items in China. I cannot help feeling that it is a bit presumptuous when we in Europe start making the national dress of other countries and selling them their own stuff… then again why not? Anyway, my opinion hardly counts as I speak from the luxurious position of not having a world-famous luxury brand to run.
Besides, there are now signs that authentic luxury as we understand it in the west is actually emerging from south-east Asia without needing the imprimatur of a famous European brand. I am talking about a young man called Ethan Koh. He makes crocodile handbags and briefcases and until recently he has sold them privately at trunk shows by word of mouth. I like him for a number of reasons: first, because he loves history and because his designs are classic (well, mostly classic – while covetable, neither the zip-up crocodile bomber jacket nor his crocodile-skin blazer is quite what I would wear if I were going to Buckingham Palace).
I have been testing one of his bags for a while and I am impressed that such a young man (he is in his early twenties) can create things that are so mature. He does not need to indulge in the meretricious novelty of the young designer, but is instead happy to make bags that are detailed (even the padlock and the metal furniture that join handle to bag are croc-covered) and carefully crafted; like the best jewellery, which should be as beautiful from the back as it is from the front, the insides of his bags are almost better than the outsides; lined in cashmere-feel calfskin, so soft to the touch that it feels immoral.
But best of all he is the scion of a dynasty of Singaporean tanners with three generations of experience in the production of crocodile and alligator skin and it is this that really interests me. There is no substitute for heritage, you cannot manufacture it, and in these days of luxury conglomerates it is a pleasure to come across a family-owned company once in a while.
Moreover, I know nothing about the tanning of crocodiles and as the subject comes up so frequently at dinner parties and when making polite small talk, I was relieved at last to be also able to expand my knowledge of the various types of reptile skin: learning that the Alligator mississippiensis (Louisiana alligator) is characterised by its larger squarer scales; and that the saltwater Crocodylus porosus is apparently favoured by Hermès for the Birkin. I am now able to talk about the freshwater Crocodylus novaeguineae and the African Crocodylus niloticus like some luxury Doctor Dolittle.