Jewellery designer Carolyn Kan (below), who’s also the mastermind behind local designer pop-up Keepers, tells us about her new collection, what it’s like to navigate the local design scene, and what’s next after Keepers.
It’s been six years since her jewellery label Carrie K was launched at Quintessential, and Carolyn Kan has come very far. I was at that launch, and I remember very clearly the soft-spoken, unassuming woman who told me about finding her calling after a course in silversmithing in Florence. She’s since created 10 collections of jewellery, and they’ve become more and more exciting over the years. While Kan worked mainly with silver for her first few collections, in recent years her pieces have grown in depth and complexity, combining metal and leather elements in unexpected ways.
In September last year, Kan masterminded Keepers, the local designer pop-up store that’s made that grassy patch across from The Heeren a lot more interesting, not to mention a veritable haven for home-grown designers and their growing number of supporters. The pop-up’s lease of life has been, thankfully, prolonged from its scheduled August demolition (and this was an extension from its previously slated demise in February) – it will be around until January next year.
But what comes after? I ask Carolyn Kan about what’s in store for her own label and for the Keepers initiative. Plus – but of course – other nosy questions about being a designer in Singapore.
How long have you been designing accessories and what sort of things inspire you?
I have been designing accessories for as long as I can remember. Even when I was in advertising, I always kept a sketchbook to record my ideas, although I never thought anything would come of it. I call them “chicken scratchings” as I can’t sketch very well; the “chicken scratchings” are just to remind me of the idea and the story I wish to tell.
I have always loved looking at things from a different perspective and challenging traditional notions of what is beautiful and desired. I have never understood why there should just be one ideal as there is beauty in everything, it’s just a matter of taking time to seek it out. I appreciate the beauty in imperfection and the mundane in the everyday that we tend to ignore. That is the core of the Carrie K. stories that are told through our collections and designs.
Has this changed over the years?
I believe the core of what inspires me has not changed. We tend to experiment with a variety of mediums from precious metals and gems to leather, but the themes of each of the collection stories consistently challenge traditional expectations of beauty and what is desired. For example, the Reborn Collection takes inspiration from mundane everyday objects and re-imagines them into covetable jewellery. And we have the Heavy Mettle collection made of metallic leather in the shape of gears – that collection celebrates inner strength.
From left: Carrie K Heavy Mettle leather necklace and Reborn rings in silver and rose gold
What are the biggest challenges you face as a designer?
I love a good challenge. Challenges are just puzzles waiting for a solution. And sometimes, challenges inspire something fresh and different. An example is our leather collections Heavy Mettle and A Beautiful Mess, both of which are statement collections with neckpieces made of leather. Our exploration of a different medium came about because a buyer in the Middle East each could not market silver. They also shared that their customers were attracted to bold statement pieces. That resulted in our iconic designs like the ones in A Beautiful Mess, which is a celebration of disorder in the form of the Spilled paint bib made of double sided patent and metallic leather and colourful enamel rings.
What about the biggest challenges you face as a local designer?
Singapore’s design industry is still very young and the majority of Singaporeans are not aware of the quality of Singapore designers. They are more inclined to seek out and pay a premium for work by international designers rather than Singapore designers. So, in addition to Singapore being a small market, the number of people who would pay the same premium for local designers who create unique quality designs is even smaller. However, I am seeing that a small community of advocates for Singapore designers is growing. And Singapore designers are gaining traction internationally. It is only when we grow national pride in the work of our local designers, and support them, that we will thrive. I have never believed in asking people to support local just because we are Singapore designers. I believe that we have to consistently create unique designs that are well made in order to be considered. I remember when we first opened at Keepers, and a customer came in for the first time. She said, “Oh, these are all Singapore designers ah? Got discount or not?” I hope that by the time we close in Jan 2016, we would have started to shift perception.
Tell us about the new Carrie K collection.
Yes, our new collection is called the Morse Bling Collection. It was inspired by the idea of showing the world your little secret, but only those in the know will understand its meaning. We will launch with a series of rings. Each ring ($138-$338) will feature an alphabet in morse code – dashes and dots in gold and diamonds. They will come in regular or midi ring sizes so you can wear one simple alphabet or a collection of alphabets on each hand to make up initials or words. Each discreet ring is made of fine silver, 14K gold and diamond, or 14K yellow gold, rose gold and diamond. Morse Bling will be available on order at Keepers or the Carrie K. Atelier from May. We have had years of statement jewellery. Perhaps it is time for “understatement” jewellery.
What are your plans for Keepers after January next year?
We are currently working on housing Keepers in a more permanent location. The response we have received has been far greater than what we had anticipated. I believe that there is a demand for a diverse but well-curated selection of quality Singapore designers and artisans from fashion to furniture to lifestyle. One of our customers commented that at Keepers her favorite Singapore designers are housed under one roof, so she does not need to run around the island to seek us out. Others like the fact that they always discover new designers and artisans from the fresh selection of guest designers that we showcase every month to complement our resident designers.
Is Keepers your first major retail venture?
Yes. I had been investigating setting a Carrie K. boutique but I could never get myself to commit because of the ever challenging issue of finding and keeping good service staff plus the unsustainable rentals. The Keepers: Singapore Designer Collective is a collective effort by the resident designers and we have built a passionate Keepers team to work around the issue of staffing. This initiative is possible only with the support of TaFf, Singapore Tourism Board, SPRING Singapore and the Singapore Design Council.
What’s been the best bit about setting up Keepers, and what’s been the worst?
The best bit has to be discovering and working with a truly talented and passionate group of creatives. When positive ideas and people come together, the energy is infectious and that always sparks new opportunities to collaborate. Carrie K. recently collaborated with Wit x Folly who we met at Keepers. We created word jewellery that was selected via social media and the words were handscripted by the talented artists, then immortalised in silver and gold by Carrie K.
I also get a real sense of pride when I hear people say “Wah! I didn’t realize we have so many good designers in Singapore” or when overseas visitors tell me how thrilled they are to discover Singapore artisans that they feel are unique and they are excited to bring these discoveries home with them to show their friends. There are so many golden moments of happiness and pride. For example, one of our resident designers Aijek, a relatively fresh designer to the Singapore landscape, was picked up and now stocked at Tangs after being introduced via Keepers.
My favorite discovery has to be the talented but humble artist, Keng Lye, who creates hyper-real three-dimensional animals painted in layers of resin. He showcased publicly for the first time at Keepers and people left messages in our guest books saying that they drove in from Kuala Lumpur to see his work.
This extra-curricular passion that started in 2011 as quarterly pop-up at the Carrie K. Atelier has become a full-time passion.
I wouldn’t say that there is a worst bit, but let’s just say I could do with a bit more sleep.
Carolyn Kan’s new collection for Carrie K, Morse Bling, will be available for order next month at Carrie K Atelier (136 Bukit Timad Road, tel: 6735-4036) and Keepers (230 Orchard Road).
Keep checking Female’s website for a sneak peek of the collection, coming soon.