Photography Li Wanjie Styling Imran Jalal
Not once in the five years since setting up her eponymous jewellery label Lauren X Khoo – “X” stands for her Chinese name – has Lauren Khoo agreed to be photographed for a magazine (she did say yes to the British 10+ last year, but it’s limited edition and comes boxed). Published images of her tend to be of the one same official black-and-white portrait, head turned to the side to reveal naturally sculpted cheekbones and a willowy neck. She’s discerning about whom she shares it with.
To be recognised for one’s talents and less so for one’s profile is paramount for the 33-year-old. It’s a (little written about) fact that she hails from one of the most storied families on the island and is naturally wary of the tags and assumptions that come with it. She’d also rather keel over than be typecast as a socialite, a term that’s grown even dirtier in the era of #richkids and #realhousewives (her personal Instagram account is private).
She arrives at our set in a timeless get-up of black dress, tights and ballet flats, accompanied by a close female friend for moral support. She’s nervous, but has agreed to this feature because after so many years in the business, it’s time for her to “step out of the shadows”, she says, and the carefree ease with which she moves in front of the camera belies any anxiety.
At the photographer’s suggestion, she gamely climbs into an elevated alcove, dives into a duvet, and poses on the carpet of her family’s hotel, which we’ve chosen to shoot in. Instead of coming across as preening, her comportment hints at a playful, laid-back nature and a professionalism that’s been cultivated since she was very young. “If only I could have been shot in silhouette,” she deadpans in jest, post-shoot.
She had better get used to the limelight. This month, she debuts a fine-jewellery collection for the hallmark of American-elegance-made-cool that’s Oscar de la Renta in its S/S ’20 show. Details remain secret at press time, but here’s what we know with ODLR being one of the most closely watched shows on the New York Fashion Week calendar: It’ll be Khoo’s most high-profile and photographed project to date.
Already, the Gemological Institute of America alum who once worked in the jewellery department of Sotheby’s Hong Kong has a cult following for her witty designs with a modernist streak. Her most popular pieces are the gummy-bear ones and Jeff Koons-ish animals inspired by the Chinese zodiac; her stockists – equally cult meccas of cool, including Moda Operandi and Dover Street Market.
In her latest collection, pearls get an eclectic punk treatment with standouts such as the fittingly dubbed Unicorn Horn: a spear-like “ear stick” with white pearls of varying sizes running through its entire 9.2cm length. Moda Operandi founder Lauren Santo Domingo has meanwhile singled out Cosmic Dynasty, a pair of Oriental-meets-Art Deco-esque earrings with strands of tsavorite garnets dangling from diamond-encrusted crescents, as a personal fave.
Khoo’s non-conformist ways – in her work and in person – might have something to do with her unconventional liberalist background. At 13, she switched from a local girls’ school to the Singapore American School, where the biggest lesson, she says, was that it’s “more than acceptable to be creative”.
One gets the sense that this sparked her arts and design-fuelled trajectory: the Ivy League Brown, where she graduated with honours in visual arts, architectural studies, and history of art and architecture; then the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London for a postgraduate degree in contemporary art. “I guess you could say I was hungry for knowledge,” she quips.
Had she not taken a shine to gemology, she would have ended up in the arts. “Apart from wanting to be an architect, I longed to run my own contemporary art gallery and would have designed it myself,” she lets on.
Her dichotomous, progressive-informed-by-classic taste hints at how such a space – and her mood board – might look. Santiago Calatrava – the Spanish architect known for his soaring, sculptural buildings – and the sleek minimalist Tadao Ando are her architecture gods. The Italian Spatialist artist Lucio Fontana is a favourite for his abstract slashed canvases.
She’s partial to The Great Gatsby and Marie Antoinette biographies when it comes to literature. Her latest fashion obsessions? The cloud-like confections of Cecilie Bahnsen and Bottega Veneta circa Daniel Lee (she has four versions of his sensuously plush Pouch clutch).
In short, she is exactly what you’ll get in a piece of her jewellery, and for all her privacy-concious ways, she doesn’t hide it: refined with a side of oddball, and a romantic at heart. Despite her constant globetrotting (she divides her time between Singapore, New York and Hong Kong, where her jewellery is crafted), she’s a homebody (“between going out and staying in, I’d always pick a quiet evening with my loved ones”). Instead of the usual one-sided interview, ours feels more like a conversation between two new gal pals with Khoo launching spiritedly into topics outside our intended Q&A: Cindy Crawford and Kaia Gerber; horoscopes; my own decision to opt out of the prescribed education path (nope, didn’t go to Brown).
When we touch on jewellery, she mentions her fascination with the way Queen Victoria incorporated her children’s baby teeth into her rings and pendants. “Today we’d think it macabre, but then it was considered sentimental,” she says. “I believe that all personal items of jewellery should hold a special connection to their wearer.”
When Lauren Khoo steps out of the shadows, she has the same effect.
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