A chance meeting with an Italian silversmith in Florence in 2008 led to a month-long apprenticeship. And that apprenticeship led to an epiphany, which sent Carolyn Kan on what she calls the biggest adventure of her life – starting Carrie K in 2009, one of the best known local jewellery brands in Singapore.
As the self-professed “jewellery junkie” looks back on 10 years of her company, she doesn’t regret leaving behind her high-flying position as the Managing Director of advertising giant M&C Saatchi to follow her passions. Her team of 10 today may be a fraction of the staff she used to command. But her dreams have never been bigger.
Not only does Ms Kan oversee all aspects of the business, from design to distribution, the 46-year-old also runs Keepers, a showcase of independent designers that’s ballooned from being a small platform of only five brands in 2011, to well over 150 craftsmen and designers at last year’s event. Beside that, she’s also involved with art schools Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in helping them nurture talents who understand both the creative and commercial aspects of their industry.
In a way, her ease in wearing many hats is reflected in her jewellery designs, some of which can be unfastened and reconfigured for different looks – a useful trick for the career woman rushing from the boardroom to the ballroom. Beyond the idea of making her pieces versatile, Ms Kan wants to them to have lasting appeal, so they may be handed down from one generation to the next.
It’s been over 10 years since you left your job as MD of M&C Saatchi. What’s the difference between leading a large company and your own startup?
Running my own company gives me a level of control that running a large company doesn’t. There, one is beholden to shareholders. Here, I’m able to affect the direction and culture of the company. In a big multinational, there are so many layers that you need to consider when making a decision. Here, I have a clear vision of what Carrie K is about, a vision that I share with my team, and can push through to our satisfaction.
What’s that vision?
It’s about storytelling. When I was in advertising, I didn’t have time to really think or give people thoughtful messages when gifting. So here we spend time thinking about the stories that make a gift meaningful. When we design a collection, we ask ourselves, what does it mean when a person receives this? Or if I buy this for myself and I wear it, what does it remind me of? With our collection of Modern Heirlooms, the pieces are inspired by the idea of a four-generation Chinese family living harmoniously under one roof. All the pieces are stackable with each other and tell a story of our heritage. And then there’s the new Star collection whose star motif is inspired by the Malay songket, worn over generations. I was looking at all the things that tie me to my country, which I want to continue passing on… When I travel in Europe, I find myself wandering into a little leather or silverware shop, where the craftsperson has something to tell about each of her creations. And that’s what I hope to create – the idea that there’s a story behind each Carrie K piece.
Does the heritage story appeal to young consumers? They seem more cosmopolitan and less tethered to traditions.
Yes, that’s true. But I think that at the same time they gravitate towards things that have a strong provenance and a story heritage. They ask: What is this about? What’s the meaning of this? Where does this come from? Where do I come from? Definitely they’re drawn to the aesthetics first. But after that, they look for the story… In this day and age of 160 characters on SMS, of things that are quick and superficial, we are looking for things that anchor us. People, stories, relationships, provenance, heritage – these are things that anchor us.
You do a lot to support emerging designers. For some entrepreneurs, it is counter-intuitive to help what could be competition.
When I first started, I didn’t know anything about design and wasn’t connected to the fashion industry. And I had people who were really generous with their time and advice. I thought: I don’t have much to give back, but maybe I could pay it forward. So when we opened our first space in a Newton Circus shophouse in 2011, I thought how lucky I was to have found this place. But there were spaces in it we weren’t using. So I just thought: Okay, I’ve got space and I’ve got experience in advertising. I’m very good at bringing people together and building a community. So I made myself this promise that I would create a pop-up event once every three months that would feature five or six different designers whose work was unique and well-crafted, mirroring my own values as a designer. And that was pretty much how Keepers started… From a quarterly pop-up, it has grown into a full-blown event with hundreds of designers. Last year, Keepers attracted 47,000 visitors. It was unbelievable.
For your new collection of pearls, you’ve partnered with AWARE. AWARE addresses issues affecting women such as spousal abuse, marital rape and single motherhood. Some luxury brands steer clear of such thorny issues. But you think otherwise.
My team and I discussed these questions. But we asked ourselves, when the years have passed, would we feel proud that we were involved in this initiative or not? And the answer was yes. So I met AWARE and told them that this year, we’re looking at the complete reinvention of the pearl. I told them that the pearl resonates with me because it’s created from a grit, a challenging situation from which something beautiful emerges. And the AWARE team said that sits nicely with what they do, because they deal with situations that are tough, and they hope to offer a network to bring individuals out of it… So we’ve decided that for every pearl necklace we sell, we will donate $50 to AWARE to address the plight of single mothers. We also thought we could offer other forms of help, such as assisting these women’s return to the workforce by getting our fashion friends to give them a makeover and then taking a photo for their resumes… We thought that if our campaign can succeed to some degree, that would be our 10th anniversary present to ourselves.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photo: Carrie K