This year, we celebrate International Women’s day with a series of eight interviews that feature inspiring women who represent the modern empowered woman. In Part Two of the series, we speak to Dr Ayesha Khanna, Carolyn Kan, Jocelyn Chng and Yvon Bock.
Carolyn Kan, 45, jewellery designer and founder of Carrie K. and Keepers
She is a ball of energy with a smile that lights up the room. Carolyn Kan embodies the phrase, “mover and shaker”, and she has altered the perception of local design and how good designs can travel far. The jewellery designer and founder of her eponymous label, Carrie K., that was launched in 2009, is known for jewellery that marries artisanal craft, with cheeky wit and timeless elegance.
Within short time, Carrie K.’s pieces were stirring interest. Kan won the ELLE Awards Jewellery Designer of the Year – an award she won consecutively for both 2010 and 2011. In 2012, she was handpicked by design stylemeister, Yuji Yamamoto (son of fashion legend, Yohji Yamamoto) to sell at his concept store Make One’s Mark (MOM), in Japan.
His nod was only the beginning of a growing brand presence. In 2014, she was showing at Premiere Classe, the top accessories show at Paris Fashion Week, that selects edgy high-end designers to cater to the world’s top retailers like Harvey Nichols and Collette.
The brand has since stepped up presence in many doors around the world, including South Korea, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Australia, and has collaborated with Singapore Airlines and Disney. Ditto her growing accolades, including bagging triple honours, at the Singapore Fashion Awards in 2017 – the inaugural Bespoke Award, Best Collaboration of the Year prize, and Champion for Creatives and Designers Award.
Not bad for a designer who only got into jewellery design at 36, when she took a gap year off an advertising career that spanned 11 years (seven of which helming multi-national advertising agency M&C Saatchi). She spent the time studying silversmithing in Florence, and it would be a life-changing moment for Kan.
Kan’s meteoric rise isn’t just an accidental success, for she is as much an astute business and marketing person, as she is an artist. She shares: “My background advertising gave me my love of storytelling and capturing it in a beautiful way. The start of my journey as a jeweler in Florence gave me my love of craftsmanship. Hence, Carrie K. is a marriage of both.”
She understands the power of storytelling, weaving her products into the storyline. Each of her collections consistently have talking points that connect with people. It’s a clever plug, yet at the same time you are swayed by her authenticity and passion.
Her power of persuasion is a definite skill in convincing others to see things differently. Like how we view local design as being inferior. It has spurred Kan on to take on the inherent snobbery, with Keepers, an initiative that she started in 2011, to highlight local design talent. From featuring a couple of Singapore brands housed in the Carrie K. Newton shophouse, it has grown substantially, with more than 150 designers, craftsmen and artists featured in the National Design Centre (NDC), where the Carrie K. atelier now resides. In 2018, the Keepers Playground of Infinite Happiness at the NDC, profiled more than 100 vendors over two weekends, with 47,000 visitors showing up.
She says passionately: “If I could wave a magic wand, it would be to wish that people take pride in work created by Singapore designers. And they make it a point to seek them out and talk it up. On our part, Singapore designers must create work that has a unique point of view, and is of a quality second to none in their category, in order to earn that national pride.”
In today’s modern society, what does an empowered woman look like?
Michelle Obama personifies the empowered woman. She is confident and strong in her convictions, and uses her intelligence and power to create positive outcomes for others, not just for herself. She balanced her multiple duties as a mother, wife of a head of state, and championed initiatives that were important to her, whilst always clearly maintaining and articulating her own point of view. She is a great role model of how one should behave with grace, rising above situations and people who put her down, and for always taking the high road.
How can women empower other women?
There are quite a number of networks that bring women together to collaborate and learn from each other, and I see women being more supportive of each other. This year is Carrie K.’s 10th Birthday. To celebrate, we are working with AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) to create advocacy for single mums. We are still a small business, but we want to start giving back to the community in a small way. We plan to launch our re-invention of the classic pearl necklace on the 29th of March, and we pledge to donate $50 for every pearl necklace sold to AWARE to support this cause.
What is key to your success in turning a passion into a passion business?
Carrie K. has been consistent in what we stand for, even as we evolve with our customer’s needs – we tell meaningful stories through our versatile, modern heirloom jewellery. We create designs that sprinkle a little magic in our customers lives by capturing important stories and milestones through our designs, that mothers love to wear, and daughters want to “steal”. Through jewellery, we hope to connect people through the stories we tell.
Advertising has also helped me understand how to build a brand that can bring like-minded people together, to positively impact our community. We’re calling this community our “Pearls of Society” to tie it in with the launch of our re-invention of the classic pearl necklace. Born of grit, the pearl, is an apt analogy of the women I admire – women who take challenges head on, and have the grit to turn tough situations into something beautiful.
How can brands stay relevant, especially in today’s increasingly fickle economy?
Stay connected with customers to know what is important to them, and add value to their lives. Know why you exist for your customers and deliver on that purpose without compromise.
What holds many local designers and labels from flourishing?
Successful design businesses focus on the business of design, not just design … successful designers know their customers well. Hence, they create products for their customers, not for themselves. It is up to Singapore brands to create products and designs that people value, creating a differentiated, relevant brand that people covet, and not just a commodity that people can compare purely on price – that’s important.
What drives you to better the local design scene? What is the next goal?
There is a lot of talent in Singapore that people have never heard of, people that are scattered all over the island. I also know many people who are looking for unique designs that are of good quality. I just created the bridge to bring both together through the Keepers experience, that tells each designers’ unique story.
I will continue to create beacon events like Keepers Red Letter Sale – the largest Singapore designer sale. I am really proud that it has become one of the most anticipated local sale events. This January, we hosted the second edition of the Keepers Red Letter Sale with over 50 Singapore designer brands, across two floors of the National Design Centre. The response has been fantastic, so we will be hosting the Keepers Red Letter Sale, annually.
Three tips for women who are thinking of starting a passion business …
Have a clear vision of your purpose and the value your brand brings to people.
Deliver it with passion, because passion is infectious.
Find the right people who share your vision, because with the support of the right people, anything is possible.
Photography TONY TING PHOTOGRAPHY
Styling XINDI SIAU
Hair and Makeup FIONA B MAKEUP
Location THE GREAT ROOM (NGEE ANN CITY)