You know designer Carolyn Kan for her jewellery brand and her Keepers initiative, but you probably didn’t know about her Little Birdie Service, which lets you send out a personalised note to a loved one about a piece of jewellery you have been eyeing – to save them the risk of getting a bad gift.
“Once, a husband was on his way to a business conference in another country when he received the prompt about his anniversary the next day,” says Carolyn. He speedily placed an order and said to “please make sure she gets that tomorrow”. Carrie K. duly obliged.
As for Carolyn’s own husband Chiew Huan Chong, he’s the head of production for the home-grown brand – which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. He, of course, doesn’t need reminding about the Carrie K. story. The brand was started by Carolyn after she left her managing director role at advertising agency M&C Saatchi, and went to Italy to learn Italian. She didn’t quite master the language, but picked up the craft of silversmithing instead.
“Florence is one of my favourite cities. Every corner you walk to is rich with culture and detail. What inspires me is the time taken to make something and expressing it in a refreshing way by telling a story,” explains the 46-year-old, who loves travel and museum visits.
“One of my favourites is an anthology of Alexander McQueen at the V&A Museum in London,” she explains. “His work is amazing – there’s a strong culture of craftsmanship, but it was also the way the museum presented the narrative. It inspired me to look at different ways of telling a story.”
You could say that her travels started an ethos that she still applies: finding modern ways to tell a story while honouring old-school craftsmanship.
Drawing from the Singapore story
Stories form the backbone of Carolyn’s sensibility and success. They’re the springboard from which her designs and collaborations take form, and she has a knack for turning the traditional into something contemporary and wearable. But it’s also this sense of curiosity and wonder that helps her grow. Carrie K. is now more focused on topics closer to Carolyn’s heart than when she first pumped $60,000 into starting the business.
“I was at Paris Fashion Week when I was asked what story I would tell of Singapore,” she recalls. It prompted some soulsearching, because the stories that the brand previously designed around hinged on the beauty in imperfection (A Beautiful Mess) and not taking the mundane for granted (Nut and Bolt).
The result: her first modern heirloom collection, Heritage – launched in 2018 after two years of production. It is inspired by Peranakan tiles, which are frequently sighted on old buildings in Little India, Chinatown and Geylang Serai. “For this collection, we looked at the stories that parents want to pass on to their children,” she says.
This was followed by the Star collection a few months later, based on the star motif that often adorns the woven Malay songket. “It’s an analogy of what I really appreciate about the Malay kampung spirit,” explains Carolyn. “I love the fact that the door is always open and there’s a spirit of wanting to help your neighbour.” It includes accessories such as ear jackets and rings that can be stacked atop one another, representing Singapore’s multiculturalism.
That’s the thing about Carrie K: There’s never just one way to wear the pieces. It has been versatile from day one, but it’s simply something the brand is paying more attention to. It also helps that its technical know-how has evolved.
“We are now creating and engineering our own custom-cut gems, so that our pieces can be worn a few different ways,” says Carolyn. With ease, she demonstrates the 15 ways in which a Pearl of Wisdom necklace can be worn.
The evolution of Carrie K.
Last year, the jewellery introduced its first Si Jin collection. (Si dian jin refers to the traditional Teochew wedding gift of jewellery from the groom’s parents to the bride.) The aesthetic is more “grownup” – in response to customers seeking timeless modern heirlooms and not just trendy accessories.
“We design for mums to wear during the day, and hopefully their daughters want to steal them,” says Carolyn with a laugh.
That’s also why she has a bespoke design service with an heirloom-revival option: An old piece of jade, for instance, can be incorporated into a modern statement necklace.
As you can tell, Carolyn is in tune with her clients’ wants. From her agency days, she learnt the importance of building communities and knows that clients are her biggest advocates and word-of-mouth supporters.
Carolyn is also inspired by her own aesthetic – classic with a twist – and this shows in her brand’s pearl designs. “Pearls on their own can be too traditional for my personal aesthetic,” she says, which is why Carrie K. explores designing with this gem using different clasps. Now that the brand has a pearl bar, customers can even customise the length and add details.
In 2019, Carrie K. plans to ramp up its range of pearl designs, expanding on the Pearl of Wisdom series. “We’ve noticed that more people are shopping not just for solid gold pieces for si dian jin,” says Carolyn. “Pearls are more versatile. You can wear them on your special day, and they also suit the everyday.”
The story continues
@instagram TAKEOVER by @iampaigeparker for JOURNEY . partnerships are key . with my JBR and also my partner for the collab @carolyn.kan and her fab partner in life/in the boutique @chongshadyrepublic . so proud to join with @carolyn.kan and @chongshadyrepublic and @carriek_rocks — creating jewelry to personify how we’ve charted our journeys, while celebrating my book @dontcallmemrsrogers, all the while supporting @unwomensg — winning partnership
In 2018, Carolyn debuted the Journey collection with gemologist Paige Parker, featuring a compass icon. The story behind it was the desire “to empower women to chart their life and direct their own journey rather than let life take over”.
The Singapore Committee for UN Women receives a portion of the proceeds.
“It’s natural to gravitate towards things we are comfortable with, but these collaborations have got us to interrogate themes and stories that we wouldn’t normally,” says Carolyn. Still, the brand has thrived because Carolyn knows what it stands for, even as it evolves. It’s not just about pretty jewellery but wearing something that tells a story.
Equal parts designer and entrepreneur, Carolyn has one eye on the brand’s DNA and another on the future. She is involved in deciding the curriculum at arts institutions NAFA and Lasalle, helping to spot relevant programmes so that the students absorb more than theory. She also runs an internship programme under Carrie K., where she helms a team of eight staff working across design, marketing, production and retail. She believes that even aspiring designers could use commercial experience because when designers create work, they need to know whom they are creating for.
As a Singapore designer, Carolyn is anything but unappreciated. For starters, she bagged triple honours – the inaugural Bespoke Award, Best Collaboration of the Year prize, and Champion for Creatives and Designers Award – at the Singapore Fashion Awards 2017.
“The life of a creative is a life of rejection, because you never know when people are going to take to an idea or not. So having that affirmation that it’s something people appreciate really helps and boosts confidence,” she says of her accolades.
She's a keeper
Driven by her passion to further spotlight local talent, Carolyn gives back by highlighting Singapore crafts and craftsmanship through Keepers, a collective of independent design brands. Since 2011, it has morphed from featuring a handful of Singapore brands in the rst Carrie K. Newton shophouse to a full-blown event with more than 150 designers, craftsmen and artists in the National Design Centre (NDC), where the Carrie K. atelier is now located.
In 2018, the Keepers Playground of Infinite Happiness at the NDC showcased more than 100 vendors over two weekends. About 47,000 visitors showed up. “It gives us the opportunity to touch base with the founders rather than just knowing them by name,” says Jason Lee, founder of perfumery Scent by Six. It’s encouraging that there’s a growing appreciation for Singapore designs. “Other countries had centuries to cultivate their own work. Singapore is a young country, so I’m not discouraged by the small pool of people interested in arts and design,” Carolyn adds.
Home and away
Two years ago, Carolyn and her husband moved into her parents’ home, where their social life is going as strong as ever. “We’re both very sociable and like to meet people and listen to their stories,” she says. The couple enjoys cooking (everything from black pepper crab to sous vide dishes) and having friends over for Sunday brunch. “The last brunch we had, we sent the last guest home at 11.30pm,” she fondly recalls.
Out of the office, Carolyn also relaxes on walks amid greenery. “My husband and I go on and chat,” she says.
With regard to working with her husband, she says: “I don’t think there’s a separation between coming up with ideas in and out of work.” But she recognises that if you’re always bogged down in talking shop with your spouse, there’s no avenue for new ideas either. So if something work related comes to mind, she sends him an e-mail or message to discuss it during work hours.
And she has high praise for her husband: “He’s a MacGyver, and if there was ever a problem or the world was about to explode, he’d be able to sort it out with a safety pin.”
Shaping the future
Carrie K. was the first Singapore jewellery label to collaborate with Singapore Airlines by launching a limited-edition collection, The North Star, for the airline’s 70th anniversary. And after working with Disney on its Alice Through The Looking Glass debut, the partnership continued with a Beauty and the Beast line. So there’s no looking back. Carolyn says she has plans to expand overseas, but is mum about the details for now. I guess the next 10 years will tell.