The Life Interview With Carolyn Kan

Carrie K founder Carolyn Kan took 'one-day sabbatical' and found passion in jewellery design 

Ms Carolyn Kan.
Ms Carolyn Kan.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
To raise awareness of Singapore design,Ms Carolyn Kan started Keepers, a gathering of designers, artisans and artists, and co-organised a pop-up space to showcase products by home-grown designers.
To raise awareness of Singapore design,Ms Carolyn Kan started Keepers, a gathering of designers, artisans and artists, and co-organised a pop-up space to showcase products by home-grown designers.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
My life so far: Ms Carolyn Kan when she was a baby (above), with her father, Mr Michael Kan, and sister, Geraldine.
My life so far: Ms Carolyn Kan when she was a baby (above), with her father, Mr Michael Kan, and sister, Geraldine.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CAROLYN KAN
My life so far: Ms Kan with her family, including her mother, Madam Mary Chew, and younger brother, Kenneth, at Christmas in the late 1970s.
My life so far: Ms Kan with her family, including her mother, Madam Mary Chew, and younger brother, Kenneth, at Christmas in the late 1970s.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CAROLYN KAN
My life so far: Ms Kan when she was 16 (above) and with her husband,Mr Chiew Huan Chong, who is head of production at Carrie K.
My life so far: Ms Kan when she was 16 (above) and with her husband,Mr Chiew Huan Chong, who is head of production at Carrie K.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CAROLYN KAN
My life so far: Ms Kan when she was 16 and with her husband,Mr Chiew Huan Chong (above), who is head of production at Carrie K.
My life so far: Ms Kan when she was 16 and with her husband,Mr Chiew Huan Chong (above), who is head of production at Carrie K.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CAROLYN KAN

Taking a year-long sabbatical to pursue the things she hoped to do "one day" reminded Carolyn Kan she wanted to be a silversmith

Many people hope that, one day, they will travel the world/write a novel/learn to surf/(insert dream here).

Jewellery designer Carolyn Kan, 43, went further.

In 2008, she embarked on what she calls a "one-day sabbatical".

She quit her high-octane job as managing director of top advertising agency M&C Saatchi. For a year, she pursued what she had always wanted to do, one day.

"I took my gap year at 36 years old. If I didn't, I would be in advertising forever. I wanted to learn and explore," says Ms Kan, who founded artisan jewellery label Carrie K after 11 years in advertising.

During her year-long hiatus, she hosted dinners for a secret supper club that she had co-founded with friends a few years earlier. At Lolla's Secret Suppers, strangers mingled over meals where menus and venues were disclosed only a day before.

All my interests had been bottled up because I was focused... on work. That year when I went on a sabbatical, the valve opened up.It was one of those subconscious things that fell into place.

''MS CAROLYN KAN, founder of artisan jewellery label Carrie K, on recalling she wanted to be a silversmith during her year-long break from advertising

She dabbled in a business importing boutique champagne, which took her to France.

She also travelled to Britain and Italy. While taking Italian-language lessons in Florence, Italy, she was introduced to a silversmith and decided to do a month-long apprenticeship with her.

As she made her first jewellery item, a silver ring, she felt a lump in her throat. "It was the moment I knew I wanted to be a silversmith and a designer. In my mind, that was when Carrie K started."

It was an epiphany that paid off.

She launched Carrie K the following year, sinking in $200,000 of her savings. The label took in $19,000 in sales in 2009.

More than six years on, Carrie K has reached new heights.

Last week , the brand inked a deal with Disney for a year-long collaboration to design a series of jewellery.

While she declines to reveal financial details, other brands that have designed Disney jewellery include Irish designer Tom Binns' eponymous label, whose statement necklaces have been worn by American First Lady Michelle Obama; as well as Pandora, a Danish brand known for its charm bracelets.

Unbeknownst to her, what she terms her "second life" had been waiting in the wings for years. It emerged as a possibility in her mind only when she was freed from the constraints of her job.

"It was almost like all my interests had been bottled up because I was focused on advertising, on work. That year when I went on a sabbatical, the valve opened up," she says.

"It was one of those subconscious things that fell into place."

Go-getter who wants to give back

Before she went to Florence, she was already a "jewellery junkie" who had amassed a collection of hundreds of pieces, ranging from Peranakan brooches to vintage and Art Deco items - enough to "start a shop".

Studying in the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Victoria Street, before the school moved to Toa Payoh, she was fascinated by the craftsmanship shown by a nun there, who made handicrafts to raise funds, such as a hanging mobile using a feather and cork.

In university in Melbourne, Australia, where she majored in psychology, she started a sketchbook of jewellery designs, the eventual basis for Carrie K creations.

At a job interview in her 20s, when asked what job she would do if she was not in advertising, she replied she would be a silversmith and forgot about it for 10 years.

Returning to Singapore from Italy, she enrolled in a two-year part- time jewellery design programme at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa).

In July 2009, she started Carrie K by working from the kitchen table of her terrace house in Opera Estate, which she shares with her husband, Mr Chiew Huan Chong, 49, who is head of production at Carrie K. They have no children.

A year later, her label won Elle Singapore magazine's award for Jewellery Designer of the Year and her star started to rise.

Carrie K is sold in seven countries besides Singapore, where it is carried in stores such as Tangs Orchard.

The label, whose pieces are priced between $90 and $50,000, has appeared in international magazines such as Vogue Italia and Harper's Bazaar Australia, and has been seen on celebrities such as actress and model Angelababy and tennis player Caroline Wozniacki.

To build the business, she courted local magazine editors by sending them photos of Carrie K pieces. She attended trade shows held during Paris Fashion Week, Seoul Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week.

One of the strengths of Ms Kan's "quirky" style is her ability to "translate everyday elements into wearable jewellery", says Ms Joanne Low, founder and principal designer of Singapore jewellery brand Joanne L.

Carrie K's Reborn collection, launched in 2011, features safety pins and nails. Cartier launched its Juste Un Clou collection, which features nail rings and bracelets, later and the pieces were inspired by its 1970s collections.

Hong Kong lifestyle brand Kapok is showcasing a Carrie K capsule collection inspired by window hooks found on the shutters of heritage shophouses.

Apart from Ms Kan and her husband, Carrie K has four other full- time staff. The couple's two schnauzers, who wear crystal-studded dog collars, are fixtures at Carrie K Atelier, a 990 sq ft work studio- cum-showroom in Bukit Timah Road, which they moved to in 2011.

Ms Kan also has a "village" of about 50 suppliers and craftsmen around the world, from whom she sources materials such as gemstones.

She says her supportive husband of 16 years has been "sucked into" the business.

Mr Chiew used to be the general manager of the Shanghai branch of an international aluminium firm. In Singapore, he set up a photography business before assuming his role in Carrie K, where he is in charge of production and photography.

He says: "I was 25 years in the metal industry; there's not a huge difference between two slightly different kinds of metal, for example. I'd always been interested to know a little bit more."

"My taking a supporting role in Carrie K works better because she's strong at marketing. We bounce ideas off each other," says Mr Chiew, who took the same Nafa jewellery design course that his wife did.

Ms Kan says her husband is a better craftsman than her, although he disagrees. He says: "Carrie has always been an easy-going person. Working with her is like second nature. It's no different from us deciding where to go on vacation or which restaurant to eat at."

Nevertheless, Ms Kan says it took a year for her to adjust to their different working styles. She had to learn to give him space to formulate his ideas.

"When I'm focused on something, I'm tenacious until I get to a solution," she says. "He lets things percolate and explores options."

Besides her husband, she credits her mother and older sister for giving her "courage" to take the plunge at key junctures of her life, such as starting Carrie K and, earlier, accepting the job to head M&C Saatchi at the age of 29.

Her mother, a retired optometrist, and her father, a retired finance director, are in their 70s. She has a public relations consultant sister, 48, and a brother, 42, who works in finance.

"Mum always encouraged us to try things out, to experiment," says Ms Kan.

She recalls her mother, Ms Mary Chew, telling her about how her maternal grandfather from Malaysia, a clerk, used to cycle between Ipoh and Penang for work. He started a business supplying steel ropes only after he retired.

"That's probably why I have this notion ingrained in me that nothing is impossible, that age is not relevant," she says. "I explored and threw myself into things that I found I was passionate about."

In her late teens, an inspirational teacher who taught ancient civilisations had her devouring all the books in the library on Mycenae and Troy. This interest later took root in Carrie K's 2012 Odyssey collection.

Inspired by mythological figure Odysseus' journeys, the pieces in this collection are designed to look like antiques.

This way of learning through trying things out, however, meant that for a couple of years as a young adult, she "absolutely did not know what I wanted to do".

She worked in retail and events management before settling on advertising.

"Advertising heavily influenced me. I went from being in a business to running a business," she says, recalling how she had to manage about 50 staff at M&C Saatchi, some of whom were older than her.

Her early rise there was partly fuelled by a go-getting attitude.

At the multinational advertising agency, she recalls asking for more responsibilities wherever she found "a chance to contribute", such as when she asked to present pitches for new business as a junior executive, a task often given to senior personnel.

In 2011, she initiated Keepers, a quarterly gathering of designers, artisans and artists to raise awareness of home-grown design. Among those whom she hosted in the early days were a milliner, a patissier and a terrarium-maker.

"I thought, if I don't do it, nobody will. It's up to us to develop the design community," she says.

When she was showing at Paris Fashion Week, she was struck by how people did not know Singapore had designers and thought of the city only as a financial centre.

A desire to give back also stemmed from the fact that many people had helped her in setting up Carrie K, she says.

In 2014, she co-organised, with the Textile and Fashion Federation, a 16-month pop-up space, Keepers: Singapore Designer Collective. It was the largest showcase yet of home-grown products by more than 50 Singapore designers ranging from fashion to architecture to furniture.

The 4,300 sq ft space at the junction of Orchard and Cairnhill roads recently ended its run.

Ms Lynette Lee, chief executive officer of Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore, says Ms Kan's"never-give-up attitude" helped the project, which had a tight, 21/2- month deadline, from approval to building the site to securing designers.

For Ms Kan, designing jewellery for her own label provides all the satisfaction she previously found in advertising, and more.

"Jewellery is a happy business. It's for celebrating and commemorating things," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'Fine day to live a dream'. Print Edition | Subscribe