THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH LYNN BAN

Singaporean Lynn Ban’s edgy jewellery is worn by stars such as Rihanna and Beyonce

Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna, Ellie Goulding and Beyonce, and model Cara Delevingne (above). -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna, Ellie Goulding and Beyonce, and model Cara Delevingne (above). -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna, Ellie Goulding and Beyonce (above), and model Cara Delevingne. -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna, Ellie Goulding and Beyonce (above), and model Cara Delevingne. -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna, Ellie Goulding (above) and Beyonce, and model Cara Delevingne. -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna, Ellie Goulding (above) and Beyonce, and model Cara Delevingne. -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna (above), Ellie Goulding and Beyonce, and model Cara Delevingne. -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Celebrities wearing Lynn Ban’s jewellery include singers Rihanna (above), Ellie Goulding and Beyonce, and model Cara Delevingne. -- PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Lynn Ban with parents Patricia and David Ban in 1976 and with her son Sebastian (above) this year. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LYNN BAN
Lynn Ban with parents Patricia and David Ban in 1976 and with her son Sebastian (above) this year. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LYNN BAN
Lynn Ban with parents Patricia and David Ban (above) in 1976 and with her son Sebastian this year. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LYNN BAN
Lynn Ban with parents Patricia and David Ban (above) in 1976 and with her son Sebastian this year. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LYNN BAN
Rihanna calls designer Lynn Ban (above) her fairy godmother and Ban says the pop singer is her muse. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Rihanna calls designer Lynn Ban (above) her fairy godmother and Ban says the pop singer is her muse. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Lynn Ban's edgy jewellery is worn by stars such as Rihanna and Beyonce

Unknown to many here, the jeweller of choice for some of the biggest names in pop music today, including Rihanna, Beyonce and Katy Perry, is Singaporean designer Lynn Ban.

Her namesake label Lynn Ban Jewelry, started three years ago, is an upstart of a brand. But A-listers from the music and fashion scenes have taken a shine to its bold and edgy designs, inspired by pop culture and featuring mainly black rhodium and diamonds.

Her jewellery has been featured on magazine covers including Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, W Magazine and Interview, as well as in the music videos by Rihanna, Beyonce, Perry, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj.

The 42-year-old says: "The woman I design for is empowered and confident and, in terms of fashion, she's here to make an impression."

With her smokey eyes and short, slicked-back hair, Ban looks like the embodiment of her rock star clientele, both fierce and glamorous. But during the interview with Life! , she is quick to smile and laugh over coffee, revealing a more gentle side.

Based in New York, the married mother of one is in town for her annual visit to see family and friends, and to take part in a trunk show of her jewellery at multi-label retailer Club 21, which has been stocking her pieces since 2012.

Her jewellery is priced from about US$300 (S$374) for a silver ring to about US$200,000 for a black rhodium and diamond cuff. From three countries in 2011, the label is now stocked in 17 countries, including Monaco and Abu Dhabi.

Memorable pieces include the Armour ring, a sculptural silver ring from her first collection that looks like armour when stacked; and the Gash cuff, a large black rhodium cuff that opens up to resemble a jagged wound embedded with diamonds. Other designs, such as a smoking lips lariat necklace inspired by Tom Wesselmann, take their cue from pop art.

Ban and her family lived in Katong before moving to New York when her father, a bank executive, was posted there to work for the then Chase Manhattan Bank. She was four then.

The family spent three years in New York before moving to Hong Kong in 1979. They returned to New York in 1982 and spent five more years there, after which they returned to Singapore.

Those years away were exciting, Ban recalls, as she often explored the cities with her parents. The elder of two siblings - her sister is younger by 19 years, she shares a close bond with her parents.

"We did everything together and there was a sense of curiosity and adventure," she says.

She looked up to her mother Patricia Ban, now 69, a former secretary with a savvy fashion sense. Mrs Ban studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion Design in New York - whose graduates include designers Anne Klein and Geoffrey Beene - and got her gemologist certificate during the family's two sojourns in the city.

A self-described quiet child who enjoyed reading and subjects such as history and literature, Ban attended the bilingual English and French private elementary school The Fleming School in New York.

Providing a hint of what was to come, her daily path to school was peppered with fashion influences. "My mother would walk me to and from school and we'd take a short cut though Blooming- dale's," she says fondly of the famous fashion emporium. She recalls shopping there with her mother, as well as the store's windows and visual displays.

She studied art history and literature at Cornell and New York University after graduating from the Singapore American School in 1989. She also studied art history for two years at Paris-Sorbonne University.

She met her husband Jett Kain, now 46, as a college student. Then a reporter and TV producer at entertainment channel MTV, he was covering a New Year's Eve party in Miami in 1994 thrown by Donatella Versace. Ban was there as her hairstylist's plus-one.

Kain was drawn to her instantly and asked for her telephone number.

He recalls with a big grin: "At first, she wouldn't even speak to me. She even gave me a wrong number."

The two reconnected a few months later at a dinner thrown by mutual friends and married in 1999. They have a six-year-old son, Sebastian, and live in an apartment in the upscale Tribeca neighbourhood in New York.

Kain now works full-time doing press and marketing at Lynn Ban Jewelry and is his wife's biggest cheerleader. On the day of the photo shoot for this report, Ban looks to her husband for reassurance as she strikes poses for the photographer.

The couple have a strong rapport. After Ban graduated in 1996, they took the Genki Sushi franchise - which Ban's father owned and launched here and in Hong Kong - to the United States.

Mr David Ban, now 70, says she has always shown a steely core, adding: "Lynn was always determined to do well, whether it was in school or at work. She grew up talking shop with me, so when she showed an entrepreneurial streak, I was more than happy to have her try something different."

Launching the restaurant in Manhattan was a crash course in running a business for her. She says: "I learnt a lot about managing the business as well as people."

The business did "okay" and a second branch opened at the World Financial Centre, near the ill-fated World Trade Centre. But the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks led to its closure and the New York franchise was later sold in 2002. During her days at Genki, she grew serious about collecting vintage fashion. She found the hobby, which she started in her teenage years with her mother, fun and exciting. "I once found a black sequined Courreges gown in the Upper East Side Goodwill store for US$10," she says of a vintage find she later saw documented in a book.

In her 20s, she began picking up pieces from fashion houses such as Chanel, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent from the 1950s to 1970s.

Her love of vintage paid off. A cousin introduced her to famed fashion designer Donna Karan in 2002 and she worked on a project sourcing vintage lifestyle, fashion and jewellery items as inspiration for the American designer.

That same year, Ban parlayed her experience with vintage fashion into a business, where she collected vintage clothing and jewellery that was stocked in luxury department stores Harvey Nichols in London and Barneys in New York.

She scoured flea markets and auctions in London and Paris, amassing a network of private contacts for her vintage collection, which hung next to brands such as Prada at the retailers.

Her vintage gems made their way to the pages of fashion glossies too. Through Kain's connections in the fashion world, stylists learnt of Ban's extensive archives and began borrowing vintage costume jewellery for fashion spreads, such as for a Vogue Italia shoot by well-known photographer Steven Meisel.

These stylists asked Ban to create something herself. She says of her start in 2011: "The years of studying and researching the past cultivated a desire to create something in the present too."

Her first creation was an eight-piece collection, which included the Armour rings. Her dramatic, sculptural quality was evident from the start.

Heeding her mother's advice - "If you do not want to wear it, nobody will" - she designs for her own tastes, which veer towards a streamlined urban warrior style with a fondness for Rick Owens and Azzedine Alaia, who are known for their edgy designs. She closed the vintage business when she started designing jewellery.

She may lack formal design training, but she is au fait with the creative process and the New York jewellery district, where her pieces are now produced.

She comes up with a concept and design, then works with sketch artists who create technical drawings. It takes about eight to 10 weeks for each of the biannual collections to be completed. She has three full-time employees in her office in New York.

She says her lack of formal training both helped and hindered. While her creativity was unfettered, she did not know which designs were viable. "In the beginning, the jewellers were a bit taken aback by the hard edge and unconventional designs but over time, they really embraced my aesthetic."

Asked about the challenges in her life, she says: "I don't feel that my setbacks define me at all. I choose to learn from them and move on. It's not a mistake unless you regret it and I have no regrets."

One of her big breaks came from her first celebrity client, pop star Rihanna, who wore a Lynn Ban cuff during a performance on American Idol in May 2012. Her American stylist Mel Ottenberg says on the telephone from New York: "The reason I was drawn to Lynn's jewellery was that it was cool and didn't look like everything else. They were these incredible diamond pieces but not precious."

Rihanna has been one of Ban's biggest champions, wearing the pieces during performances such as her Monster Tour last month and when she is off-duty. On Instagram, she has even called Ban her "fairy godmother", to which Ban says: "If I'm that to her, then she's my muse."

Rihanna has been a literal source of inspiration too, with the flexible coil rings in Ban's collection born out of a need for jewellery that would not impede the grip of a mic.

Swedish stylist B. Akerlund, who has worked with Beyonce, Madonna and Britney Spears, has adorned her star clients with Ban's pieces because "her designs feel modern yet timeless... a shoot without Lynn's jewellery would not be complete", she says in an e-mail reply to Life!.

Despite her high-powered clientele, Ban remains grounded and proud of her Singaporean roots. She says: "It's important for me to be known and recognised in Singapore because this is my home."

She declines to reveal sale figures except to say that sales have quadrupled since the label was launched. And not "a single penny" of the money has been spent on advertising, she adds proudly.

She credits her quick ascent to a combination of hard work and the ability to take risks and say no. She chooses her stockists carefully and turns down any place where she would not shop herself.

"What keeps me going is the challenge to top myself and appeal to such stylish women," says Ban of her clientele, both celebrity and civilians. "What I'd consider success is to be relevant even in 100 years."

llim@sph.com.sg