WY-LENE YAP: What are you currently focused on or most excited about?
CAROLYN KAN: Well, Keepers was almost a two-year journey for me, and what started out as my “extracurricular activity” became my day job, while Carrie K became my night job. We have just wrapped up all our pop-ups in January and now I’m really excited to work on new ideas for our upcoming collections. Being involved in Keepers has fuelled my thinking and storytelling—so many conversations that I had are trapped in my head waiting to become a piece of jewellery. And I cancelled all travel plans for 3 months, so we can focus on design and production.
WY-LENE: Where do your ideas come from when designing a collection?
CAROLYN: When we design a full collection, it could take 3 months to 6 months, or even a year because we need to experiment with various techniques. I have an ‘ideas bank’, which is literally my notebook—I don’t draw well, so I call them ‘chicken scratchings’, and the moment I have an idea, I will pen it down. Sometimes, a seed of an idea can form a full collection. For example, A Beautiful Mess was about my observations on how Singapore is so incredibly focused on being tidy and orderly, yet there is so much beauty in irregularity and imperfection. Hence, I wanted to create a collection whereby people could see beauty in disorder. At that time, I was also doing research on Jackson Pollack...
WY-LENE: I am a huge fan of his work and I love his technique of letting paint drip and splatter on the floor.
CAROLYN: Exactly! And I thought to myself: what must he have gone through when people were questioning his technique—because to them, paint splattering wasn’t art. Based on that, I decided to create jewellery composed of spills and splatters. Once the collection was launched, I did not think that many people would take to it, but they did, which was surprising. I was also amazed by how people were attracted to something different and quirky, and some of them were even lawyers who bought the leather bibs. It becomes their little piece of armour too.
WY-LENE: How do you define beauty?
CAROLYN: Beauty is defined by the person. I struggle with how society determines what beauty is. With our jewellery designs, we want to challenge traditional notions of beauty and provide a different perspective. My mother is almost 80 years old, and while I thought her approach would be more traditional and classical, she loves A Beautiful Mess because she has not seen anything like it before.
WY-LENE: Do you still have the first silver ring that you made in Florence?
CAROLYN: Yes, I do! [laughs]
WY-LENE: What did you make after that?
CAROLYN: It was a stack of three rings called the stoneage rings. Two were very simple, organically imperfect bands, and the last one was a thinner ring with a small pebble on top. When I was creating them, I thought: if the Flintstones were to make jewellery, what would it look like? So I purposely wanted something that wasn’t perfect. The funny thing was in the process of producing more to sell, the other silversmiths tried to make it perfect. And they would file the ring down to make it symmetrical. Eventually, they realised that our design finish was more natural and organic. I still wear that ring a lot.
WY-LENE: You used to be in advertising, and getting a message to stick lies in the art of storytelling. What’s the best story you’ve heard?
CAROLYN: [long pause] I don’t know the best story I’ve heard, but from my personal experience, the best story I know is nothing is impossible—and my whole life has been about that. Since young, my mum has inculcated in me the notion of ‘the only wrong you can do is not trying’. So I made the switch from advertising to become a jewellery designer even though I didn’t have any background. That being said, I think my biggest challenge was Keepers. When we did the pop-up at Orchard road, it started as a conversation in February 2014 on how we can help the design industry. What struck me was people were not aware of the diversity and richness of our design community here—they don’t associate Singapore with design because people cannot see the works of the designers as they are scattered all over the island. We do have a lot of talent, which was why I suggested bringing a selection of independent designers and artisans from diverse categories together. But it had to be in a very accessible and central location. Singapore Tourism Board [STB] and SPRING became involved and they suggested ‘a patch of grass’ that was next to the Singapore Visitor Centre. And I jumped on it immediately. We had about 74 days to design the space, construct it, find the designers, and put everything together. Everyone said it was never going to happen! And nobody was going to say yes! But at every step of the way, when everyone thought it was impossible, it came true. The key thing is having a shared vision and the right people who believe in that vision.
WY-LENE: What’s next for Keepers?
CAROLYN: I intend to grow the community. We’ve been pitching to try and build an enclave for designers to congregate and work—and it is not necessarily just for retail. It is to allow designers to sustain their business and focus on long-term growth.
It is very important to surround yourself with the right people, and if they want you to succeed, you will succeed.
WY-LENE: You started Carrie K in 2009. Throughout these 7 years, what are the crucial lessons you have learned?
CAROLYN: There are so many, and I could probably list a hundred. But to me, it is very important to surround yourself with the right people, and if they want you to succeed, you will succeed—because they will do everything to support you. You can’t do it alone. You know when you start a business, you don’t want to ask for help or trouble people. My sister is in PR, and she’s an amazing and strategic communications expert, so I would always bug her for help. There was one point when I thought I was imposing too much, but I realised I had to be really thick-skinned, and I reached out to everyone I needed help from. One day, when I am in a position to help them, I will pay it forward or return the help.
WY-LENE: I share the same philosophy.
CAROLYN: In some sense, Keepers provides help, advice, support, and a network for people in the creative community. That’s my way of giving back. In turn, I hope the creative community can help one another, because it is the only way we can grow together.
WY-LENE: Yeah, I absolutely agree, and hopefully, people here will not always have a competitive mindset too.
CAROLYN: The competition is not in Singapore—it’s global. If you compete within Singapore, you will die. It’s too small. The only way we can be taken seriously as a design community or city, is if we’re known for our work as a whole. And I think that’s starting to happen. In the past 18 months, what the designers have achieved and even outside of Keepers was more than I could have ever imagined. I am extremely proud of the team.
WY-LENE: How big is your team?
CAROLYN: Carrie K has 6 people, and I had a separate team for Keepers because it was a completely different outfit since we were very focused on retail. To be honest, I never wanted to go into retail because I knew how challenging it was. So it was quite ironic, but I learnt so much from that experience.
WY-LENE: How are sales doing at the moment?
CAROLYN: Sales have been really good, and Keepers has definitely helped the business. We have been growing every year, and in this past year, the area that has the greatest growth is our fine and bespoke jewellery. Sometimes, people are surprised when they find out we are from Singapore. Whenever we conduct workshops, people can see the difference between craftsmanship and something manufactured, and this gives them a better understanding of why our jewellery cost more.
WY-LENE: What are your most popular pieces?
CAROLYN: Our Nut & Bolt bracelets. It’s a great feeling when people come up to me and say, “Look! I am wearing your bracelet!”
CAROLYN: Recently, we also stock outside of Singapore (like Anthropologie), and it’s slightly surreal. Actually, many of our buyers are from the US, and I think our aesthetic appeals to them. I was at a trade show in New York Fashion Week, and I saw a lady wearing our Heavy Mettle necklace. I couldn't help but smile to myself secretly.
I love roller coasters and theme parks because there is a huge sense of wonder, and I try to re-create that feeling when you step into our atelier.
WY-LENE: How important is it to you that people who buy or wear your jewellery feel a certain way about it?
CAROLYN: I think people wear jewellery because they feel a certain affinity to it. I’ve never seen an unhappy customer when he or she wears our jewellery. Through our designs, we want to add a little playfulness into their lives. I love roller coasters and theme parks because there is a huge sense of wonder, and I try to re-create that feeling when you step into our atelier. When I was young, one of my favourite authors was Enid Blyton, and I loved The Faraway Tree series. So if you dig a bit deeper, our quirky deigns have stories you can uncover. Some of our biggest fans know all the stories in each different collection, and they find meaning in them. We also have customers who bought a piece of jewellery because it represented something important to them.
WY-LENE: You also have quotes by Dr. Seuss around your shop.
CAROLYN: I think Dr. Seuss is brilliant because he talks about very heavy topics in a humorous way. He doesn’t tell you this is right or this is wrong. He leaves it open to your own interpretation, and that playfulness and sense of humour draw you in. Not everyone will agree with our pursuit of imperfection, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you—you either like it or don’t.
WY-LENE: Are there differences between male and female consumer behaviour when it comes to jewellery?
CAROLYN: Oh, absolutely! I used to design only for women, but I discovered what men prefer when I started designing cufflinks for them. Men come to us for bespoke jewellery, as they are more particular about the way it is being made. Women like to have a variety of choices.
WY-LENE: What is your favourite metal?
CAROLYN: Definitely silver. It’s dynamic and oxidises, and has a mind of its own. For example, when my husband wears silver, it becomes gunmetal quickly. But for me, it still stays shiny and bright.
WY-LENE: In one of your interviews, you mentioned that silversmithing is dying in Singapore. How do you think we can revive that?
CAROLYN: Honestly, in Singapore, most people would do it as a hobby because of the cost. In order to make money, you would need to do something scalable or of high value. Furthermore, not many people possess that expertise, and it is much easier to work with craftsmen around our region.
WY-LENE: What does craftsmanship mean to you?
CAROLYN: Being obsessed about the quality of how something is made, as well as committing a certain level of care and time towards it.
WY-LENE: What did the First Lady of Iceland say when she saw your Burglar Ants ring?
CAROLYN: She is also a jewellery designer, and I wanted to show her pieces she probably hadn’t seen before. She loved the ring! The story behind the Burglar Ants ring is about the Five Cs of Singapore, and I wanted to play on that materialistic aspect. So, there are 3 ants that steal gems instead of sugar. I also explored using 3D technology because it allows us to refine small details to a level, which cannot be achieved by hand. If you look closely, you can even see the different faces of the burglar ants.
WY-LENE: What is your ultimate vision for Carrie K?
CAROLYN: Since storytelling is very important to us, I want to marry that with old school craftsmanship and create value and appreciation for our work. I also want to keep doing what we do—like a little fish swimming upstream.
WY-LENE: How do you bounce back quickly from setbacks?
CAROLYN: I look at everything as a learning experience. I always tell my team that making a mistake is not necessarily a bad thing. But you have to learn from it, and make sure you don’t repeat the mistake again. With Carrie K, I have made tons of mistakes, and I think those mistakes had to happen because it has shaped us into who we are today. 20 years ago, I told someone I wanted to be a silversmith. But if I had started at that time, I wouldn’t have accumulated so many amazing experiences, which have helped me view the world in a different lens.
WY-LENE: Miuccia Prada earned a PhD in political science, became a mime, then a member of the Italian Communist Party, thereafter, a women’s rights activist and subsequently, went on to become one of the world’s most iconic designers.
CAROLYN: Yeah, there isn’t a fixed path in life.
If you can find contentment in any situation, you will always be happy.
WY-LENE: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
CAROLYN: [long pause] That’s a tough one. You’re talking to someone who is an eternal optimist. [laughs] Perfect happiness to me is being content with wherever I am in life. I have met people who have very little, yet they’re still so happy and generous. When I was in Cambodia, I met a few kids who were selling postcards to support themselves, and they also wanted to learn English. I found a place that sold stationery, bought some pencils and paper, and gave it to them. When I came out of Angkor Wat, these kids were outside waiting for me, and they handed me postcards of their drawings. Later, one of them took me to their home, and I was shocked because it was a stilted house with 3 walls, and a plastic chair. They even asked me to stay for dinner and I thought to myself: Oh my gosh, I would finish your entire week’s supply of food! Although they didn’t have much, they were so incredibly generous and appreciative of what they had. If you can find contentment in any situation, you will always be happy.
WY-LENE: What’s the strangest thing you own?
CAROLYN: My husband and I are both hoarders, and we collect old artefacts. Ummm. . . I have the strangest thing that was given to me by my uncle—it is a very special gem [agate] that looks like a siew yoke [roasted pork belly].
WY-LENE: What is your most treasured possession?
CAROLYN: My dogs: Timone and Pumba.
WY-LENE: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
CAROLYN: I think I am at an age where I have come to terms with everything—once you have accepted that you’ve cellulite, there’s nothing you can’t accept. [laughs]
WY-LENE: What is your greatest fear?
CAROLYN: This is a good one. [long pause] Most of the time, I will tackle my fear head-on, and overcome it. When I first became the MD of M&C Saatchi, I decided to take singing lessons because I had a fear of public speaking. At the moment, I would say going into space.
WY-LENE: Do you fear death?
CAROLYN: No. If I were to die right now, I would die a happy person because I have lived so many lives, but most of all, I am surrounded by the most amazing people in my life—my family and friends. If you have the right village around you, you can do anything! I remember being MD at the age of 29, and running a company with 50 staff was pretty nerve wrecking. I wasn’t prepared for it at all—I said yes, not knowing what it entailed, and I was literally thrown in the deep end. During my 5 years as MD, there were periods when I was so stressed that I would wake up at 3am in the morning. But I had the right people who supported me.
WY-LENE: I know you’re a foodie. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
CAROLYN: Only one?
WY-LENE: You could have more. . .
CAROLYN: I have always admired Elsa Peretti’s work, so she would be one of them, and anyone who has been to space.
WY-LENE: If your husband wore more jewellery than you, would you still date him?
CAROLYN: Yes! My husband has joined the business as head of production, and sometimes he does wear more jewellery than me.
WY-LENE: Finally, what do you love the most about your job?
CAROLYN: Running Carrie K taps into so many things I love: design, making things, meeting people, and telling stories.