Today’s interview is with not one, but two fabulous, beautiful and very accomplished women – Elsa Kurniawan and Katiana Sukamto, founders of the brand Katiana.
Elsa and Katiana were fascinating to speak with for several reasons. First, because they both are incredibly stylish themselves – with a passion for quality and easy to use products that shines in their personal style. Second, because they both have first hand experience in starting a luxury goods company – everything from the sourcing to pricing to marketing – they’ve done it all. And finally, because they are both down to earth and intelligent, with the global experience of having lived all around the world. I really enjoyed speaking with them and learning more about both the ladies themselves personally and about Katiana, the brand they’ve worked hard to build. Enjoy meeting them (and read til the end for a special invite from the ladies)!
Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
Katiana: I am Katiana and as I describe myself on Instragram as a “crocodile trader and casino pawn in the Asian Southeast”. I am based out of Singapore where I work in the gaming industry while I run our company of crocodile goods with Elsa.
Elsa: I am Elsa Kurniawan, my focus is to monitor the manufacturing of our crocodile line. I too contribute my time helping my father run his business. I am based out of Jakarta and Singapore.
You recently started a luxury goods brand – Katiana. Can you share some of the background behind the brand? What prompted you two to start it?
Katiana: It was 2009 and I had just finished my post grad degree in New York. The world was suffering from an economic crisis and so I gave job hunting a break and went to visit my family in Singapore for the holidays. I ended up staying for four months! The 太太 (tai tai – Lady of Leisure) lifestyle gets old after a couple of months and after many lunch dates, Elsa and I decided we needed to do something with our time. (In all fairness she was waiting to open up her shop so she wasn’t bumming around like me!).
We both appreciate the finer things in life and we wanted to create something that we would love and also use frequently. At the time my wardrobe lacked quality crocodile pieces because at the age of 24 years old ,they aren’t affordable to most! So we decided to start a crocodile line. We figured, if worse came to worst we would have a bunch of beautiful samples that we could give away as gifts for years to come.
I know that you both are fans of Hermes, which has produced luxury crocodile items for many years. Can you share some of your favorite pieces? How do you view items from Katiana versus those from Hermes?
Katiana: I’m a fan of a lot of labels! My favorite Hermes item was one of my DIY projects. My mom had a gorgeous red Birkin 35 with gold hardware that had succumbed to the humid weather of Singapore. It had clouds of mold all over the skin that looked like dirty water had splashed it. I sent it to the Hermes Spa but mold is the one thing they can’t clean out. I had the outside dyed black but kept the interior red and I love how it turned out. I call it my Louboutin Birkin hahaha. Second to that, I love my cashmere silk scarves, I usually pick one during my travels so each one reminds me of a different trip. Oh and of course there is my silver CDC bracelet that Elsa got me for my birthday a couple years ago. Best. Business. Partner. Ever.
Katiana crocodile and Hermes both offer luxury handbags but our aesthetics and price points are completely different. We use supple crocodile skins and aim to have that buttery texture translated in most of our pieces and our soft clutch really embodies that. Hermes designs in crocodile tend to be more structured. As for price, here’s an example: you can purchase a soft clutch in each of our 14 colors for the price of one and half crocodile Birkins!
Elsa: I think it is safe to say that most girls love Hermes. Some of my favorite Hermes pieces, would be the matching silk-cashmere 140 scarf that Katiana, Lisa (my sister) and I have, my black Birkin that I have worn to death and my very first black Porosus crocodile Birkin that was given to me by mom when I was 19.
Hermes is a brand that has been in existence for decades, their simple yet well thought out designs and superb quality are what keeps them alive. Simplicity goes a long way. Like Hermes, we try to keep our designs simple and try to focus on educating our customers about the uniqueness of crocodile skin.
A question for Katiana – you started in banking and then decided to go pursue a degree in jewelry design. What prompted you to make that decision? Any favorite jewelry brands or pieces?
Katiana: I come from a family of very strong minded business individuals and so it was a natural fit for me to study finance during my undergraduate life. However I have always had a love for jewelry. Don’t most women? I blame my mother! As a young child she would read auction catalogues to me and teach me about the 4Cs and investment quality diamonds.
I always knew it was important for me to have a creative outlet. In high school I did theater, art and singing. After graduating from NYU, I frankly wasn’t ready to leave Manhattan but I also knew I didn’t want to be a banker so I went back to school (without actually leaving).
Honestly, I don’t know how to tell you which jewelry brands I love because I am able to appreciate a spectrum of styles. Everyone loves Cartier fine jewelry for their workmanship, especially their vintage pieces. But I also love to source for my own stones or take apart old pieces of jewelry from my mother’s collection and work my jeweler to design pieces. I no longer work at a jeweler’s bench after sawing into my own hand and burning my finger tips, I leave that to the pros.
All of my pieces are my favorite! I fell in love with each one for a different reason and so I really can’t pick just one. I started saving up my lunch money at a young age to start buying jewelry. It started with little white gold rings with the tiniest of diamonds and grew from there.
A question for Elsa – I know that you originally went to school to study the hospitality industry! What promoted you to change careers?
Elsa: I have always been fascinated with the hotel industry, both in the operations and the management sides of it. I have a degree in Hotel Management which basically covers a lot of the finance, accounting and of course the management side of the industry. Which means, I am fully equipped with the knowledge that could eventually help me branch out into different career paths.
My family is in the mining industry, which I am currently very much involved, in the day-to-day operations. If I must, I do go down to visit the mine site and I think the best way to learn is when you get your hands dirty and to know the field well.
So, clearly I have shifted my career direction away from the hospitality industry. However, that passion is still within me, and who knows maybe someday I will be able to venture in a hospitality business.
The Katiana brand and my father’s business are the two-core focus in my life. Working towards growing Katiana is an outlet for me to be creative and to relieve my stress. The best part of it all is, getting working with my partner, who happens to be my best friend. It doesn’t get better than that.
As the two of you have built Katiana, I’m sure you have learned a great deal about the luxury industry. What are some brands that you admire? What are some aspects of the luxury industry you’ve found less appealing?
Katiana: I admire brands that are able to stay relevant after many years in the industry. Every label has their ups and downs but I love buying iconic designs from one label and watching that design be reworked and tweaked while still retaining it’s original essence.
Luxury is perceived. The hardest part of my job is trying to explain to a customer why crocodile is more expensive than leather.
Elsa: I appreciate all kinds of brands and it’s creativity, especially brands that have evolved throughout the years and stayed true to its original signature yet, somehow managed to add some freshness to it.
What have been some of your greatest learnings from opening and operating your own store and brand?
Katiana: Focus is necessary. It’s all great in theory to open a store and have a company but when you actually do it that’s when you learn of all the little things that need to be done to get it going. I was fortunate that I have a business partner and a store manager who have different and strong skill sets in other areas that I may not be as experienced in and it’s essential to realize that working as a team gets you much further than working alone.
Elsa: The greatest learnings from building our brand would be consistency, discipline, focus and support from one another. My partner and I have different strengths and qualities that we both acknowledge and appreciate to make this business work. Gene, who we’ve appointed to be a Manager for Katiana has worked with us for quite some time. She has brought a lot of skills to the table that contributes a lot to our company. I am definitely blessed to have such great people in this company.
The philosophy of your brand is “high quality luxury accessories that cost less than yearly salaries”. How are you able to provide a great price point while preserving quality, in light of what other luxury brands charge for similar products?
Katiana: We work directly with our farm and factory and we currently sell directly to our customers. We keep our overhead as low as possible and because this company was born out of love, we take a token salary out of it. All of our profit is reinvested into the company to improve our skin finishings and also to experiment with other new techniques.
Elsa: As my partner mentioned, we work very closely with our farm and manufacturer. This allows us to explore and research different techniques. We love to try out different designs to see which are under a workable cost to keep our retail price points appealing.
What are some of your all time favorite items in your wardrobes?
Katiana: Right now, a sample of our gold brushed Katiana crocodile clutch that I borrowed from Elsa months ago and never returned (I’m waiting for our SS13 collection to come in so I can finally claim my own). Costume necklaces I found from a Hong Kong based designer, Venna (I’m literally wearing one of them right now as I type this). Hand me down jewelry from my grandmother and mother; diamond studs, vintage Cartier bamboo bangles.
Elsa: My mother’s vintage Chaumet 24 carat gold clutch, my father’s hand-me-down watches, my ring collections, my Alexander Wang muscle Ts, and my roller Louboutin spikes. I love them all…
What are some of your other passions and hobbies?
Katiana: I love jewelry. Fine, semi-precious, costume. As a little girl my mother would flip through auction catalogues with me and teach me about diamond grading and jewelry as investment pieces. Since then I have grown an appreciation for all types of jewelry. After my undergraduate degree at Stern NYU I went on to do a postgrad degree in Jewelry Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Design and the mechanism of jewelry fascinate me the most. And of course, travel!
Elsa: I don’t have specific passions or hobbies; I love to try new things to keep my life colorful. However, since Katiana introduced me to Karaoke, I am totally hooked!
Finally, please share something surprising about yourself!
Elsa: Two things:
a) Katiana knows my thoughts way before I can begin to interpret it for myself.
b) I have claimed that I am not a romantic, but DEEP DEEP down inside, I think I still believe in the existence of romance.
Really, how charming are Elsa and Katiana? I loved getting to know more about them (and their beautiful products)! It’s much harder than it may seem to launch an entirely new luxury brand and do it with the fantastic execution and good grace that these two ladies have. They were also both kind enough to invite readers to their Christmas party this coming Saturday at their flagship shop at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. If any of you are around and would like to attend, details are in the image above, and please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org and mention that you are a reader. Thank you Katiana and Elsa for the invite and for sharing some of your lives here with us today!