Cover Photo: Instagram / @kellymili

Here’s all you need to know about Kwanpen, the exotic leather bag brand embraced by high society’s most stylish

You might have already seen a Kwanpen bag. Perhaps you watched Jamie Chua unbox one of their crocodile leather handbags in a YouTube video, or you spotted one in an Instagram post shared by Bling Empire’s Kelly Mi Li.

What you probably didn’t know is that Kwanpen is a homegrown luxury label that rivals the style and quality of even the most coveted handbags from European fashion brands. Established in colonial-era Singapore all the way back in the 1930s, the brand has built a business out of bags handcrafted from the highest quality of exotic leathers—and each design is made in-house.

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Now a third-generation family business, Kwanpen’s Singaporean heritage and immaculate quality have been carefully preserved by the inheriting family members, including Jonathan Kwan, grandson of founder Kwan Pen Seng.

The latter Kwan founded the brand in 1938. He was an apprentice goldsmith hailing from Kaiping in southern China. His dream was to start a business with his goldsmithing skills, but gold was an expensive commodity; the capital needed to start a business was too large.

Instead, Kwan turned to another trade where his skills could be used: leather bag repairs. This was something which his clientele, comprising mostly of British servicemen and their wives, often used. Over time, Kwan had built up a good reputation from repairing and dissecting different types of leather goods. He soon struck gold and hit upon another business idea. He could start his own leather goods brand. To differentiate his label from competitors, he decided to solely use exotic leathers, mainly that of crocodile. That’s a rule that the brand sticks to today.

Kwanpen’s leathers include both crocodile and alligator skins sourced from around the world. Niloticus crocodile leather from Africa features slightly larger scales than porosus crocodile skin, which originates in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Alligator skins can be differentiated from crocodile skins according to their tiling, or the small squares which make up their pattern. The latter has smaller, more symmetrical scales moving out from the middle. 

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Ensuring that your luxury bag is made of genuine and safely sourced exotic leather is of utmost importance to collectors, which is why Kwanpen provides certification with all of its bags. The Cites certificate, which confirms that a leather has been sustainably sourced, is also essential for exporting your bag outside of the country where you purchased it. 

Besides its use of exotic materials, Kwanpen upholds tradition by designing and making all of its designs in Singapore. Jonathan Kwan expanded on the production chain, sharing that “every stitch and cut of the leather is done at the Kwanpen HQ, with only the metal fittings of the bags coming from Italy”.

He revealed that Kwanpen only produces 5,000 bags a year, with each taking around 42 hours to be made. Crocodile leather and other exotic skins are known for being exceptionally difficult materials to work with, a detail which is often reflected in their high prices. “Each piece of leather is as unique as your fingerprint and the leather would be easily creased if the craftsman is not skilled enough,” says Kwan.

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Aside from its craft traditions and the high quality of its bags, Kwanpen also credits its success to its strong roots as a Singaporean brand. 

Perhaps there is no better symbol or landmark of the nation’s colonial history than the Raffles Hotel, and Kwanpen agrees. The luxury label’s iconic Raffles Centennial bag was designed with the silhouette of the hotel in mind and was launched to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles. Similarly, the Raffles 1819 bag, as seen on Mi Li, was created upon the opening of the Kwanpen’s first European boutique in London’s Burlington Arcade.

To date, the 84-year-old brand has nine stores operating around the world, including their flagship boutique at Marina Bay Sands. The decision to tell the tale of the brand’s pride as a Singaporean brand to its newfound European clients narrates an important story, reiterated by Kwan: “Kwanpen is a symbol of excellent leather craftsmanship with a unique heritage. These are the characteristics that our customers are looking for. They want to carry a bag that reflects their appreciation for quality craftsmanship. We seek a never-ending pursuit of evolution and perfection and create our designs based on Kwanpen’s values and beliefs. [Ultimately], we attract customers who value these qualities.”

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