Q&A: Hong Kong–based designer Fiona Kotur on her first jewellery collection

Known for her signature clutches that are frequently spotted on Hollywood’s red carpets, Hong Kong–based accessories designer Fiona Kotur is doing something a little different. In collaboration with Atelier Swarovski, she recently presented an 11-piece Spring/Summer 2017 jewellery collection called ‘Wood Crystallised’. Crafted from the wood of walnut trees, the collection is meant to reconnect the wearer with the natural environment. We recently sat down with Kotur to learn more about the collection and to discuss the ins and outs of building a brand in Hong Kong.

You usually design bags. What sparked this collaboration with Swarovski?
I met with Nadja [Swarovski], and she really loved the idea of the combination of materials. After meeting with her on a completely different topic, we kind of decided to collaborate, and I was really thrilled.

What is your favourite piece from the collection?
I started with the cuffs because I believe in statement pieces, and they are a powerful way to make a statement with jewellery. I usually wear them on both arms and I like stacking them.

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'I love cuffs because they are a powerful way to make a statement with jewellery' - Fiona Kotur
Walnut cuffs from Kotur’s collaboration with Atelier Swarovski.

How did the collection come together?
We evolved from the cuffs to earrings, rings and cufflinks. Then we decided to do some softer pieces, so we did the beaded necklaces in two different sizes and a bracelet. I like the idea of combining and layering everything and mixing with other kinds of jewellery, maybe some ethnic pieces, which is the inspiration for this collection.

So you were inspired by ethnic culture?
For necklaces, the inspirations came from Tibetan beads, because I think there’s something about the Tibetan beads where you rub them and hold them that’s very tactile, and I love the bit with the wood, which is also very warm and tactile. Then the Swarovski crystals are sort of cold and I love the contrast, and I think you can do a lot with that.

Compared to the usual wood jewellery that feels rather raw, this collection seems rather glamorous.
Yes, we wanted it to be very sculptural. I mean the material is of course walnut and that has a natural feeling. We just needed to make it in really strong shapes, and with strong stones.

fiona necklace
Necklaces from the Fiona Kotur for Atelier Swarovski SS17 collection, which are inspired by Tibetan beads.

How different is it to make jewellery than to make bags?
I think the process is little bit different. A lot of the minaudières I do are made with machinery such as stamping the brass, etc. Certainly, a big part of the bags are also done by hand, but you need to make the basic structure, the mould. Here, I think more of it is done by hand and the human touch really adds something special to anything you make. Anything that is over-manufactured kind of loses its soul, but to me this definitely has a lot of soul.

Is that also why you love vintage pieces?
I love vintage because I love things that have a story, and often vintage pieces are really beautifully made, and often with technical skills that don’t exist anymore: the beading, the handcraft. Vintage is like couture, and I also respect the fact that there is a history behind it. Anything that has a story is much more interesting, same goes with this collaboration with Swarovski, I like the fact that the wood is responsibly sourced and I like the fact that it’s made of natural materials. Actually crystal is also part of nature but it’s from a very different aspect. It’s kind of cool that it explores two very different parts of nature.

You launched your eponymous brand, Kotur, in Hong Kong shortly after moving here from New York. What has been the key to your success?
Timing definitely played a huge role, because when I started there was really no offering for what I was doing, especially at that price point. I already had a long career in different aspects of retail and design, so I understood the US market and decided that that was going to be the market I would cater to. Manufacturing is a really important part of the process. For me to be able to live here and have the proximity to boutique factories, craftsmen and manufacturers was really key.

kotur ss17
Kotur’s SS17 collection is inspired by the glamour and decadence of the 1960s.

You came without any connections though, didn’t you?
No, but I used to work for Gap, so we had a lot of sourcing. At the time it was the biggest sourcing company in the world, other than Li & Fung in China, so I had a lot of the manufacturers that I had worked with before. They didn’t make the right goods, but I asked everybody for references and introductions, and it was really through that sort of network that I was introduced to all the manufacturers that I have now.

How did you manage to develop your brand into what it is now?
I had to evolve. Originally it wasn’t just gonna be a minaudière and smaller bag collection. It was actually much broader than that, but there is much competition with the bigger bags in the States. Everything kind of opened up for me with the smaller bags, and a lot of Hollywood was very supportive by carrying them. I think you’ve got to also be smarter to go where the need is and ride the current a bit, and so I would say that I had to — over the years and even now — tailor my business to where things are going, from the market to manufacturing to everything.

As a designer, you are very business-oriented; normally brands have a different person to handle that.
That would be ideal, because they are all really full-time jobs. I have never had a business partner before, but I think that, as advice for other people, it really does help to have two different heads involved, one who focuses on creative, another who focuses on the business, because they are both really consuming.

fiona kotur celebrities 2
Clutches by Fiona Kotur are frequently spotted on Hollywood’s red carpet.

As a mother of four, how do you balance your time between professional and personal life?
I sort of made a decision at a certain point to focus my professional life around and prioritise my family. Because the way that the world has changed, you really have to promote your goods a lot, and that means being around the world all the time, and it’s not really conducive to being in a family, because you have to travel so much. I decided instead of just growing and growing, I wanted to make a fulfilling product. That’s why the collaboration was really a great opportunity for me, because it’s a really exciting project, but then also allows me to keep the balance with family, too.

What about local designers in Hong Kong? Do you think as an international city, there are ironically more opportunities for foreign talents than local?
The one thing about the design community in Hong Kong, is that you kind of limit yourself when you consider yourself local. It’s a huge international city, so what’s really local about being a Hong Kong designer, you know what I mean? I think that the opportunities within Hong Kong are definitely much broader than when I started, because you have things like PMQ, HKTDC and K11 that really do foster young designers, new designers and all types of designers, so that’s great within Hong Kong, but I think that honestly if the design community wants to be as relevant as they can be, you kind of have to look outside of Hong Kong, too. So I think there are a lot of opportunities within Hong Kong, but I also think that the Hong Kong design community has a lot more to offer, and in a global sense.

The 'Wood Crystallized' collection also includes Kotur's signature Espey clutch.
The ‘Wood Crystallised’ collection also includes Kotur’s signature Espey clutch.

Any advice for emerging fashion designers in Hong Kong who wish to launch their own label?
First of all, I think starting within Hong Kong is a great way to start, but it is for you to decide what it is that you want for your brand. If your goal is to grow your brand, you probably have to look outside of Hong Kong, too, and that could be in a lot of different directions, and to which direction you look really depends on how you want to focus your brand development. If you want to go into China, it’s a completely different strategy than if you want to go into Europe or the States, or if you want to go online even. You just have to do your homework, and I was glad that I had the experience I had before I did it.

You’ve been here for many years, do you have a favourite place in Hong Kong?
I like things that are completely different from each other, just like the wood and the crystal in the collection. I like the streets of Hong Kong, I love areas that still have a strong sense of neighbourhood, like Sai Ying Pun or Kennedy Town, where there are walking neighbourhoods, so you can really explore. I also like hiking in Hong Kong, too. There is a little waterfall near the Tai Tam bridge that I go to sometimes with my kids, and just being able to be completely surrounded by nature in the middle of a huge city like Hong Kong is a really peaceful, serene thing.

The Fiona Kotur for Atelier Swarovski Collection will be available for purchase starting from February 2017.