The Singapore ad man who quit his job to play with leather at 51
After running his own ad shop for a decade, Eric Siow now keeps his creative juices flowing by creating watch straps and phone covers with his leather craft company Eatsleeplay.
When it comes to watches, I have a small obsession – I’m a watch guy who loves to wear these on bund straps.
For those who don’t know, bund straps are leather cuff watch straps that were famously worn by German fighter pilots and, later on, by the likes of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
About two years ago, while hunting to commission a new strap for one of my favourite watches, I came across some beautifully designed pieces in sumptuous colours on a website called Eatsleeplay. I was surprised and thrilled to discover it was a Singaporean brand.
Since then, I have been obsessively stalking leather artisan Eric Siow’s Instagram feed. Every time he posts a new image, I think to myself, “I really need another strap”. His gorgeous wallets and iPhone sleeves are very tempting, too.
The 51-year-old Siow ran his own ad shop for nearly a decade before calling it quits to start his one-man leather craft company. Today, Eatsleeplay keeps this active artisan happy and satisfied, while also engaging the creative energies that served him well in his previous career.
Here, in CNA Lifestyle's series, where we speak with creatives making their mark in Singapore, Eric discusses being a creative and overcoming Singapore's supposed limitations.
WHERE DID THE NAME COME FROM? IT’S NOT WHAT I WOULD EXPECT FROM A HIGH-END LEATHER BRAND.
I know, right? One morning, we were cracking our heads, brainstorming for a catchy name with my initial E and S in it. Then my wife and I saw our pet dog BoBo chilling out in the sun after her breakfast and boom, it just hits us that her kind of lifestyle was what we aspired for.
WHAT WAS THE TRANSITION LIKE FINANCIALLY AND IN TERMS OF CREATIVITY?
Turning this leather craft hobby into a full-time gig has to be one of the best things I have ever done. As a creative person at heart, the practice of leather crafting came quite naturally to me. Having said that, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Even though it was my own business that I had left to do this, I was still, really, just a salaryman. I believe that, for many salarymen, leaving a job to start something new may create certain financial stress, but luckily that passed quickly for me. It wasn’t anything that I wasn’t able to resolve by tightening one’s belt.
WHAT CONVINCED YOU TO MAKE A GO FOR IT? WAS IT CUSTOMER DEMAND OR JUST AN ITCH YOU HAD TO SCRATCH?
During those years of running the ad shop, there was no work-life balance. Not even close. It was a decision that my wife and I both made – we needed to take life with a slower pace. Leather craft was, at that point, my hobby and passion. But it fit naturally within our plan moving forward – it was something I could do from home, while managing my time and leading a more balanced life. It’s still a hobby first and a business second.
WHAT’S BEEN YOUR HERO PRODUCT SO FAR?
My bestseller would have to be the 019 FullBund strap. It was inspired by a version by Tudor. I have since made a few variants in numerous configurations to fit different watches. I’m also hoping to make bigger items, especially bags. I’d like to work on weekenders, totes and backpacks, products still within the men’s accessories market.
DO YOU DO MORE BESPOKE PIECES OR DO CUSTOMERS JUST ORDER EXISTING DESIGNS?
It’s more of the former. Then again, quite often bespoke requests are also inspired by an original design that I have, tweaking little design cues or colour combinations for a more personalised touch.
WHERE ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS COMING FROM – SINGAPORE OR OVERSEAS?
More globally. But I have gotten a significant number of orders locally in the past two years. I guess with the rapid growth of social channels, more locals are buying into the made-by-hand culture and have started to be more supportive of the local craft scene. Instagram has been my main platform, through which I constantly showcase my works. I believe most of my customers found me through that. I am, of course, also thankful to referrals from both customers and other local leather crafters, too.
WHAT’S THE HARDEST THING ABOUT RUNNING YOUR OWN SMALL CREATIVE BUSINESS?
Nothing really major. If I have to list them, it’s just sourcing for materials and courier services. Even in this day and age, finding the right material at the right cost and getting them delivered sometimes takes way too long. As for the latter, finding the right courier at the right freight cost with the right level of service isn’t easy either. As I mentioned, a lot of my customers are global, so too high a shipping cost will affect sales eventually. Probably the more important factor is that I only have one pair of hands – there’s only that much I can do at a time. Thankfully, most of my customers do understand that it takes time for a piece of handmade craft.
DID YOU EVER HAVE ONE OF THOSE ‘WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING?’ MOMENTS?
Possibly on the very first day that I didn’t have to go into the office to work anymore. After all, leaving something you have been doing your whole adult life can be quite unnerving. But that thought was very quickly dismissed.
AND WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST REWARDING MOMENT?
I love the little notes my customers leave behind after receiving their orders. I also love getting repeat customers. Knowing that someone appreciates a good piece of craft makes me feel that all the time and effort that I’ve spent making my products for him or her has been well worth it.
IS SINGAPORE A TOUGH PLACE TO BE A CREATIVE?
That’s a tough question. I have seen good examples of creatives doing well. Singapore is a small nation and it has an even smaller pool of people who understands and appreciates creatives. Unfortunately, from what I have experienced, one really needs to stand out for people to buy into his or her thinking and celebrate his or her work.
READ: Creative Capital: These siblings want to make their sunglasses the next big thing 'since chicken rice'
WHAT ABOUT THE HARDEST CREATIVE CHALLENGE YOU’VE HAD SO FAR?
To date, I guess my duffel bag would have to have been the toughest thing to make. I wanted to keep the lines and curves classic while decorating it with contemporary details at the same time. It was quite a challenge to place these details together yet ensure the design was holistic.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT INSPIRE YOU?
Just about everything actually, which is a habit I have had since my advertising days. Before the Internet, I used to love heading to book stands – the magazine section of a bookstore to be precise. Anything from home decor to automobiles and travel to catwalk runways are my sources of inspirations. Lifestyles intrigue me the greatly. One of my most inspiring moments was also meeting the master crafter Hajime San of Niwa Leather in person. I visited him at his atelier when I was in Tokyo three years back. Being able to touch and feel his work and interacting with the master himself was both a humbling and inspiring experience.
TELL ME SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS I WOULD NEVER EXPECT.
Running! A heavy intake of oxygen helps to clear my mind. During a run, I have few distractions around me – no work, no smart devices, it’s just me and the long path ahead. That said, I have my earbuds plugged in. I like how music provides a rhythm for my pace. I try to run at least once a week, twice if I’m stuck with creative or technical processes.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR EATSLEEPLAY?
I’m lucky that at my age, I can still enjoy my passion and doing what I love. I’m keeping Eatsleeplay simple. I’d like more opportunities to do unusual creative pieces – and opportunities to collaborate with an artist would be nice, too. I have so many designs in drafts and in my head that I really should set aside time to make them.