Q&A: Liam Bowden of Deadly Ponies

You know a Deadly Ponies bag as soon as you see it. What’s Hot New Zealand talks to designer Liam Bowden about what inspires him, and about his label’s fab new space in Christchurch’s iconic Ballantynes Department Store.

How did you get into making bags? I fell into it really. I studied graphic design but really also wanted to study sculpture. I enjoyed using my hands and creating something a bit more tactile using interesting materials. We had a tannery near our house and they had a scrap bin where you could take anything you wanted, so I started making things and selling them at a university market. I started off making coin purses, key rings and mouse pads – anything that would be small enough to make out of a little scrap piece of leather. The biggest piece would be about the size of an envelope.

I didn’t know anything to begin with. I taught myself how to cut and sew and pattern-make – it would have been a lot easier if I had gone to fashion school. I think I’ve always been interested in creating more than just a poster, I wanted to create a bit of a world.

Some of it is still made in Auckland. We’ve set up an offshore factory that’s run by us, managed by us and owned by us. We were using a number of overseas manufacturers in Italy, China and France. We were confident and had done checks and got audits done on the factories to make sure they were meeting our standards but we were a small fish in a big pond for them. They didn’t move fast enough for us, we didn’t have 100 percent confidence about all of those things so we decided to open up our own factory. That’s in Chiang Mai, in Thailand.

We found a long time ago that in terms of the skills required to make the technical products that we wanted to make, there wasn’t the expertise in New Zealand. Unfortunately over the 15 years that we have been around, that manufacturing industry has closed down and the skills have gone. About five years after we started, the bottom dropped out of the whole tannery industry and every six months there was another tannery closing. That was beneficial to us because we were able to buy a lot of their machinery and set up our factory. But then the seesaw went too far the other way and everything had to be imported and if there was anything wrong or any delays, the lack of flexibility with the business became unsustainable really.

Does having your own factory make it easier to meet your sustainability goals? I think that’s what led us to want to open up our own factory. That direct involvement is what gives us confidence around being sustainable – we are paying the wages, we are building the building that it’s in, it’s solar powered so it’s going to be off the grid. It’s our supply chain. And then in terms of leather and the other materials that we put in, we have special standards that our suppliers have to meet so we only work with gold-standard approved leather suppliers. And as we go we can smell a bad egg, really, in terms of factories and people that we work with.

What was the inspiration for the Resort 2020 collection? A lot of it was about colour. We were looking at the natural camouflage of the animal kingdom, so that came through in blues and corals and the hyper-real colours that are available within nature for camouflage. So that was the starting point and from there we developed the materials and the silhouettes. From our archives we brought back a molten style in small and medium. We made that maybe 10 years ago and we’ve reinterpreted that shape and brought it back. Sometimes there‘s only so much you can do with a shape and a bag and so rather than reinvent the wheel we’ve probably got something in our back catalogue that we can reference.

What’s coming in bags? Right now it’s small? Like everything it does have a bit of a cycle. It goes huge then it goes tiny then it goes practical then it goes hands-free and back and forth. I think it’s very driven by lifestyle so as technology gets smaller and we need fewer things I think it will be related to that. So bags may start to incorporate technology into them but in terms of trends or styles that are coming up, people are getting more adventurous in terms of colourways and something that’s bold. We used to know that people would just buy our black bags time in and time out but the new collection we soft-launched in our own online store and the blue crocodile bag has sold out almost immediately, which surprised us. They want something that is more adventurous. We’ve never liked to produce the safe items and options, we want to be excited by what we create just as much as our customers do. But it’s always nerve-racking – this crazy blue, do we order 100 of those, or how many? And sometimes it’s dictated by buyers and stores that might purchase it as well. Sometimes we have to take a punt ourselves.

Do you have a favourite from the new collection? It’s a mixture – probably anything in the new blue crocodile. We’ve done a Mini Scurry tote in the croc which I think is probably my favourite. In terms of shape I do like the Midi Molten, the shape from our archives that we’ve blown up. And then also we’ve developed a new python leather that is really amazing, it’s got about four different colourways through it – those would be my favourites.

We’ve done python for a little while now but that’s a new colourway of it. It’s quite an extensive process that goes into it. Normally a python pattern is printed onto the leather but with this there’s about 40 different steps to make it feel and have the touch of python so it has a scaly effect to it and it has the shine and scales, so as close you can get to the real stuff without having to actually kill a snake.

Tell us about the new space in Ballantynes? The space has been designed in collaboration with Katie Lockhart, who has worked with us on a number of different projects and pop-ups and all of our interiors. So it’s a mix of oak and redwood, more classic simple colours and then these Brancusi-inspired big wooden plinths that are cut out of a full redwood tree that was lying in a paddock. We got Grant, a craftsman that we use, to carve them with a chainsaw to create these unusual, textural shapes. It’s also reflective of the rest of our retail fitouts, which we have relaunched and refreshed this year.

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