Concrete Playground Talks to Liam Bowden, Founder and Creative Director at Deadly Ponies
How the designer went from screen printing to cult handbag virtuoso.
On a rainy day in the middle of summer (come on Wellington, get it together) we sat down with Deadly Ponies founder Liam Bowden in the brand's warm, lucite space to talk retail, the origins of the cult handbag company, and his passion for beautifully crafted accessories.
Hi Liam! Lovely to have you here in Wellington. How did Deadly Ponies come about?
I pretty much fell into it really. I studied graphic design and did some electives on screen printing, printing on leather, and from there made the leather things into coin purses and wallets, just as a fun side project, and then people wanted them. It kind of snowballed from there really. I've probably been making bags and things for ten years— under the brand for ten years and working freelance as a graphic designer for five of those ten years. And then I was like "this isn't just a hobby anymore, this is a company. I either have to just stop and actually focus on the career I trained in, or just give it a good go".
What were you doing in those early years?
At the beginning it was pretty much just me and a sewer. And then it started to grow pretty quickly after that. Every year we pretty much doubled staff. Now we're at about 30, based in Auckland.
In terms of materials, what do you tend to look for? What are your practices?
We try to get as much of our materials from New Zealand. So 90% of our raw materials are from New Zealand and the rest is from Italy. All from the South Island. We work in deer, lamb, goat, cow, calf, ostrich. The deer is our core product line, and what we're known for. It's super soft, super strong, and ages and wears really well. Bovine leather is a lot more structured and ages in more of an antique way. It gets marked and scuffed but really ages with history. Lamb skin is from New Zealand, sent to France to be tanned. Lamb leather is from Italy. Ostrich is also in store at the moment. In terms of tanning, it's a process to get the different finishes.
Normally the skins are quite flat, and then throughout the process it almost gets shrunken, and goes mottled to achieve all the finishes. We do chemical and vegetable tanning, but it depends on the finish, the colour and the country in which it's being processed. So once we're comfortable with the ethical practices of the tannery then we'll go ahead. We prefer vegetable tan. One process uses a lot more man-made chemicals that are a lot harsher, which is fine but you really have to be careful about how you dispose of those chemicals. The other is a lot more natural, I guess oils and more environmentally sustainable. And the one thing they're getting a lot better at is colours: you can't get as vibrant colours in vegetable-tanned leathers, so they're often blacks, dark browns, as opposed to vibrant blues and yellows etc.
In terms of manufacturing New Zealand made leather goods, we'd be the largest with onshore production.
How does your design process play out?
A lot of our design process is texture or technique-based. We'll have a material or technique we want to try out. We play around, start making, seeing what shapes and things we can do. A lot of it's about functionality, how can we make something usable from office to evening, and we go from there. A lot of it is evolution- we never really wipe the slate clean, we look at where we last left off and just evolve it. There's myself, our head of design and sampling has two assistants in terms of designing. Then there are a lot of people in different positions doing research, etc. Most of the people in the workroom have started as interns. We get a lot of people coming in, interning, who have a good team fit, the right attitude, are they passionate about what we do? And if they do then that's half of it.
Can we talk through your current collection?
In the current collection, it started off with a trip to the British museum, where there are a lot of Egyptian pins and jewellery displayed. We took that reference of a pin and looked at how we could spread that out into hardware. That's where we got these big stitched details from. We looked at pins and also utilitarian aspects, which influenced the colour palette— dark browns and blues and dirtier colours. I guess the materials like denim, which we hadn't used before is a utilitarian fabric. And it's an evolution of what we could do with the denim, so that led to the dip dye and bleaching. We reflected that two-tone dip across the leather too.
Tell me a little bit about your collaboration process beyond the leather goods.
Our hats and other bits and bobs happen if it's suitable for the collection. The hats were a collaboration with a French jewellery maker who also make pins and bracelets and jewellery to create a mini capsule collection. We launched compendiums with our second release of men's this year, and this is the second year we've released journals. Scarves have been happening for the past four years. Sort of every second collection we'll release a print. Choosing our collaborators comes when we find someone who does an authentic, unique to them product. You warm to it naturally if it's honest. Mostly we stumble upon them, we get asked quite regularly to do stuff with people and we definitely have some things in the works, but mostly it's just meeting them and chatting with them. And if they're doing something exciting and different then people will really get behind that.
How did you go about conceptualising your retail spaces?
When we chose to expand into retail, we wanted spaces that mirrored things we're about and interested in. Playful, fun, intelligent spaces. We referenced Brancusi, the Romanian sculptor, for our first store and expressed that through cedar wood. Each store from there has been the same idea, the same shape and Brancusi inspiration, but with different materials to get the feel. The second store was in marble, a lot more slick and natural. We had a lot of textures sort of playing on each other. For this store we wanted to create a space that was luminous, really. We wanted a space you could see through and that was warm. That's why we went with resin and perspex, it's very warm. The Brancusi is in the plinths. We've worked with Katie [Lockhart] for a few years now, we've made product for her store Everyday Needs in Auckland. And so for this we chose the material of resin together, and then she worked out the best colour coordinations and what would translate best into a store.
Do you find your clientele different between Auckland and Wellington?
We've had fantastic response from everyone who's come in, it's a fantastic showcase for people who aren't familiar with the brand or want to see the entire collection together. It's really a bit of everything. I was expecting there to be more of a difference between Auckland and Wellington, but the main difference is Wellington customers are a little less knowledgeable about the brand and what we offer because within Auckland we've had retail stores for around 18 months. So we have customers who have come into the Auckland stores and will purchase the classic, core collection and then return to buy other pieces in colour. Wellington are still going for the classic blacks, and discovering the brand and its styles.
Find Deadly Ponies Wellington at 28 Ghuznee St, Te Aro.