Cult New Zealand label Deadly Ponies are leaders in the space of luxury leather bags and accessories, fusing a unique aesthetic with innovative product design and materials. Zara Overton spoke with the trailblazers who are commanding a sustainable ethos with people and the planet at the brand’s core.
N. What led you to start Deadly Ponies?
Liam: I started Deadly Ponies as a creative hobby – crafting small leather goods from a local tannery’s off-cuts in my garage while at university.
N. Where did the idea for the name come from?
L: I had made a pair of goat leather slippers while I was studying design, and as a joke, passed them off as real pony skin. Everyone believed it and the name stuck. Today, the name is a nod towards the grunge aesthetic at the root of Deadly Ponies.
N. Within the fashion industry, and amongst consumers, there has been a push towards sustainability, which has long been a large focus for Deadly Ponies with transparency around all aspects of the business. What does sustainability look like for the brand?
Steve : Sustainability means bringing transparency, including environmental and social ethics, into everything that we do. We care and focus towards three key pillars in alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals; people, prosperity and the planet. For us, it’s important to have benchmarks and standards that we measure our sustainability goals by, and that has been our key goal over the last few years – to set those standards and how we operate as a business.
N. It’s been a huge year for the brand in terms of championing sustainability and reducing your footprint on the planet, launching a vegan leather Cactus collection. How did you come to work with this innovative material?
L: Creating a vegan product had been on our list for a very long
time; the challenge had always been finding a material that didn’t come at a cost to the planet, and we didn’t want to create something to just tick a box to be non-leather. We searched globally for the best alternative available, and discovered a supplier in Mexico who was working to develop a cactus leather, and aligned with our values. The material is a by-product of the pharmaceutical industry, where they sun-dry the mature leaves and use the pulp. It uses very little water, and creates a really beautiful product.
N. You’re also working with recycled bags and materials. Can you explain more about this Recycle initiative?
S: As part of our significant business project around creating our own production facility in Thailand, we have set out to reduce our leather waste and increase the circularity of our products. This has meant that we were able to use off-cut leathers, along with pre-loved bags, through our amnesty programme to create entirely new items crafted from 100% recycled materials. Our Recycle collection will be renewed annually, with continuous innovation within the range.
N. Alongside this, you’ve also had to manage through Covid-19. How have you adapted to this?
S: We came into Covid-19 having already set clear goals and a vision to work towards further sustainability, putting us in a good position to manage the economic downturn and store closures. Furthermore, we had to move all of our business online overnight. We introduced Live Chat, and set up an in-house studio so that we could manage everything ourselves once we moved Alert Levels; enabling us to continue as ‘normal’. We’re also fortunate to have incredibly loyal, local customers in Newmarket who supported us online and then came back in-store as soon as they could.
N. 2020 saw the launch of your very own atelier. Where is your atelier located?
S: We are really proud to have seen our ambition come to fruition this year, with our own atelier located in the mountainous region of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and a small team of 30 artisans. Our Head of Production has also recently relocated from Auckland to Chiang Mai to oversee our atelier.
N. The materials you source are sustainable and ethical. Can you tell us about some of the suppliers that you work with and why you chose to work with them?
L: We’re really proud to announce that we have just finished our first collection where all of our suppliers and materials are fully accredited in line with our Code of Conduct. Our suppliers all operate sustainably; both environmentally and socially. Each supplier considers things such as the wastewater that they use, labour practices and their overall environmental impact. All of our leathers come from the Leather Working Group or equivalent certified suppliers. One of the most toxic pieces in the accessories industry can be the metals used, so we have moved to work with a solid brass supplier who has been operating for over 100 years as a family run business, with their own water recycling plant within their site. No waste is going into the local community, and all excess is melted down to be reused to create new brass hardware. This has meant that all of our solid metals – including brass, can be included in our Recycle collection. A local supplier that we are really proud to work with is one based in the Wairarapa, who weave all of our NZ Mohair scarves on their family farm through a unique brushing technique; and have been doing so since 1989. We have a commitment to using New Zealand leathers wherever possible, and work closely with a number of small farmers to source our leathers.
N. Overcoming the hurdles and financial challenges of being a sustainable and considered business must call for great resilience. What has been the biggest challenge in maintaining your standards of boutique manufacturing and ethically sourced materials?
S: Rather than making it harder, the sustainability journey that we have been on has made it easier for us in many ways. By building our own atelier, it has given us total transparency over our supply chain and allowed for control over our processes, and to reduce our minimum order quantities and our waste, which has helped to reduce cost implications of running a sustainable business. We also have really strong working relationships with our tanneries to align with our environmental values.
N. Your store designs are always interesting and carefully thought out. What was the inspiration behind your Osborne Street store?
L: The Osborne Street store was the second store that we designed with the artist Brancuzi in mind. We worked with Katie Lockhart, our interior designer, to pull shapes from the artist’s work and reimagine them with Italian marble and pink tones. If you haven’t seen our concession in David Jones Newmarket, it’s worth discovering to see the next stage of our stores’ aesthetic direction.
N. Whether it’s part of a new collection, store design, packaging or window display, the brand has a strong connection to the art world, often collaborating with local artists. Is there a favourite collaboration that stands out?
S: Of the collaborations that we’ve done, our collaboration with Hannah Valentine for the Auckland Art Fair stands out as a really interesting process. She works closely with bronze, so all of her pieces are hand-carved and casted. More recently, we’ve worked with Hannah on our Recycle collection to produce our brass hand, which also doubles as a coaster holder. You’ll see elements of her work in our stores, with pieces in our head office too.
N. Last year saw a new direction for Deadly Ponies with the launch of a new sub brand, D LY P. Can you tell us more about this label and what makes it different to the Deadly Ponies core brand?
L: We see D LY P less as a different label, but more of a place to develop our creative ideas and innovate through a design studio; where we can then bring across these ideas into Deadly Ponies.
N. What has been a career highlight so far?
L: It is hard to highlight one, as there have been so many, but strangely the last 6 months have been really rewarding. Launching our sustainability goals and our latest collection, we have achieved a lot of what we have been striving towards over the last year. We also officially (remotely) opened our atelier this year, which was a huge step for us, and supports our goal to achieve zero-waste production.
S: Opening our brand new, reimagined flagship store in Ponsonby was a stand-out. The fit-out and aesthetic throughout the store really is a true statement of the work that we have done to build the brand. It complements our pieces as the perfect home. We then referenced this aesthetic in our David Jones Newmarket concession, bringing elements of the custom-plinths and oak finishes.
N. Do you think it is easier for brands today to find sustainable ways to produce?
L: Unfortunately it’s still a challenge for small brands. So many manufacturers are based internationally, and produce for a lot of bigger brands who have still not adopted sustainable methods of operation. It does very much limit the companies that we can work with that align with our values – a significant reason why we chose to produce for ourselves.
N. Best part about having a store in Newmarket?
S: The best thing about having a store in Newmarket is what longevity it has brought us. We have built a really great customer base of supporters of the brand, and those that know and love Julie, our Store Manager, as much as we do. We are surrounded by so many great local brands and creatives on Osborne Street, and in the wider Newmarket area. The only thing we hope to change in the future is for our store to be bigger – so watch this space.
N. If you could invite three people to a dinner party (living or dead), who would you choose?
S: I’d probably choose Michelle Obama – I think she is a really cool person, and she could give me the inside scoop on Barack.
L: Mine would be Zendaya as I absolutely love her and everything that she does. It would be so cool to have her over for dinner.
S&L: Our final choice would be… Chris Hemsworth, for obvious reasons.
N. What would you like to see more of from the New Zealand fashion industry?
L: Camaraderie. There is a certain isolation between designers here in New Zealand, and I think it would be good to see us working closer together to reach our goals.
N. What was the inspiration behind your Spring Summer collection?
L: We took inspiration from the iconic medieval Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries for SS20; looking at deep rich burgundy shades, earthy tones, and chainmail adornments as a starting point. From there, we wanted to create something that was a little more electric and vibrant as the seasonal collection progresses across three unique parts.
N. Do you have an all-time favourite bag? If so, which one?
S: I’m a bit of a journeyman and prefer to look forward rather than backwards, so my favourite is the all-new Mr Sling Mini. It is the combination of a number of our most-loved shapes, and is a true testament to the brand’s design evolution over the last 10 to 15 years. It’s an inspired design, beautifully structured and is the perfect Deadly Ponies bag in my opinion.
L: For me, I always loved Mr Sleepover. It was an overnight/day bag that I’ve cherished for years, and have used over and over again so it is now buttery soft.
N. What is next for Deadly Ponies?
S: Our next Voyage collection is pretty special – it is a significant shift from where we have come with the collection, with innovative new materials and shapes. I think the collection will speak for itself, and we can’t wait to share it with you.