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Deadly Ponies is on a mission to become the world’s most responsible handbag brand

15 November 2021

Fashion Quarterly's Sarah Murray sits down with the co-founders of Deadly Ponies, who tell her that their business is about much more than making bags.

WORDS BY Sarah Murray

Steve Boyd & Liam Bowden of Deadly Ponies.

As soon as you step into the Deadly Ponies HQ in Eden Terrace, you’re hit by the intoxicating scent of leather. “I can’t even smell it anymore,” says Liam Bowden, the co-founder and creative director of the brand who has been working with leather since his art school days. The modern space has an industrial feel, yet it’s juxtaposed with wooden furniture sourced from a secondhand store in Thailand, providing a sense of earthiness and grounding. I’m led into the boardroom where I sit with Bowden and his partner in life and work, co-founder and CEO Steve Boyd, and we immediately get down to the big topics: their endeavour to become the world’s most ethically responsible handbag brand. It’s an audacious goal and one it seems they’re on track to accomplish. 

“We make a sustainable product, and we’re on track to being certified as carbon zero this year,” says Boyd. “I guess we wanted, like so many businesses now, to be a bit more holistic in terms of what our impact is. So looking after our people, and the planet, and others through charities. Looking at what we can give back while still running a business.”

Since launching in 2005, Deadly Ponies has been a runaway success. Celebrities such as Lorde and Charlize Theron have been spotted sporting a Deadly Ponies bag slung over their arm, and women from around the globe are attracted to their innovative design and, above all, their unquestionable quality. For Bowden, it was the sheer volume of what they were producing that gave him pause and made him think about their impact on the environment. He noticed as the company grew, they weren’t using just ten plastic bags for packaging anymore, but thousands.

“I thought wow—that just goes in a rubbish bin, and it’s just piling up. Sometimes when I think too much about it, I get anxious. You worry!”

Based in Chiang Mai the atelier for Deadly Ponies, aptly named Mr Atelier, has a team of over 40 Hermès trained artisans who handcraft their bags and accessories.

So around five years ago they began to remove plastic from their packaging—it’s now 100 per cent recyclable. They started thinking about their footprint and looked into how their products were shipped. Their vision? To be transparent, considered, accountable, and innovative across everything they do to reduce their environmental impact continually. Along with being certified as carbon zero at the end of the year, they’re also aiming to apply for B Corp certification. If they get it—and they should—it will validify them as a business  that meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

It’s clear their approach to their business isn’t a PR exercise or greenwashing. Deadly Ponies want to be truly circular and minimise their environmental aspect, and not only that­—they want to make products that will be cherished for years to come. 

“I guess from the very beginning, I never wanted to create things that were throwaway,” says Bowden, who describes himself as a natural hoarder. “I started off using scrap leather from a tannery down the road from me in Avondale and patching them together. Therefore, everything we used I wanted to last. I linked sustainability to lasting.”

An eco-atelier

A huge part of achieving their goals stems from the Deadly Ponies eco-atelier in Thailand. Aptly named Mr Atelier—to echo the brand’s recognisable names for all its bags: the much-loved likes of Mr Molten, Mr Robin, Mr Mini Gator Gang, and so on—the purpose built space means they have total control over the manufacturing process and supply chain. This allows them to ship products by sea, not air, and in turn further work to reduce their carbon footprint.

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“Part of the challenge of the wholesale cycle is the speed with which you’ve got to get from design to shop floor. The faster we push brands to deliver within that timeline increases the volume of products being flown through the air and we have always pushed pretty hard against that,” says Boyd. “One of the core drivers behind us opening our own factory was to try and get control of that timeline. Now we can ship products in staggered cycles. We’re able to service our customers really well but we’re able to run on a production cycle that suits us. That’s one of the biggest gains.”

Based in Chiang Mai, a moated city in Northern Thailand dotted with temple spires, the atelier operates with as little environmental and social impact as possible.  There is an underground aquifer to supply and catch water to the building, a biofuel reactor which converts organic waste into energy, and solar panels. But they’ve also thought about the feel of the place. Boyd, who was there in late 2019 just before they moved in tells me how they put huge windows along the cutting and sewing room so their workers can look out at the rice fields. Their head gardener Khun Tar has planted fruit trees and staff can help themselves to the fruit.

It’s clear their team of over 40 artisans are the heart of the operation and a group of people they respect and admire. And, they’re world-class at what they do.

“You have access to really amazing makers in Thailand,” says Boyd. “There is just an innate talent for handcrafts.”

Bowden adds: “Ex-Hermès craftsmen and trainers flew over and trained them and worked with them for months and months to get them up to speed,” he says. “A lot of the stuff we’re doing there now is all raw edge and double-layered leather which is very much French inspired —the French masters have it down pat so it’s about passing on those skills to our guys.”

Repurposing

Owning their own factory has also meant every scrap of material can be used in some way. Offcuts are saved and repurposed into something else. 

Further solidifying the circular process, the recycled material is then used for specific recycled collections including AirPod and iPhone cases. Keep an eye out next year for a leather-based range that will be made from pulping down these leather scraps.  

“Usually, if you have a bag that big, and the piece of leather is that big,” says Bowden, marking out the size with his hands. “You end up with a strip here, and a square there, and it would go into landfill. So now it’s about how can we create zero waste. I never want to throw the leather away—it’s such a beautiful material. I’m always thinking of crafty ways to make it into stuff to have a second life.”

“We don’t have any scrap coming out of the factory now,” adds Boyd. “Every scrap, every bit is recycled. That’s why they’re [the recycled collection] all crazy eclectic colours and just a mishmash. You can always turn it into something.”

And the reason they’re able to reuse their products and reimagine them into something else is because of the quality materials they use. Their ethically sourced, high-quality leathers are tanned without harmful chemicals, meaning they can be refurbished. Likewise, they use 100 per cent brass hardware which is not only durable but can be melted down and used again and again. Last year they introduced biodegradable leather. 

“The move to biodegradable leather is a function of owning your own factory and wanting to biodegrade any waste product that’s coming off the production line,” says Boyd. “Having a biofuel reactor at the factory is basically organisms eating waste— like a slightly more sophisticated compost. If you’ve got harsh chemicals in the leather tanning process they will kill the organisms that would otherwise break down the waste product. We’re having to improve at every stage of the process because of other decisions we’ve made,” he says.

Always innovating, this October they will release their newest iteration of vegan bags after the success of last year’s vegan capsule collection. After a huge research and development phase they landed on mulched up cactus, a by-product of the pharmaceutical  industry. Bowden says people “went nuts for it” which is clearly why vegan leather will be available for the foreseeable future. 

“We want it to be a decision that even a non-vegan customer would be happy to make,” says Bowden. “We want the authenticity but not to lose the style.”

Last year they launched a recycle program called Repurpose, Recycle, Re-love. The idea is for people to return their old (and well-loved) Deadly Ponies products that have hit end of life. In turn customers will get a voucher to go towards purchasing another Deadly Ponies bag and the  leather can be used to create something else. It’s yet another initiative to lengthen the life cycle of one of their bags, and it has been a big hit with their customers. 

“If the bag has had too many drags on the concrete or too much wear and tear and they’d throw it away, that’s when we’d encourage them to come back and give them vouchers to buy something new,” says Bowden. “I guess we stand by that because of the materials we put in. Our leather is all dyed through and not a painted finish on top, which means we can resurface the leather and make it into something else.

Ultimately, for Bowden and Boyd it’s about being accountable to themselves, their staff, and their customers. “Your customer is your stakeholder now,” says Bowden. “They expect more. They want to be invested. For us, it’s about not making the customer choose between wanting something sustainable or ethically sourced and sacrificing its look. We want them to think about it and buy it and go ‘oh my gosh is that the backstory?’ and still want it.”

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