Liam Bowden on how Deadly Ponies is becoming a truly responsible brand

Liam Bowden Deadly Ponies interview

Liam Bowden (left) and Steven Boyd (right) from Deadly Ponies. Image supplied.

There are plenty of businesses that talk the talk about minimising their impact on the planet and working in a considered and transparent way, but few who deliver on it like Deadly Ponies. The renowned leather accessories brand recently announced their business’s mission to become the world’s most responsible handbag brand calling it ‘The World is in Our Hands,’ it’s a bold goal but one Deadly Ponies are well on their way to achieving.

Launched in 2005, Deadly Ponies has always had sustainability at the heart of the brand, not that there was the same terminology for it back then. Founder and creative director, Liam Bowden, started making handbags from offcuts and leather scraps he sourced from a tannery down the road from his house in Avondale, Auckland. His appealing designs with a modern yet timeless feel quickly gained popularity and Deadly Ponies became a name to know in fashion circles. His partner in life and business, Steven Boyd, joined the business in 2009 and together they’ve shaped a progressive path for the brand.

Fast forward to 2021, and Deadly Ponies has become a celebrated New Zealand brand, with four elegant stores here and two newly opened stores in Melbourne, alongside numerous leading stockists including David Jones. Their seasonal collections explore the intersection of art and fashion showcasing contemporary silhouettes and covetable materials. With the success of the business, Liam Bowden has maintained the integrity of the brand which is known not just for its chic designs but also for its sustainable principles.

“For me, a core part of it is zero waste and not throwing away things,” says Liam Bowden. “That was how we first started, then throughout the years we have constantly kept those scraps from production, whether it was a sample hide or offcuts because through the process small pieces are created by the bigger pieces that we need to create the bags. It’s about constantly looking at ways to use up those smaller pieces of leather.”

As the business grew, so did the extraneous waste that comes along with selling a product such as plastic packaging, that used to be ubiquitous for things like shipping. With Liam’s growing personal interest in environmental issues, he realised he didn’t want Deadly Ponies to become part of the problem and that the way forward for the business was a sustainable one.

“If I’m throwing something in the bin now I’m a lot more aware that it is going to landfill and that landfill is not going anywhere. I’ve watched documentaries that really highlight the effect that has on the world and the animals who are a lot more vulnerable. So, I think it’s important to understand that even with taking a sustainable stance, you still have an impact on the world and we all have accountability for that.”

Deadly Ponies Summer 21

Bags from Deadly Ponies’ current Summer 2021/22 collection.

For Deadly Ponies that accountability means making a public commitment to be transparent, considered, accountable and innovative in everything they do. With the announcement of their mission to be the world’s most responsible handbag brand they shared the six key achievements to reach that goal including achieving Carbon Zero certification, which they recently reached through a partnership with globally recognised organisation Toitū Envirocare.

Among the other steps are achieving the rigorous B Corp certification. B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

Deadly Ponies added B Corp certification to their goals about 18 months ago and have been working through the intensive process in 2021. “With B Corp it’s one thing to get certified but it’s another to go through the process of documenting everything that you do, your goals, the impact of your business. It’s a lot more than just sustainability, it’s also to do with people including staff wages. You work towards points and you have to reach a certain number of points before you can even apply for B Corp. Once that happens then the process really begins. We’re working towards applying for B Corp in early 2022. It’s definitely a large investment, but very worthwhile.”

The brand has also committed to only working with accredited materials which means that for example their beloved buttery soft leather will be sourced from certified Leather Working Group Gold partners or equivalent. That ensures environmental best practices are used in all Deadly Ponies materials and means no harmful toxins or chemicals which is better for humans too.

As part of taking control of how their products are produced to meet their business goals, Deadly Ponies has opened their own eco-factory based in the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. For most of the first decade of the brand’s manufacturing they were able to mainly create their products locally in New Zealand. A myriad of production problems including an aging workforce and limited machinery availability meant they started producing some products offshore but that too came with issues for the brand.

“For a number of years, we worked with different suppliers and manufacturers around the world, in Italy, India, China and France, and they all created fantastic product. But in terms of controlling the auditing of those factories and making sure it was being ethically made, understanding their waste management, water management etc. they could tell you that they were doing those things but there was no real assurance that they were or we were too small and they were like – we don’t really care that’s not a priority of ours. When we reached that roadblock we realised that to truly become the most sustainable handbag company we really needed to own our own factory and control our own destiny.”

Liam Bowden Deadly Ponies interview

Liam Bowden in one of Deadly Ponies’ elegant stores (left). Steven and Liam have shaped the progressive path of the brand together (right).

A member of Deadly Ponies’ leadership team had previously worked with a factory in Thailand, and knew a number of artisans in Chiang Mai, and so the brand started conversations with a potential team in Thailand. Slowly but surely, they built their own eco-factory, assembled a team, and now their Head of Production is based in Thailand full time managing the operation.

The factory, nicknamed Mr Atelier in line with the naming convention of the brand’s bags, opened in 2019 but it has been no easy feat. The past two years have been a difficult juggle for the brand in terms of the pandemic but it’s also been amazing for Deadly Ponies in terms of controlling production and supply which means they can continue to only make what is needed. Before the pandemic struck the brand were fortunate enough to have Hermès trained artisans spend months training Deadly Ponies’ production staff in the incredible handcrafted methods of leather bag production. The result means Deadly Ponies’ products display the finest craftsmanship and are impeccably finished.

While they started with a small team of 13 when they opened the factory, the team has grown to fifty members as Deadly Ponies have sustainably scaled up their production. Having complete control of their production process also means the brand can ship their collections by sea instead of air freighting them which further reduces their environmental impact.

“For us it’s around continuing to invest in the product and making sure that all our products are made from the best quality materials and in the best way so that they have a long life. Because that’s the most sustainable thing you can have, is if you’re bringing something into the world that it will last for as long as possible. That’s why we introduced our Recycle collection – made from scrap materials and repurposed bags, and alongside a complimentary recycle initiative, so the idea is that you’re able to bring back items when you’re finished with them, and we’re managing the whole circular lifecycle of a product. Not only are we making it in our own factory so that we can 100% stand by our working conditions and the materials that we use, the customer can enjoy their bag, and years later if they no longer want that item they don’t have to send it to landfill. They can bring it back and we can repurpose that into a new product to continue a new lifecycle. The goal is to achieve all of those things.”

Deadly Ponies first launched their inaugural Recycle programme in 2020, inviting customers to return any Deadly Ponies bags that they no longer wanted which would then be recycled and turned into smaller items such as eye masks or coasters. A percentage of the profits from the collection were donated to their chosen charity – Dress for Success. The programme was a momentous success and the brand ran the programme again this year, partnered with Sustainable Coastlines, and see it as an important part of the business achieving full circularity.

Deadly Ponies Recycle

Pieces from Deadly Ponies’ second Recycle capsule collection launched in July 2021.

To communicate these goals with their customers Deadly Ponies set up a Transparency hub on their website which details exactly what the brand are trying to achieve, their plans for getting there and how they’re measuring up so far. Everything from detailed information on their carbon footprint and waste reduction through to the suppliers they use which have all signed up to Deadly Ponies’ code of conduct, ensuring the highest ethical standards. The level of clear, accurate information available means customers can make an informed choice and it’s a conversation that Liam is enthusiastic about having with Deadly Ponies’ customers.

“We want them to feel confident that we’re not just throwing numbers out there and we’re very clear about what we’re doing. Also, sharing the materials that we’re using that we love, and the ones that we don’t love and we want to move away from, and our goals around achieving that. We have heard from customers that this has solidified their love for the brand and that they feel confident purchasing from us because there’s no hiding – it’s all out there. For us, it’s also been about understanding that someone might not know what a carbon footprint is, so part of the conversation is about educating them so that when they’re purchasing they have more information. That’s something we’re proud to encourage; even if they might not purchase from us, they might be informed and that might encourage them to adapt some of these ideas or values into other areas of their life.”

Liam Bowden is always interested in customer feedback and it was repeated requests from customers which saw the brand launch a successful range of plant-based vegan leather products last year. They had a lot of requests from customers around offering a vegan alternative to leather and when Deadly Ponies first looked into it a few years ago the main problem in the market was that the leather alternatives at the time were more harmful and damaging to the environment than leather because of all the harsh chemicals that went into them.

As with every other material they have sourced, Deadly Ponies set out to try and find the best available product on the market. After a long search they finally found a supplier who worked with cactus using a material that was actually a by-product of the pharmaceutical industry. The cactuses are not harvested because they can regenerate, only their branches are removed periodically and they require a lot less water to make the finished product. Deadly Ponies debuted their cactus-based bags in July 2020 and the response was overwhelmingly positive, with it selling out within a couple of weeks.

“I was a bit sceptical because we are a leather-based brand and I understand that many people that are vegan are that for not only health reasons but also ethical reasons – so I didn’t know if they would even purchase those items from us, but they did which is really great. This year in August we added the vegan leather to our collection permanently. Then in October we added a new capsule with a new colourway and collaborated with a local NZ weaver to create rattan handles and adornments. We wanted our customers to love the item, whether it’s leather or not.”

As Liam Bowden and Deadly Ponies look towards 2022 and their audacious goal on the horizon, there’s a sense that with their passion for innovation and commitment to the environment, becoming the world’s most responsible handbag brand is well within their reach.

Deadly Ponies vegan capsule collection

Bags from Deadly Ponies’ second vegan leather capsule collection released in October 2021.

Images supplied.

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