Lia Tabrah, who runs the fashion label Vermin with Perina Drummond, did not realize how strongly Australians feel about cane toads.
The designer started creating handbags made from the introduced species’ skin a few years ago, assuming that “it would be a niche thing — maybe tourism, maybe [for the] European market.”
However, she and Drummond went on to curate a toad-themed exhibition for Melbourne Design Week, although COVID-19 precautions have closed the show.
Tabrah said that Vermin has a waiting list of orders for “handbags, man bags, wallets and stubby coolers.”
“We got so many crazy e-mails from strangers all over,” Tabrah said. “There was one where a woman’s dog had died by a toad and now she wanted a purse. All of these people hate [toads] so much that they want a piece.”
Cane toads were introduced to Australia in 1935 in an attempt to control beetles that were decimating local sugar cane, but it did not work out as planned.
The toads had little effect on the beetle population, instead causing havoc in the country’s ecosystems. They poison and prey on native animals and insects, compete for food with local fauna and breed at an alarming rate.
Today, there are an estimated 200 million cane toads in Australia — and they are on the move.
The exhibition, titled Toad Busting, “fights the war on cane toads by transforming these toxic invaders of Top End Australia into bespoke designs.”
Toad leather was sourced by Tabrah and Drummond from the Torres Strait Islands in January, and given to artists and designers, including Kate Geck, Lisa Waup, the Huxleys and Jenny Bannister.
Each creator produced wild and warty art: a woven “healing figure” inspired by connection to country and inherited traumas (Waup); a “plague bag” with protruding pierced cones of leather and dangling toad legs (Bannister); and a gold gimp mask (the Huxleys).
“Everyone has their own individual aesthetic,” Tabrah said.
However, there was a unifying sense of apocalypse chic — a loud and tropical Mad Max-style celebration of an invader being conquered.
“[The cane toad] is such an environmental pest,” Tabrah said. “It’s killing our wildlife. Rangers have programs of culling. Why not use that product?”
She has been designing “kitsch luxury Australiana” for about a decade. Think “gold-plated crocodile feet and kangaroo scrotum bedazzled with Swarovski crystal.”
Although Tabrah had not worked with toad skins until she collaborated with Mona’s Kirsha Kaechele, Drummond, on the other hand, knew all about toads, because she came from Thursday Island, where “they’re everywhere.”
Drummond’s brother is a ranger who taught them the best methods of “toad busting” — the common and encouraged practice of catching and humanely euthanizing the pests.
“There’s no local toad [leather] production here, so our concept is to source and start our own cane toad leather tannery,” Tabrah said.
“I think that we’re in that phase of fashion where we are looking for more diverse and sustainable sorts of products,” Drummond added.
Australian cane toad leather is a luxury fashion item for the moment.
The leather can be a tough material to work with, there is a limited amount of material on each small animal and all toads must be sourced in the wild, but the animals are an incredibly widespread problem and — warts and all — this is a stylish solution.
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