creative women series: turning toads into treasure
Before the pandemic, we were invited to participate in Toad Busting, an exciting exhibition organised by VERMIN, which explored the notion & possibilities of turning cane toads, a well-known Australian pest into something more appreciated. Artists covering various art forms used cane toad leather as part of their usual practice & showcased the works as part of the exhibition. For the event, we reimagined one of our signature shapes, the L Thick Crescent Moon in what we’re calling a Dark Chocolate Toad hue. This is the only one ever made for the purposes of Toad Busting & is now online & available to shop.
VERMIN are currently on a journey to create their own tanning facility that turns Australia’s own top end pests into the leather. Currently there are no other tanneries turning Aussie toads into Aussie leather. Working with Australia’s First Nations groups, Lia Tabrah & Perina Drummond are the forces behind the brand making it all happen.
Inherently a visual artist & maker of jewellery with a bold & humorous Australiana 80’s aesthetic, Lia’s creative journey has led her to working with the ‘grotesque’ cane toad. We caught up with Lia to discover how this has evolved in her practice & how her connection to country has influenced her creative practice more broadly.
To start, tell us a little about yourself & your brand VERMIN?
I studied Visual Art and then Gold and Silversmithing where I explored my aesthetic and developed the skills to create fashion accessories. I like to combine object and fashion, take a trend or concept and twist it, turning it on its own head and take it to a next level of amusement.
I’ve blended my art and design practise since 2008 by designing, exhibiting and selling jewellery and accessories for retail, private clients, musicians and performers, fashion collaborations, creating installation works and curating and producing many solo and group exhibitions and events for fashion festivals, design weeks, various government organisations and both public and private art institutions across Australia.
VERMIN began as a cane toad leather brand. A concept to use a material from a toxic invader that is seen as traditionally ‘grotesque’ and transform this in to a luxury fashion product. I met Perina Drummond when we were both working on a Melbourne Fashion Week event with Virginia Dowzer, and after discovering Perina as the founder and director of Jira Models, which is a platform that represents Indigenous models within the fashion industry. We originally discussed a photo shoot on country in Western Australia where Perina was working in community. After many discussions with Perina, local mob, Indigenous park rangers and pest control officers about the destruction and environmental impacts of cane toads in the Kimberley region and in Torres Strait (where Perina is originally from), we decided to experiment with our own cane toad leather production. I had recently discovered that there were no Australian tanners that manufactured leather from Australian cane toads, all were imported from overseas traders. This further motivated us to create a local market to help support a solution to the environmental destruction that cane toads are responsible for since they were first introduced to Australia in 1935.
VERMIN is committed to providing First Nations peoples and communities an opportunity for employment in their local community and a pathway into the leather and fashion industry by reversing this environmental destruction. We are also committed to administering the most ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly solution in our leather making process with the help of our collaborator, Josh McLean from the The Bush Tannery who specialises in traditional tanning techniques using sustainable and organic methods. Our purpose is to design and create product and eventually wholesale the leather.
What’s led you to start working with cane toad leather?
In my jewellery practise I designed a collection that involved gold plating cane toad taxidermy. My supplier of all things cane toad offered a wide range of toad leather. He approached me to collaborate on a very risqué swimwear range (lol). I politely declined the offer and instead in 2014 I designed a toad leather outfit for a large group show I curated and produced for Melbourne Fashion Festival. I also exhibited the outfit for a Melbourne Spring Fashion Week event.
In 2017 I was selling my designs at MONA’s festival in Hobart, Mona Foma, Michelle Boyde curated a stall of selected Melbourne based designers. I met artist, curator and Mrs MONA Museum, Kirsha Kaechele who was introduced to my jewellery and took interest in my cane toad designs for her book Eat the Problem, 2019, that Kirsha was already half-way through curating. The deluxe 544-page art and cookbook featured a series of recipes using invasive species. MONA commissioned a photo shoot of my designs for a two-page spread in the book. I later designed and sold cane toad leather purses and jewellery for the Eat the Problem exhibition and pop up shop at MONA Museum in 2019.
This is when I decided to launch VERMIN and pursue it as a brand. I continued to design bags and accessories with my signature jewellery technique of metal plating the legs and heads of the cane toads and embellished them in Swarovski crystals.
What does your creative process look like?
My designs will begin with a concept, a LOL to myself, then I’ll create or source a found object and cast it in a material such as sterling silver, brass or resin or plate in a metal finish such as 24ct gold and embellish with crystals, paints, studs, whatever is on theme.
Installation work involves visualising a concept then sourcing props, making objects and designs that fit a theme. The final work evolves organically as I’m installing, it can’t be entirely pre planned, my creative brain works best in the final moments.
The original VERMIN cane toad designs, I visualise a shape, colour and the embellishments. I hand dye each leather piece using non-toxic dyes from Spain and have the pattern and design professionally created and sewn. I then create bespoke findings and embellishments by coating the legs and heads in resin before plating in copper and either a 24ct gold or chrome finish. The final step is to set crystals, studs, various embellishments in to the metal or decorate by painting, etching, whatever is the desired look.
What does your creative practice mean to you?
It is everything to me. Growing up on a small farm out of town on Yorta Yorta Country with emus, sheep and steers, I spent my childhood amusing myself with nature, my own wild imagination and craft as my creative outlet. My local primary school had only 7 of us kids in my year level. We didn’t use the dial-up internet and of course it was pre social media, so our entertainment as kids was very inventive. My dad built a tiny shed for me on the property where I launched ‘Lia’s Creations’ and worked towards a ‘Craft Grand Opening Sale.’ My grandpa owned a haberdashery warehouse, L.W.Towns & Co in Flinders Lane, Melbourne before it burnt down in an electrical fire, mid 1970’s. They managed to salvage some of the stock which I used in my craft creations. My design concepts developed over the years, I was mentored by craft fanatics in the town, special mention to dear Rosie Gibbs. My nanna was always up for a challenge, so I would delegate more complicated tasks to her.
My parents took my brother and I out of primary school for a few months and we travelled around Australia in a caravan. I discovered our incredible landscape, fascinating creatures and quirky outback and country towns. I loved all of the cliché tourist experiences and discovering souvenir stores with all of the wonderful, kitsch delights on offer. I fell in love with the Northern Territory where I felt a strong spiritual connection and became crocodile obsessed. My uncle Ian, long term resident of Alice Springs was always full of local knowledge. We then moved in to the first of two Aged Care facilities which my parents ran and my family lived at for a few years. I became the in-house fashion stylist, makeup artist and activities worker. The elderly residents were my creative outlet, I was so busy multi-tasking, each day was a different adventure.
My childhood and the surroundings informed my creative inspirations from an early age. My creative practise has since shaped who I am today. I live for my creativity and express my inspirations through my art and personal style, fashion and outfits. From colours, patterns to political slogans, fashion is my internal amusement and visual voice. I have been practising ‘professionally’ for 13 years now. I’ve learnt that having a brain that has always felt to be wired as ‘different’ to other people and naturally creating unique concepts, is an advantage for getting your practise ‘out there’ particularly for media attention which I have been lucky to gain over the years. I have met so many inspiring, like-minded creatives from varied career stages that I am lucky to collaborate with and some have become my mentors and close friends. I am now at the stage where I can push my creativity to the next level and combine it with my passion for social justice. I will continue to design new fashion, art concepts and also develop a platform for positive social change and hopefully play a significant role in a social and environmental movement that empowers our First Nations peoples.
Tell us a bit about the next steps for VERMIN.
Like the rest of the world, that C word, Covid and the travel restrictions with our plans put on hold, it has delayed VERMIN moving forward by about 1.5 years. After our first cane toad leather experimental trip in January 2020 to the beautiful Torres Strait Islands, an Indigenous community on the northern tip of Cape York Peninsula, one of the many communities affected by this introduced species, our next step is to experiment further with the cane toad leather. For Josh from The Bush Tannery to work his magic and help us to develop the perfect tanning techniques and recipes with organic materials. We are currently in conversation with a contact who works with First Nations peoples from remote communities in the Kimberley region, WA where they have a recent cane toad problem. So hopefully we’ll be on country, working with them really soon. We already have an inspiring VERMIN team on board which will grow in time. It’s so inspiring and heartening to be able to combine all of our own, unique skills, professional contacts and personal experiences with a shared vision for positive social and environmental change. Stay tuned!
Follow VERMIN on Instagram to stay up to date.
Take a closer look at our L Thick Crescent Moon Bag in Toad leather.