Liam Dillon grew up on a dairy farm in South Gippsland, and trained as a painter straight out of high school. But it wasn’t until years later when he was working at a cafe in London, and made a friend who was training to be a cordwainer (a shoemaker who crafts specifically from leather) that he realised the depth of his own passion for the same material.
‘I was inspired by the ancient skills and techniques my friend spoke about,’ Liam says. He returned to Australia and enrolled in a custom-made footwear course at RMIT, scoring a job at Parigina Footwear in Brunswick (a family business from the ’60s making men’s formal shoes) soon after. Liam did all this with the intention of launching his own his shoe brand, but as time went on, he became more and more interested with the possibilities of leather beyond footwear.
Liam Dillon Designs was founded around a single material Liam discovered over the course of his experimentation: vegetable tanned kangaroo leather. This unique material is a natural by-product of annual pest control programs, which are overseen by the Australian government and operate under strict guidelines. As kangaroos are not farmed or bred, there is no water or land involved in cultivating their skins, all of which makes it arguably the most sustainable locally available leather.
On top of this, Liam only uses hides which are treated with plant-based dyes. ‘Vegetable tanning is a completely natural and ancient process that uses the tannins found in leaves and bark to produce a non-toxic and biodegradable material,’ Liam explains. ‘As with human skin, vegetable-tanned leather naturally ages with time. It can darken, mark and scar with use. It changes with you.’
Liam sources his kangaroo leather from the Packer tannery in Queensland – an internationally renowned family business now run by the fifth generation of Packers. And it is the only material he uses, cutting each piece by hand and employing a traditional technique called ‘skiving’ to bend the leather into shape without wearing out the crease. After cutting and shaping the leather, Liam stitches the folds together on an old Pfaff sewing machine; though with some thicker pieces he must bevel the sides by hand. Such a deliberate choice of a single material means he can focus on doing one thing and doing it really well.
‘I work with incredibly beautiful, old machinery, knives and hand tools that I have acquired over time,’ he says. ‘Working in an old craft means that a lot of my machinery has been around longer than me.’
It may sound painstaking and old-fashioned, but Liam relishes the time and focus the process involves, and it’s given him an intense respect for the life his materials have lived before they reach his studio. ‘Kangaroos are wild animals, so their skin is often scarred or marked. They get in fights, they bound through the harsh Australian bush, they get bitten by insects. I choose to embrace these imperfections in the leather, because they tell a story’ he says.
As the native leather is dyed in natural tannins, the ochre earthiness of the dry Australian landscape shines through in every one of Liam’s designs. A true representation of the land it came from!
As enamoured as we are with Liam’s dedication? A selection of his pieces are available at Handsom and Error 404. He will also have a stall at Rose Street Artists’ Market in Fitzroy on the 23rd of January, the 6th and 20th of February.
Learn more about Liam Dillon Designs here.