By James Purtill
Original Article Updated 9 Jun 2015, 8:31am
For a brief moment in the early 1990s it may have appeared the Australians of the future would be dressed in fish, toad and fowl.
Darwin seamstress Therese O’Hehir was at the height of her morning television fame, promoting to a national audience the virtues of barramundi skin bikinis, cane toad appliques, and chicken foot leather dress hems.
Her next dress, she told Channel 7’s 11AM host Ann Sanders, would be for Madonna, and she would use the leather of the poisonous cane toad.
If anyone in Australia could have turned the plague of warty aliens into a coveted fashion item it would have been Ms O’Hehir, who had slaved for months in a tannery learning the lost art of sewing barramundi skins.
And if anyone could have popularised cane toad fashion – or barra couture – it would have been the world-famous “queen of pop”, then promoting her latest album, Erotica.
Meanwhile, far away on the remote southern coast of Western Australia, unbeknownst to Ms O’Hehir, another man was also labouring in a shed to unlock the secrets of barramundi leather.
Ms O’Hehir would never sew a dress for Madonna, but Andrew MacDermott would one day make a fish leather jacket for Michael Caine, for the role of anarchist submariner Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Twenty years on, Mr McDermott describes his business, Mermaid Leather, as the only specialist fish leather supplier in Australia.
The story of boutique leather in Australia is one of amateur enthusiasts working in isolation to turn wild-caught animals into delicate and feminine items of fashion.
It is also an industry that has suffered with the outsourcing of manufacturing overseas.
It would be another boutique leather – crocodile – that would hit the big time in the 1990s and the new millennium, but the tannery where Ms O’Hehir sourced barramundi leather closed in 2002.
There are no longer any tanneries in the NT, while the Territory’s crocodile skin industry – hawking reptiles to the handbag makers of Europe – has grown to an estimated $20 million.
‘Croc farm worker married in barramundi skin dress’
Darwin in the early 1990s was “the place to fulfil dreams if you had them” – a place where a man could tan a barramundi in a shed and see it months later on national television.
Backyard tanner Bob Hostalek walked into Ms O’Hehir’s Darwin dressmakers with a bag of fresh barra leather and a “vision”.
“His vision was a good one,” Ms O’Hehir said more than 20 years later.
“He just didn’t know what to do with it.”
She had never see anything like the samples he showed her – thicker than cow leather, resistant to decay, shiny and tough and durable.
To learn how to work the new material Ms O’Hehir installed her industrial sewing machine in the tannery, labouring without air-conditioning and returning home each night stinking of fish.
“I thought ‘oh God’, but that’s what you do.”
She travelled to a Sydney trade expo and her story was picked up by national television.
“I just recently made a wedding dress for a lady who works at the crocodile farm in Darwin,” Ms O’Hehir told Ann Sanders on the program 11AM.
“And she was married from a wedding dress made from barramundi skin.”
She told how, after being instructed to make a wedding dress “like in the video clip of Guns & Roses”, she invented what may have been the world’s first chicken foot leather hem.
“I used tulle and organza,” she said.
“It was ornamented with pearls and crystals.
“It was pretty wild.”
The television host, who was sporting a chunky gold necklace and jacket with fashionable shoulder pads, smiled thinly, as though tickled by the idea of anyone making such a faux pas.
Ms O’Hehir pressed on.
“The next dress I want to do I want to do for someone like Madonna or Cher,” she said.
But she knew her ambition was baseless.
“I knew deep down I didn’t have the funds in the first place to go further,” she said, more than 20 years after the interview.
But she would still like to make that dress.
“If I could get the skins it wouldn’t be a problem,” she said.
Why Captain Nemo wears Australian fish leather
In his Esperance tannery on the edge of the southern ocean, Mr MacDermott dreams of fish leather going mainstream and of a national tanning industry “finding more wealth from the ocean”.
The tannery uses skin that would otherwise be thrown away in the making of fillets, turning them into handbags, bookmarks, key rings and wallets.
“We regularly tan western blue groper, queen snapper, red snapper, break sea cod, sweep, harlequin, mulloway, bronze whaler, gummy shark, whiskery shark, school shark,” he said.
He will not say how much raw fish skin costs, though a kilogram of fish scales will set you back about $150.
Interest in fish leather was slowly growing, he said.
“We’ve been in the same location sprouting the same information for six days of the week now since 93.”
“I don’t think tanning is a dying craft.
“But I don’t think it’s encouraged at a commercial level.”
For the moment, the only place where people wear clothes made entirely of fish skin is in the alternate fictional universe of cinema.
“Sometimes in films I see what I think is fish leather,” he said.
“There have been a couple times when I think, ‘Gee that looks like some snapper leather’.”
In Darwin, the machinery from Prestige Leather – the tannery where Ms O’Hehir learned to sew barramundi – now sits under dust covers in the workshop of Croc Stock and Barra.
Here owner Aaron Rodwell stocks barramundi items made from fish caught off the coast of the Kimberley.
They are tanned in Adelaide and made into products in Perth as well as Darwin.
“I’ve been approached by other commercial barramundi fishermen who want to give me their skins,” he said.
“I think a lot of it does go to waste.
“Basically you can make anything out of it.”
His latest item is a barramundi belted mini skirt dress made from 30 individual skins (15 fish) and costing about $500.