Learning how to make couture from dead animals

A day in the life: Dave Waller hooks up with two artists who make couture from dead animals. Is there a job more macabre?

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

This month I'm getting into the bare bones of interior design. That's not so grubby, you may think. But it is when we're making pieces from animal corpses.

I arrive early at Brighton's Eaton Nott, a design shop that's all dead puppies in bell jars and ornaments intricately carved from horse skulls.

Tattooed owners Jess Eaton and Jon Nott usher me through to the backroom studio, where a flock of goose wings hangs drying above tubs of bleached bones. 'Come and help me skin this alpaca,' says Jess, throwing me a pair of disposable gloves. Just another day in the office.

'Aw, look at him,' says Jess, as I follow her out to the garden and encounter said alpaca lying on a carrier bag next to a couple of ex-geese.

She merrily cuts the skin away from the raw flesh with a scalpel. It's a fresh kill, so the skin should work in one of her fashion designs; Jon will make something out of the skeleton. She hands me the scalpel and tells me it's like 'peeling an orange'.

It's more like performing an autopsy on my late dog. My nose turns up as I yank at the fur, until the membrane gives way to the blade. 'I love the crackling sound it makes when the skin comes off,' Jess says.

Dave Waller gets to work

She rescues me from the task and explains what the hell is going on. She and Jon set up the shop a year ago as an outlet for their passions, which centre on making things from our natural resources, with the onus on zero waste.

She's quick to point out they're not encouraging people to kill animals - all are donated free by farmers and gamekeepers, so they were dead anyway.

'It's not macabre,' she insists, opening out a goose wing to show me the wonders of nature. 'It's a fascination with how this all works. Is it possible to find anything better designed than this?'

Jon's inside, putting the finishing touches to a pickled piglet. He tells me how he'd been to a farm and fished this one out of a metal bin full of dead pigs, which involved dipping elbow-deep into a sea of maggots.

He's not fazed though - he's been doing this sort of stuff since he was a kid. 'When I was eight I found a rotting head on a farm and hid it in my dad's car,' he says. 'I'll never forget the smell of the rot.'

That seems to make total sense to him, but I imagine the trouble he'd have explaining this to the small business chap at the bank. First: who's buying this stuff? Turns out the piglet is for an artist, while other pieces are sold to wealthy collectors who are after something different.

'We make things you can't get in Ikea,' says Jon. At least not until those canny Swedes invent the flatpack weasel.

At least the PR comes easy. The pair persuaded Kate Moss to wear one of Jess's seagull hats. As you can imagine, plonking dead birds on the heads of controversial models has ruffled more than a few feathers.

'When Brighton Fashion Week announced I was headlining, you may as well have said I'd killed 100 babies and made suits out of them,' says Jess, as she pulls the wing off a rook. 'People have sent us hate mail from the US, saying that we'll rot in hell. I bet they're not protesting about KFC and McDonald's.'

Salaries are another matter - any money made is ploughed back into the business, and Jon works as a tattooist to make ends meet. The high-end design work has, however, provided a channel for their quirks.

When she was a kid, Jess would collect and dissolve owl pellets for the tiny mouse bones inside, which she'd arrange into art. Now she sits scraping the meat from between the bones of a pile of goose wings, part of the two-week preparation period before she can make the outfit. If that's not dedication to your work, I don't know what is.

Indeed, as Jon hands me a pair of pliers and a rook and asks me to pull the legs and head off, it's painfully clear that you have to love this work - for whatever reason - in order to do it.

I grip the bird's head with the pliers, less marvelling at the wonder of nature than simply wishing all the bits came apart with a lot less mess than they do.

At least the experience has helped me find my own taste in design: precisely halfway between this and Ikea.

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