Corset and packaging, digitally-printed leather / cardboard, designed by Donna-May Bolinger, made by Donna-May Bolinger Atelier, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 2006
Since opening her own business in Sydney in 1992, Donna-May Bolinger has developed a reputation for producing high-quality, hand-made shoes and leather accessories. She designed this digitally-printed corset in 2006, combing fetishist images of feathers, flowers, buckles and tartans with late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century vignettes of naked women. The piece reflects Bolinger's interest in the sexual nature of corsetry as well as a desire to create sculptural, shapely pieces for the female form.
The Donna-May Bolinger Atelier produced this piece in around forty hours, cutting and assembling the components before printing and polishing. Bolinger worked with an independent printer and chemist to develop the digital-printing process that gives the leather a photographic look without affecting the durability or flexibility of the material.
For Bolinger, the handmade quality of her work has been both an asset and a hindrance. While her one-off shoes and accessories attract a steady stream of clients, a lack of available, experienced specialists often impedes production. These conditions limit her to producing a maximum of one hundred pairs of shoes per order, and force her to adapt her designs according to the materials and skills available. Bolinger finds the local shoe-making industry a sharp contrast to the one in Italy, which supports a network of studios that specialise in specific components. While running her own label and showroom in Milan, Bolinger noted that Italian shoemakers could have even the most fanciful components made to order.
Bolinger's business underwent a major change in 2007 when she began to import mass-produced, Chinese shoe uppers and bag components for assembly in Australia. By reducing her costs, the venture made her handmade pieces more affordable to the general market. It also allowed her to accept larger orders of up to one hundred pairs of shoes. Ultimately she believes the production of one-off shoes in Australia will follow a trend similar to that of other luxury goods, which are now increasingly produced by Asian neighbours.
This digitally-printed leather corset was designed by Donna-May Bolinger and made by her atelier in Sydney in 2006. Production took around 40 hours and involved the work of several master craftsmen.
To begin her design process, Bolinger makes rough sketches followed by a prototype for resolving shape and construction. She employs a changing team of independent, internationally-trained specialists to make and assemble various components. For her shoes, for example, she uses a 'clicker' to cut the leather, a machinist to stitch the pieces together, a master craftsman to pull the leather into shape, a bottom finisher to work on the heels and soles, and a cosmetic finisher to refine the piece with printing, polishing and tinting. Bolinger has also referred to a chemist for the best method of digitally printing her collaged patterns onto leather.
In the past, Bolinger has tested new ways to accelerate this process, and this has led her to combine handmade and machine-made components and to reduce her patterns to a 'shorthand' series. She has also refined her team to include specialists who understand and adapt to the demands of each new project. Bolinger's relationships with her clients have also developed, and she feels that she now understands their needs almost instinctively. Nonetheless, she continues to send half finished prototypes to her clients for approval.
After graduating from college in sculpture, fashion and textile design in 1987, Donna-May Bolinger chose to work with leather for its sculptural qualities. 'Leather is sculptural and architectural. It speaks of the body, is endlessly malleable and sensual; durable yet delicate.' She developed a reputation amongst individual clients and fashion designers for producing high-quality, one-off shoes and leather accessories.
A reduction of Australian import duties in the mid 1980s had a significant effect upon the small number of local makers of customised shoes and leather accessories. Although several companies closed, Bolinger was able to adapt to the new conditions to establish a successful Sydney workshop and showroom. Since 1992, she has made pieces for many leading Australian fashion designers, such as Akira Isogawa, Wayne Cooper and Easton Pearson, as well as international fashion houses that include Sergio Rossi, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. In 2005 her workshop produced around 8500 pairs of custom-made shoes as well as a significant range of leather accessories that included wallets, bags, cuffs, corsets and belts.