Off-the-grid Queensland designer Leah Kelly features in London’s Fashion Week

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A Far North Queensland clothing designer who sews and designs her clothes completely off the grid has recently featured on London’s catwalk. 

Leah Kelly lives just outside of Myola near Cairns and runs her international fashion brand without mains power, water, or sewerage.

She also only uses natural materials for her designs, which have featured across the runways and magazines of Europe.

In September, Leah Kelly by Design hit the runway as part of London Fashion Week but due to COVID Ms Kelly could not attend to see her work shown to the world.

“We set up a projector on a sheet in my backyard and watched it with some friends,” she said.

“It was a surreal experience watching it online in the middle of the night.”

Leah Kelly with some of her new dresses at her rainforest studio.(ABC Far North: Phil Brandel)

Ms Kelly has lived off the grid for the past 20 years and said she originally moved to her rainforest retreat as a challenge to live sustainably. 

“I moved here due to the challenge, and I wanted to move somewhere where my family could live cheaply and sustainably,” she said.

“I’ve always been an outdoors person who loves nature and camping.”

Not only does Ms Kelly live completely off the grid, she also prefers to buy second-hand with her solar panels, sewing machines and even her doors and windows coming from second-hand shops and garage sales.

While she prefers to live and work off-grid, she admits that it does have its challenges.

“You have grey days, where the sun is not hitting the panels enough so during those times I will work on my hand stitching,” Ms Kelly said.

“I’m a minimalist, I don’t have a TV, or toaster or microwave and the fridge and stove are both gas.

“I think a lot of people go to extremes in what they think they need to live day to day.

“I also have an old woodfired stove that I can cook on, so when I get stuck here in the wet season and I can’t get gas I can use that to cook on and dry things out.”

A black vintage singer sewing machine
Leah Kelly uses second-hand sewing machines that she finds at garage sales to sew her designs.(ABC Far North: Phil Brandel)

While her fashion is now being seen across the world, Leah Kelly by Design started as a market stall at the local Kuranda markets.

“I’ve been sewing and designing clothes for over 40 years,” she said.

“I had a market stall in the Kuranda markets, which wasn’t viable for me so I decided to do it from home.

“I only work with natural fibres like bamboo, hemp, pineapple silk, and banana bark.

“Then three years ago I was invited by Eco Fashion Week to show my work in Port Douglas and Western Australia.”

A model wearing a red dress on the catwalk
One of Leah Kelly’s designs on the catwalk at London Fashion Week.(Supplied: Leah Kelly)

From that initial show, Ms Kelly was then invited to exhibit at Paris Fashion Week in 2020 but it was cancelled.

She was then invited to exhibit at London Fashion Week in September of this year, even though she was unable to attend.

“I made each piece from hand off-grid, Ms Kelly said.

“I also composed the music that accompanied the show, I composed it on my piano and recorded it with a didgeridoo, cello and the sounds of local birds and sounds of thunder from here.

Some of Ms Kelly’s international customers include Darryl Hannah and Eliza Pearson.

Leah Kelly bent over a table using a sewing machine
Working from her rainforest studio west of Cairns.(Supplied: Leah Kelly)

“I’ve also designed wedding gowns for brides across the globe and I just sent a piece of lingerie to Germany,” she said.

“I’ve been told I’m a bit of an enigma in the fashion world, as people have seen my work but have never met or seen me.”