Swakop vellies – handmade shoes from the Namibian coast - News - Gondwana Collection

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Swakop vellies – handmade shoes from the Namibian coast

Avatar of inke inke - 19. July 2019 - Culture, Economics

Company owner Herbert Schier is busy with shoe making. Photo by: Brigitte Weidlich

Brigitte Weidlich

Two pieces of leather and a rubber strip made into a comfortable shoe - this handcraft has become an international trademark of the Swakopmund family business of Herbert Schier.

World-wide proud owners of the 'Swakop vellies' are posing with their shoes on social media and vying who will post the most original photos. The timeless and ultra-comfortable hide ('vel' in Afrikaans) shoes - meaning leather - have evolved from an everyday necessity in the sixties to cult status. They are at home in New York, as well as at the Munich Oktoberfest.

"Anyone wearing the affectionately termed 'Swakop vellies' these days actually makes a statement for Namibian handcrafted quality and a love for this country," says a happy owner from Bremen, who is travelling to Namibia for the fifth time, jokingly calling himself a "repeat offender". "You also come into contact with strangers who either say they've also bought vellies in Namibia or want to know where they are available," he smiles.

The Swakopmund workshop produces nearly sixty pairs of vellies each day. "A few years ago we also produced a special collection for the New York Fashion Week, and in May this year we completed 400 pairs of shoes for schoolchildren in Hoachanas," says company owner and boss Herbert Schier in one breath. "The children's shoes were donated by a German foundation," Schier adds, while quickly polishing the edges of some shoes on the machine in the workshop.

He modestly evades questions about the fashion week in New York, which is the absolute Olympus for every fashion enthusiast. "It's been almost eight years, even the New York Times has reported on it, but here at home we keep occupied with the daily work," he notes.

Schier prefers to describe how his scant dozen employees recently produced the 400 pairs of children's shoes in various sizes for a school in Hoachanas on time. "We were extremely busy, but the kids in this little Kalahari village north of Stampriet now have warm feet in winter," he says happily.

The staff are hard at work making the famous Swakop vellies. Photo by: Brigitte Weidlich

Trendy kudu leather shoes 

But in the company founded in 1938, the kudu leather classics were only later added as a product. His father, Ewald Schier, emigrated to Namibia more than 80 years ago after Swakopmund businessmen visiting Hamburg were looking for someone who could tan sealskins. 

"Grandfather Schier had a small tannery near Hamburg-Altona, and also tanned snake and fish skins. My father Ewald was trained as a tanner and also had professional contacts with the animal park Hagenbeck in Hamburg as taxidermist," remembers Herbert. 

"German-speaking businesspeople from the former South West Africa often came by, including Hermann Offen, who at that time had the concession for the seal colony at Cape Cross with other business partners. The hides of the seals were transported by boat in those days to Norway in barrels, where the only [European] tannery for seal skins was situated. The concessionaires were looking for someone who could tan the sealskins in Swakopmund. My father Ewald Schier, then a young man, was ready to emigrate."On 18 March 1938 - some 81 years ago the 'Swakopmund Tannery' was founded; one of the three founding partners was the young Ewald Schier. From 1943 onwards it was only a few streets away from the town's centre behind Hotel Grüner Kranz. The necessary machines were imported from England, because during the war, imports from Germany were not allowed. The company survived the Second World War and the associated economic constraints, but flourished thereafter. It tanned, dyed and processed leather. 

The first shoes are created 

"In the sixties, a gentleman, Hermanus Beukes from central Namibia approached my father and asked if he could help out. He was looking for a job and could work with leather," recalls Herbert Schier. Beukes, a Baster from the Rehoboth area, could also make shoes. The Baster are still known today for their leather crafts. Beukes later became a prominent politician as did his son Hewat.

Ewald Schier liked the shoes made by Beukes, they also sold fast. The design was touched up a bit but the classic look has been the same for over fifty years. 

Schier senior had then committed to kudu leather. "It is excellent leather, adapts to the respective shape of feet and shoes made of kudu leather last very, very long," explains son Herbert. The shoes are still made of two pieces of leather, sewn together and glued to a rubber sole, often from recycled car tyres. Moldings and stencils can be seen in all sizes in the workshop. 

After completing school in Swakopmund, Herbert Schier was trained as a tanner and leather specialist in Reutlingen. Upon his return, he joined the Swakopmund Tannery staff. When his father died in 1980, he took over the business. 

Herbert Schier shows that the vellies are mad from 2 leather pieces only. Photo by: Brigitte Weidlich

A big change took place in 2004, when the Swakopmund municipality said after 61 years the tannery could no longer continue in the city centre. "Swakopmund has of course become bigger and has changed, so have the regulations for businesses and industries. That's understandable," explains Schier. The company, known throughout the country, was closed after more than six decades, a difficult step.

."But I wanted to continue with a smaller company that processes leather, so I founded African Leather Creations," says Schier. ALC continues producing the famous kudu leather shoes/vellies. "We continue to produce quality shoes that are affordable for ordinary citizens," says Schier. 

The company's location in 2004 opposite the old prison building from the German era was far out then but is now close to the CBD and easily accessible to tourists on foot. 

In the meantime, the vellies are also made in different colours and shapes, as well as in the style of Nama shoes which are worn in southern Namibia. All shoes have the fabric trademark with the word 'Kuduleder' (kudu leather) sewn onto them. Customers can recognise imitations, which also started surfacing in the market. 

Old vellies get 'restored' 

Many farmers and hikers sometimes come with their older pair of vellies and ask for repairs or new soles. "We still do that, because that's customer service," the sales assistants explain. 

Another plus: owners who after many kilometres must depart with a heavy heart from their loyal shoe wear, because repairing is no longer possible, can return the old friends and receive a ten percent discount on the new shoes! 

New plans for the future

Although the company does not plan mass production, the workshop is soon to be outsourced, just two street corners away. The extra square metres will create more space for the sales area. In addition, a small leather and shoe museum is planned. Schier's passion for collecting items of yesteryear is visible; some of machines, which are still in use have museum value - being almost antique -and are working fine. 

"We start expanding and making a fresh start although I'm almost seventy years old," says the 69-year-old leather expert confidently. 

The future of the original Swakop vellies definitely looks bright.

At the workshop older vellies are also repaired (Photo left by: Brigitte Weidlich). The vellies need to be ‘walked in’ to get the characteristic look (Photo right by: Daniel Ka de Villiers)
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