Vellies make global footprint
The zany shoes are the brainchild of three dotcom entrepreneurs, who all met at Pretoria Boys' High in the early to mid-1990s: Ross Zondagh, Nic Latouf and Nick Dreyer.
Zondagh and Dreyer were watching the South African team at the Rio Olympics in August 2016 and - like the rest of the country - were aghast at the team’s fashion faux pas; from the ill-fitting and garish tracksuits to the actual competition kit.
Nothing suggested the team was South African. They asked themselves what would, and came up with the velskoen, the humble South African leather shoe that would inspire the chukka or desert boot, but unlike anything that had ever been seen; handmade with colourful laces to match the soles, or mixed and matched if you owned more than one pair.
“We needed a smart guy to tell the story, which is why we approached Nic (Latouf), and that’s how DORP (Digital Online Retail Products) was started, as an e-commerce portal and platform to tell a cool story about a particular product and get people excited about it. We didn’t want to be another mall-type e-commerce business selling hundreds of different products from one site.”
And so Veldskoen was born - to the derision of everyone who heard about it. “Everyone laughed at us,” remembers Dreyer.
“We told them about our wonderful new venture, and their response was ‘don’t give up your day job!’” laughs Latouf, but all of it just spurred them on.
The business model was designed to be scalable so that the product could go global - which is literally what happened. A 49% acquisition of DORP by Long4Life, the lifestyle venture capital company which also owns Sportsmans Warehouse, Outdoor Warehouse and Sorbet, allowed the company to expand into the UK and European markets.
Then The Times in London reported that Prince Harry had been seen wearing a pair of the red-soled shoes.
“The quality of the royal family as a brand magnet cannot be underestimated,” says Zondagh. “Wow, what an impact that story had on the business”.
Kutcher’s involvement has been as high profile and just as important for the brand’s venture into the US market, as Dreyer says: “America is an incredibly tough market; there are many stories of people losing the shirt on their back, so to have a celebrity endorsement - and the necessary funding and infrastructure - is critically important to break through.”
Today, the all-South African business is growing. The head office is in Cape Town, and the factory in Durban produces up to 3500 pairs of bespoke shoes every month, which are shipped across the country and to Europe, the UK and the US.
The success has been such that the three entrepreneurs have now introduced a specific women’s range, dubbed Vellies, a uniquely South African take on the iconic 1960s Chelsea boot, and even a line of unique slip-slops dubbed, as you might imagine, Plakkies - with more fashion innovations in the pipeline later this year.
The driving force behind it all remains re-imagining a uniquely local icon and creating an international brand that South Africans can be proud of - there’s even a special range of green velskoen with the Springbok rugby logo embroidered on the side.
It doesn’t matter how big the brand gets - nothing will change, says Latouf; “our DNA is SA, our factory is here, we’re here, we’re not going anywhere else”.
And their wives? “They don’t laugh about it anymore,” says Zondagh, “they might laugh at other things...”
“They can’t,” chips in Dreyer, “they're all involved in the business now too”.