I can’t remember the exact moment when I became aware of veldskoens, a.k.a. vellies. These leather foot coverings — somewhere between a shoe and a boot — have always been prolific in rural South Africa, lining the shelves of padstals (farm stalls), small clothing shops, and famers’ co-ops. I would often see them and think: Those are nice shoes. I should buy a pair.
For some reason I never got around to buying any of those small-town vellies; I only acquired my own pair last October during the 2022 #JacarandaInYourPocket campaign. As one of the campaign’s tour leaders, I received a pair of purple-soled vellies from Veldskoen®, a popular South African company marketing vellies in a number of cheerful colors.
The moment I slipped on these shoes, I was in love. They look great on everyone’s feet, they match virtually every outfit, and they are insanely comfortable. I have walked as far as 12 kilometers in a single day in them without getting a blister. Vellies are simple, practical, tasteful, affordable (usually around R1000, or $55 — sometimes even less), and locally made — in other words, the perfect shoe.
A few months later, during our recent trip to Namibia, Thorsten and I walked into a shop called Vellie Valley in Swakopmund. We were enchanted by the kaleidoscope of vellies in every possible color combination, and Thorsten bought a pair.
I was intrigued to find vellies in a neighboring country, made by a different company from the pair I had, and started wondering where these shoes originally came from and what they actually are. When we got home, I started googling.
I found that vellies are more than just shoes. They are a Southern African cultural phenomenon with a long and interesting history, steeped in legend.
What Are Veldskoens and Where Did They Come From?
The veldskoen (also spelled “veldskoene” — the word means “field shoes” in Afrikaans) is a simple, ankle-height boot made from a piece of animal hide stitched to a rubber sole. Vellies have always been popular in South Africa, especially among farmers, and they are also made in Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Vellies are made using “stitchdown construction”, which means the stitches attaching the shoe to the sole are visible.
According to the Veldskoen® website, veldskoens date back to South African pre-colonial times. “According to Khoisan tribal folklore,” says the website’s ‘About’ page, “There were leather shoes, cut from a single hide, being made and worn by the tribe, as far back as 1000 years before” Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa in the 17th century.
Another theory goes that vellies originated in the Cederberg mountains in the 1830s, when German Rhenish missionaries started a shoe factory in the town of Wuppertal. That company, Strassbergers, still produces veldskoens shoes at its factory in the town of Clanwilliam.
More than 100 years later, during WWII, British shoemaker Nathan Clark is said to have encountered veldskoen-style boots at a bazaar in Cairo — brought there by South African military officers — and used those veldskoens as the inspiration for chukka boots. Chukka boots, also called desert boots, became a global trend in the second half of the 20th century.
Assuming these stories are true, or even just partially true, veldskoens have been in Africa for at least a couple of centuries and have taken their unique style around the world multiple times over. And right now, vellies are having a moment. South Africans of all different ages and races are wearing them, there are many local companies making vellies, and they are all cool as hell. The 2020 South African Olympic team wore veldskoens to the opening ceremonies in Tokyo. Also, Prince Harry wears them.
Where to Buy Vellies in Joburg
As I was in the midst of discovering all of this yesterday, my friend Gail mentioned that there is a store in Boksburg, the Vellie Boutique, selling all the different brands of vellies. It was a Monday morning, pouring rain, and Boksburg is 35 minutes away. But the vellie gods had possessed me. So I got into my car immediately and trekked to the Vellie Boutique.
The Vellie Boutique was delightful, as expected. I quickly fell into a conversation with Sakkie and his wife Brenda, who run the shop with several members of their family, and I told them I had come all the way from Brixton to document their store for my blog. Later on, their nephew Marno joined. I forced them all into a family photoshoot.
Sakkie told me all about the different South African companies making vellies. I deeply admired a dark pink pair designed by Afrikaans singer and artist Jan Blohm, because I knew Thorsten was yearning for a pair of pink vellies, as well as a pair of bright yellow women’s vellies that are part of the Vellie Boutique’s own line.
Before I knew it, I was walking out of the Vellie Boutique with two new pairs of shoes, bidding a fond farewell to Sakkie and Brenda. Thorsten and I did a quick photoshoot with the shoes on the streets of Brixton this morning.
We now have four pairs of vellies between the two of us, and I’m pretty sure it’s not enough. The end.
Our shoes from the Vellie Boutique were complimentary. Opinions expressed are my own. Please note the Vellie Boutique has locations in Boksburg (Rietfontein & 6th Street, Boksburg North) and Pretoria (154 Thomson Street, Colbyn, Pretoria).