By Garth Johnstone
It was a cold and rainy day – the first day of Spring! – and I was driving down the road to Dargle to visit Dael Lithgow (cue John Denver, Take Me Home, Country Roads).
My mission was to catch up with the founder and owner of Zulu Boots, who is coincidentally an old acquaintance from Durban.
As I passed from tar road to dirt, the road was holding up just fine – the wife’s Toyota RunX seeming to revel in the slightly slippery, yet firm conditions. Although it was misty and visibility minimal, I knew from past experience that I was getting close to the iconic Inhlosane hill.
I was there to find out more about Dael’s brand, what had inspired him to get into boot making and design, and where he planned to take his operation, which is well known for producing beautiful boots, with hand-made leatherwork, stitching and bead work.
Peaceful and secluded
Tucked away, down off the district road, his place is peaceful and secluded. Here Dael and his nimble fingered workers create their magic, which has provided a good income for three women for years, one of whom has bought her own property in the area.
“I got into making boots by circumstance and trial and error,” he said. “Shortly after my first son was born, the year 2000, I got a job working for James Jordan in his bag making business (he supplies the bags that Groundcover sells).”
During this time he was challenged by a friend to make a pair of wool boots to fend off those all-too-familiar Midlands winter chills.
“I started designing a boot and, after many failures and a lot of help from the late Justin McCarthy of Groundcover, I came up with a pattern for boots that could be completely hand stitched. I made up a few pairs and the response was surprisingly good!”
He said he started to form a vision of a project where local Zulu women could be empowered through a meaningful livelihood, hand stitching export quality boots.
“Due to the simple, by-hand nature of the designs, the boots can be made without expensive machinery – in fact, the ladies use just saddle needles and waxed thread to construct our beautiful boots. The idea being that if demand was to grow we could scale the operation and set up ladies to assemble boots in locations near their homes, eliminating the need for them to travel long distances and spend time away from their families.”
Dael said they used the name Yeti Leather for years but recently rebranded to Zulu Boots “to showcase from where and by whom the boots are being made”. “We are working to get more into the international market and believe that this name is better for that. To that end, we have developed a new e-commerce website we hope will attract more interest from the northern hemisphere, where there is more buying power and far colder winters!”
He said, by using the website, customers can completely build a boot that is unique and custom-made to their taste. “Choose leather colours, add a beadwork, perhaps a custom cutout design, some tassels, a bit of extra length and more.”
The team will create the boots and courier or ship them to wherever the customer is.
The Zulu Boots website says: “Just like every snowflake that falls, every creation hand-crafted at Zulu Boots is unique. In our small, off-the-grid workshop in rural KwaZulu-Natal, we create timeless classics that embody the craftsmanship and quality of a bygone era.”
I decided to dig in and splash out on a pair of boots for my birthday.
There’s nothing better than knowing where a product comes from, who made it and benefits from the sale. Like with my trusty Groundcover leather boots, I’m sure I’ll treasure my Zulu Boots and get to wear them for years to come.
Chuffed with my purchase, it was time to get back in the car and head on down the road. A little rummage around for some tunes… much more Madala Kunene than John Denver this time.
For info: https://zuluboots.com/collections/boots