Words Corrie Erasmus Photographs Melanie Maré
From the classic and authentic to the exotic and wild, leather products from the Southern Cape are so beautiful and diverse, they are cherished by customers from around the world.
Werner Pienaar is the owner of Beatnix Leatherworks, cowhide and calfskin cases and handbags manufactured in a workshop in Great Brak River. His rustic workshop supplies more than 120 shops countrywide and clients worldwide.
An entrepreneur to the core, he started his leatherworks business 25 years ago with only R700 in his pocket. “I had just finished my national service duty and with the last of my salary I bought some simple tools and a cow hide.”
With these meagre supplies he began making vellies, (South African leather shoes), and painted them by hand with a daisy motif. Not long after, he followed it up with leather handbags. He decided to move from his hometown, George, to Johannesburg to sell his creations at flea markets. Various shops took note of his talent and he began providing them with stock.
In 2000 he returned to Great Brak River, from where Beatnix now operates.
He and seven skilled local employees produce about 80 bags a week, as well as wallets, suitcases and belts.
“Hard work and well-priced, excellent products, along with first-rate service is the key to our success. We offer a free, five-year repair guarantee, which clients find remarkable.”
They manufacture their products from top-quality, ready-tanned cowhides and calfskins, but the colouring of hides they do themselves – which can be quite tricky.
Although he has experience working with other types of leather, Werner has found his market in the cowhide niche. In addition to South African shops, Beatnix exports to the United States and sells online to clients around the world.
Leigh Foyster, Beatnix’s administrative officer and bookkeeper, says she finds it very exciting to see how the business has grown over the years. “In the past, most of our clients were local, now there is an increasing amount of interest from a wide variety of prospective clients,” she says.
Lugro Ostrich Leather Products
When disaster struck the ostrich farming community in the late 1990s, ostrich farmers Fanie and Lucia Greeff turned to Lucia’s handbag-making hobby as a potential lifesaver, which has since morphed into a lucrative business.
“Severe droughts, floods, slaughter quotas and disease pulled the rug from under the feet of many ostrich farmers, including Fanie’s,” remembers Lucia.
An experienced seamstress, Lucia had started some years earlier making handbags from the treated ostrich hides of fallen birds on the farm.
With no experience or knowledge, but with plenty of common sense and strong needlework skills, Lucia consulted leatherworkers in Cape Town and George, who helped her refine her products.
Things began to fall in place when, in 2001, the Greeffs were approached by Graaff-Reinet ostrich farmer, Charles Biggs, to manufacture ostrich leather products for a new shop, Karoo Classics, in Stellenbosch.
At about the same time, an ostrich leather wallet manufacturer in Oudtshoorn closed down. The Greeffs obtained some of the old factory equipment and employed four is its staff members. The workshop initially started on the farm but moved into town in 2010. Today, Lugro Ostrich Leather Products operates from the premises of a beautifully restored national heritage house in Langenhoven Road and the custom-built factory behind the showroom. They employ 14 permanent and two temporary staff members, who are mentored and trained by the Greeffs.
Ready-tanned and dyed ostrich hides are sourced from the Klein Karoo Cooperation and used to create a wide range of quality products for shops and private clients around the world. The range includes handbags, wallets, purses and belts.
Their exciting upwards growing curve has taken Lucia to Milan, Italy, three times in order to follow courses in pattern making and design.
“We strive to keep on producing articles of the highest quality and to put out something new every year. After all these years in the business, the most rewarding thing remains seeing a happy client. I still get excited about every new product that we put on our shelves,” says Lucia.
The factory shop is teeming with customers when South visits Der Lederhändler owner Hennie Pienaar in the Tamsui George industrial factory premises. “Our factory has become a popular tourist stop where visitors can buy quality products at very competitive prices,” says Hennie.
Started in 1981 as a hobby in a garage in Pretoria by German brothers Rolf and Mike Stumpfe, Der Lederhändler makes a wide range of luggage, handbags, belts, shoes and accessories, which are distributed to shops across South Africa, Namibia and online customers around the world. The company moved to George in 1984. Hennie joined the company as financial manager, relocated with the Stumpfes and evolved with the business until he became sole owner in 2006 when the brothers retired.
A dynamic team of 46 people, many of whom have worked for the company for more than 20 years, is behind the quality and excellent service for which the brand has become known. “We are a very strong team and each worker takes responsibility for his or her specific function. To me, one of the biggest joys is to see a happy team, growing along with the business,” says Hennie.
Ready-tanned and dyed leather is procured from various tanneries. Kudu, cattle and ostrich hides are the most popular.
New prototypes are created from synthetic material and tweaked until perfection before the production team works on the leather. “When designing a new product, we consider aspects such as functionality and the availability of accessories.”
While most Der Lederhändler styles are timeless, Hennie travels regularly to monitor market needs and fashion trends. “Our classic look means our products remain functional for a long period and therefore have to be top quality – one of the handbag styles continues to be in demand 20 years after it was first introduced to the product line.
When the Stumpfe brothers retired, Hennie decided to outsource the footwear, mostly slippers and sandals, to a shoemaker in Cape Town where manufacturing is done under licence and according to Der Lederhändler’s specifications.
“Although economic times present challenges, we survive tough times by being cost-effective and quality-focused. Our credo is that a person must feel important, not imported, after acquiring one of our products,” says Hennie.
“One of our strong points is the fact that we can repair our own products in the unlikely event that something needs mending.”
In addition to the factory shop in Tamsui, Der Lederhändler also has outlets in the Garden Route Mall, the Pick n Pay Centre in Knysna Drive in George and the Langeberg Mall in Mossel Bay.
Aldo Kleyn Leather Designs
Aldo Kleyn Leather Designs (AKLD) in Thesen Islands Harbour Town creates trendsetting leatherwear and accessories in a fine symbiosis of classical and cutting edge.
A passionate leather designer for over three decades, Aldo started in the competitive Johannesburg industry of the 1980s before moving to New York where he met and partnered with fellow leather artiste Cilia in what was to become one of the hippest outlets in the East Village. “It was great fun,” he smiles as he flips through albums portraying leather-clad movie and pop stars twirling in front of their mirrors in striking custom-made creations.
Moving back to South Africa 12 years ago, the duo set up shop in Knysna, from where they continue their exceptional neo-classical range of handbags, belts, bracelets, clutch bags and purses, moulded from South African indigenous hides such as ostrich, springbok, kudu and zebra.
The couple’s extraordinary work with exotic skins, such as python, crocodile and stingray, and their new favourite, mussel cracker fish, has established a loyal following of local and international clients. In addition to their ever-evolving accessories range, AKLD continues to do custom work.
“Exclusive, yes. Exotic, surely. AKLD is simultaneously wild and refined. We have something for everybody here, trust me,” says Cilia.