Hello Quality: An accidental purchase leads to a new business with big ideas
Cape Town, W. Cape, SA – Horse riding is mostly an elite activity, and it comes with specialised requirements – it’s not an industry you stumble into by chance.
Not usually, anyway.
In 2014, former Zimbabwean Pardon Gwenzi was running a bar at a golf club in Greenpoint, and with the cold Cape winter approaching, he and his South African-born wife, Gladys Sethole, went shopping for warm footwear. In a thrift shop, they found 3 pairs of very elegant but very reasonably priced leather boots, which neither they nor the shop realised were horse riding dress boots – worth thousands.
Still ignorant about their function, they found the leather too hard to be comfortable, so they put them up for sale online, for the few hundred Rand they’d paid for them.
“The bell didn’t stop ringing,” he said, “so much so that the landlord wanted us to leave.”
Fast forward to 2017: Pardon and Gladys had taken the germ of an idea and run with it. Working from their garage in Thornton, they had learnt how to make footwear. Through “a very costly but very necessary” exercise with John Whittle & Co., and with help from retired – “but prolific” – last maker Jeff Human, they had a set of lasts. They had learnt, from the horse-riding client base they didn’t previously know existed, about the diversity of horse riding footwear, and that most of the footwear sold locally was imported.
And they had a prototype.
“The reception from the market to our boots was phenomenal,” he said. “We created more demand than we could supply.”
Part of the popularity was due to their pricing, which was well below the price of imported boots, and which also led to some controversy, “with an accusation by local competitor that we were selling counterfeit goods and items made using child labour”, he said.
But the major evolution of the business over time has been to a bespoke type of manufacturing, measuring individual customers. “Riding footwear has different parts,” he said. “Different people have the same foot size, but they have different leg lengths between foot and knee – and these are knee boots – and they have different calf measurements.”
Also, there are different categories of horse-riding boots: The sleek, elegant and unadorned dress boot for formal events, field boots with laces at the ankle for greater flexibility, and Western boots. Those are the categories that Hello Quality concentrates on, “but there are 24 disciplines in riding”, he said, “and we have learnt everything from our customers – the importance of grip on the sole, what heel heights are necessary and why, the need to cater for a high instep requirement.
“Riding boots were judged on protection and durability, but now they must also be aesthetically pleasing and comfortable during and after riding.”
It also has a ready-to-wear range, which it sells on its website.
In March 2021, Hello Quality moved to a 390 m² building in Brackenfell, housing factory, office, and showroom. Current output is 10-15 pairs of long boots or 30-50 pairs of short boots per day.
It has a staff complement of 22, which includes trainees. “We teach people shoemaking from scratch,” he said, “and when we need staff for overtime work, they’re available.”
He said his wife is the key person in the business. “I believe we complement each other as I'm strong in company structure, relations, sales, and marketing, and even though she has never had formal shoe design training, she is very artistic and loves to work with her hands.
“She spends more time downstairs in the factory, and I spend more time upstairs speaking to clients and overseeing company operations. In a nutshell, she's the engine and I'm just a body.”
Close to half of Hello Quality’s customers are foreigners who pick up their boots when they visit SA. For them, the business offers an online “virtual fitting” ahead of time.
It has now moved into exports. “In June, friends who were exhibiting at a horse-riding event in Germany took 18 pairs to show. We wanted to demonstrate our workmanship, but we also wanted to be different, to emphasise our South African roots, so we made the boots in zebra skin-, goat skin- and hair-on Nguni leathers, and floral printed leathers. So far, we’ve had 8 orders, and I think that will grow.”
There was another obvious question: Since they started making horse-riding footwear, have Pardon and Gladys joined the riding set?
“Oh no, Tony, goodness me, I take my hat off to riders,” he said. “I can't stand being on top of a horse, let alone jumping up and down with it. No! Our children will ride, most likely our youngest daughter, Amber-Rose.”
The full range is available online at https://helloquality.co.za/