Red Band Gumboots Turn 50
16 May 2008
Celebrating 50 years of keeping New Zealand feet happy
Did you know New Zealanders typically have wider feet than other people?
Well, wider than Australian’s anyway, which is something the Skellerup footwear designers have found out over time. Judging by the popularity of Skellerup’s Red Band Gumboots however, they’ve got the measurements just right.
The wide-topped mid-calf step in boot with its recognisable red bands and toe caps celebrates 50 years in production this year. In all that time, apart from the inclusion of a sponge insole for added comfort, the boot hasn’t changed a bit.
Skellerup Divisional Manager Footwear, Paul Randall, says the Red Band Gumboots were the first short boots ever to be produced in New Zealand, if not the world.
“Traditionally gumboots have always come up to just below the knee. No-one is quite sure who it was at Marathon Rubber Footwear – the forerunner to Skellerup - who had the idea to create a shorter boot but sometime during 1958 the new concept was tried out.
“The first pair of Red Band Gumboots rolled off the production line on 21 October, 1958 and became an instant hit around the country,” says Randall.
Fifty years later the boots are still a staple in most rural New Zealand households.
Natural rubber compounds with built in UV inhibitors that can withstand New Zealand’s harsh environment and its heavy-duty non-clog cleated sole are just two of the boot’s many features that make the Red Band Gumboot brand so popular.
They also use heavy-duty 100% cotton canvas to which the rubber is bonded. This gives the boots greater strength, flexibility and protection.
Red Band Gumboots continued to be made at Skellerup’s Woolston factory in Christchurch until the late 1980s when economic considerations forced the company to move production offshore. They were the first boots to be made at the company’s new factory in Jiangsu, China. The reason for this, says Randall, is because they are the simplest boots to make.
“They are still hand-made to the original specifications and formulations that were created 50 years ago,” says Randall. “Each boot is made up of 19 individual components with at least six different rubber formulations used in every boot.”
The Jiangsu factory has the capacity to produce up to 1,000 Red Band boots a day and the New Zealand market soaks them up.
They have become part of the Kiwi landscape. After all, in the immortal words of Fred Dagg, “If it weren’t for your gumboots where would you be?”
16 May 2008
Fifty years on the job for Skellerup footwear specialist
A lot can happen in 50 years. Just ask Brian McFall who joined Skellerup only months before the company’s iconic Red Band Gumboot rolled off the Christchurch factory’s production line for the first time in October, 1958.
Fifty years on and Skellerup’s footwear specialist is still as fascinated by making shoes as he was when he joined what was then, Marathon Rubber Footwear, as a twenty-year old.
“My first job was putting the metal last for sandshoes on the conveyor belt which would then be taken away for someone else to fix the upper to. I gradually got moved around the factory working on many different operations involved in making footwear. I never realised making shoes was such a complicated process.”
At that time over 500 people were employed by Skellerup in its Woolston factory making around half of New Zealand’s total footwear requirements.
“It was like living in a small town really,” says Brian. “The atmosphere was great.”
Within three years of joining the company he was offered a promotion to be trainee manager of the sewing room. He was about to accept, delighted at the thought of being in charge of a room full of women, when Skellerup offered him an alternative opportunity to become a trainee pattern cutter and designer.
“The role suited me much better as it gave me the chance to be more involved in a hands-on way. It was such fun, I couldn’t believe they were paying me to do it.”
Brian went on to become Skellerup Footwear’s Chief Designer and was instrumental in developing the huge range of gumboots, sandshoes, thongs, and other footwear that was produced in the Woolston factory.
Over the years other responsibilities fell to him including quality control and, at one stage, supervision of three sewing rooms. He became Assistant General Manager of Skellerup Footwear, a role he held for 12 years from 1984 – 1996 and sat for several years on the Skellerup Footwear board.
Brian has travelled extensively for Skellerup working in Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, India, Puerto Rico, USA, Italy and more recently China. He was a fundamental part of the success of the new Skellerup factory in Jiangsu where he was involved in staff training. He continues to fly to China every six to eight weeks to continue this role.
“It’s vital to ensure the boots are being made to the Skellerup standard before I can give them sign-off to start production,” he says.
“It is sad that production had to move but making footwear is so labour intensive that we wouldn’t have survived. We’ve always made sure however, that the quality never drops and that everything is made to the specific Skellerup formulations.”
As you can imagine, Brian’s seen a lot of shoes and boots over the years, and aside from the Red Band Gumboots, his other favourite model is the Commando.
“In its heyday we were selling about 220,000 pairs a year of the white canvas Commando. One season during the sixties we even released it as a “Doodle Sneaker” which came with a colouring-in kit which people could use to draw on their own designs.”
Brian says that part of Skellerup’s success has been that it “does the difficult stuff” and produces quality products that last.
“Working with rubber formulations is very challenging. You only have a short window to make the boots after you’ve made the rubber material. After a boot is cut and fitted together, it then has to be cooked at 133 C for over an hour. You can’t afford to make a mistake anywhere in the production process.”
As Skellerup’s chief pattern maker, Brian would get called upon to cut patterns for special orders. He’s made a pair of body waders for the Duke of Edinburgh and countless pairs of boots for “very large legs and feet”. Cases for special shoes or boots that were referred from the hospital were only charged a dollar extra even though it involved an extra three or four days work.
“It was part of Skellerup’s service to the community,” says Brian.
Fifty years on, and on the eve of another trip to China, this time to check on the efficiencies of the factory ahead of a new release of boots planned for later this year, Brian is still passionate, enthusiastic and excited to be part of this continuing gumboot success story.
16 May 2008
Rural bachelors show off Red Band rhythm
Just how much rhythm does a farmer have?
That’s a question this year’s Fieldays Rural Bachelor of the Year competition will answer.
The Rural Bachelor of the Year competition looks for New Zealand’s most eligible bachelor by setting the finalists a range of tasks. The series of heats is designed to cover all aspects of the typical rural Kiwi bloke’s lifestyle including fencing, digger driving, chain sawing, dog trialling and this year – gumboot dancing.
“Ladies love a man with good rhythm,” says Skellerup marketing co-ordinator Deborah Allan. “And what better way to showcase their skills than in traditional farming footwear.”
Skellerup is sponsoring the gumboot dancing heat as part of its celebrations to mark 50 years of the company’s iconic Red Band gumboots.
Allan says Skellerup has engaged the talents of New Zealand’s only gumboot dancing troupe to help teach the contestants a routine and then judge them on their dancing skills.
Established a year ago, Maja Flava is a group of eight South African students at Pakuranga College in Auckland. They perform traditional gumboot dancing, hip hop and salsa under the leadership of George Bester, a Cape Town hairdresser turned builder who now lives in Auckland.
“Each of our dancers will take one of the bachelors and coach them through a simple routine,” says George. “All the finalists will get the same routine. When it comes to judging we’ll be looking for a certain ‘rawness’ that shows they’ve interpreted the meaning of the dance as well as just learning the moves.”
Despite its cheerful nature now, gumboot dancing actually has heart-rending origins. It developed deep in the South African goldmines as a form of Morse Code where miners worked in the dark and in silence. The mines were always ankle deep in water that was considered too expensive to drain. Miners were given gumboots to protect their feet and so slapping the gumboots became a way of sending messages and communicating with each other.
The practice grew from there into a form of entertainment in the overcrowded dormitories and spread into an art form which now has a global audience.
“The bachelors are going to have six minutes either in one group or two groups of four to show they’ve got the right moves,” says Bester.
He says there will be some light African music in the background but an important part of the dance is the noise created by slapping the gumboots.
This is the sixth Rural Bachelor of the Year competition and to qualify to enter eligible contestants need to be over 18, work in the rural industry, ooze Kiwi bloke charm, and most importantly, be single.
Although they probably won’t be for long once they’ve got their Red Band rhythm going on.
14 April 2008
Ten surprising facts about Red Band Gumboots
• The first pair of Red Band Gumboots rolled off the production line on 21 October, 1958.
• Red Band Gumboots are still made the same way using the same rubber formulation today. The only change in 50 years is the inclusion of a sponge insole for added comfort.
• Red Band Gumboots are made from rubber grown in Vietnam which is mixed with carbon black processed from oil, chemicals to protect disintegration, clay and a blend of 15 to 20 curing ingredients.
• Each Red Band Gumboot is made from 19 separate parts.
• The boots spend 1hour and 20 minutes cooking at 133 C in a vulcanizer which makes the rubber hard but flexible. Gumboots need to be properly cooked or they perish quickly.
• The first pairs of Red Band Gumboots retailed for twenty five shillings and 11 pence.
• The Jiangsu factory in China can produce up to 1,000 pairs of Red Band Gumboots a day.
• Red Band Gumboots were New Zealand’s, and probably the world’s first short gumboot.
• Red Band Gumboots are made by hand and hand rolled. Each piece of the boot is made by Skellerup.
• Red Band Gumboots are more popular in New Zealand because they have a wider fit that suits Kiwi’s typically bigger feet (bigger than Australians anyway!)