Back in the mid-’80s, I was a newspaper editor in Windhoek living with a fine woman who owned the swankiest fashion boutique in the Namibian capital. Twice a year she would travel to South Africa on buying trips to refresh her racks… alternately to Johannesburg and Cape Town.
One year she came back from the latter and modelled some of her acquisitions. One was a range of informal but very sexy Balinese style cotton dresses with lace patterns at the neck and hemlines.
“Country Feeling,” I said knowledgeably.
My partner was gobsmacked; my fashion knowledge was (and remains) severely limited.
Backtrack to 1978 when I did my first trip to Jeffreys Bay in the Eastern Cape; with R135 in my pocket and seven weeks till I had to report for National Service.
Cheron Habib was a Joburg child like me… she was from Kensington and myself from Hillbrow/Berea.
Cheron (now Kraak) worked in the Wimpy on J-Bay’s Main Beach in the evenings, while she was launching her clothing empire round the corner in a storefront no larger or fancier than a ship container.
“I worked as a waitress just to get a meal,” she admitted.
“I got here in 1976, when J-Bay was cute and small. Nothing mattered but being in your happy space,” says the woman popularly known as the “Queen of Jeffreys”.
“I had broomsticks for garment rails, and beads and things hung from cup hooks.
“My shop floor was sand and my desk a cable drum.
“One of my friends here taught me about fabrics and how to sew professionally. I began dabbling in ladies’ wear, primarily for myself, but I did some alternative wedding dresses for the surfer girls. “I started off sewing at home.
Then I taught my housekeeper to sew.
“I bought an old industrial sewing machine but the health inspector told me I couldn’t run it in my home. I rented my first factory space at R30 a month and we went on from there…”
The business was called Country Feeling.
Country Feeling’s main business, however, was making bikinis that were sold in Port Elizabeth for R8.
“Then someone gave me a pair of shorts to copy. I unpicked them, ironed them out and made a pattern.
It was from that pair of “baggies” that Cheron Kraak eventually became a global name; not under the brand Country Feeling but Billabong.
I caught up with her a month ago at a wine-bar and bistro called Tasty Table, opposite Jeffreys’ main beach. Forty-something years ago it was the Wimpy.
“My timing with the boardshorts was perfect. The scene was beginning to explode and we, with Gotcha and Instinct, were the only people making surfwear.”
The brand later became so synonymous with South African surfing that one of the first international events at Supertubes – even then renowned around the world for its point break – was staged as the Country Feeling Surf Classic with R10 000 prize money.
“One of the people who attended was Gordon Merchant, who was Billabong in Australia. They were probably the same size as Country Feeling at the time.
“We were introduced and Gordon suggested I begin making shorts for him.
“I said ‘ja’ and we shook hands.”
It took some years before the partnership took off.
“You can’t just make a brand: you’ve got to live it to understand it.”
It was Kraak who coined the Billabong marketing slogan “Only a surfer knows the feeling”.
The Billabong shorts became so popular (they could be made and exported to Australia more inexpensively than if they’d been manufactured in the Antipodes themselves) that Country Feeling went on the back burner.
“Within a decade, my staff complement in Jeffreys Bay went from eight people to 350.”
Long story short: in 2007, she sold Billabong back to the parent company.
While she is coy about the price she was paid, she’s content to describe herself as “comfortably self-sufficient”.
What she means is that, although Country Feeling is back in business, she’ll never have to work in a Wimpy again.