John Cowan may not have diamonds on the soles of his shoes – but he has plenty of buttons on the tops.

Decked out in a glitter bowler hat and bright bow tie, he was one of the most unlikely retailers of fashion accessories at the recent Durban Fashion Fair.

Yet, he spent three evenings selling his snazzy sneakers – after popping out during the earlier parts of the day to source brightly coloured and decorated buttons from local manufacturers.

Most of all, though, he was on the lookout for a Durban agent or stockist to sell his fancy footwear.

The shoes range from bright to downright gaudy and not only vary in colour but also design. Some are standard takkies, others high tops and still others, canvas slip-ons. They start with sizes suited to the tiniest of tots and go all the way up to those that would fit adults.

The numbers of buttons varies according to the sizes of the shoes as does the price with most going for between R210 and R230.

High tops sell for around R430.

Cowan, who laughingly describes himself as “more tired than retired”, spotted leather shoes decorated with buttons at Dubai airport whilst en route back from London a few years ago.

He had taught in the UK for 25 years before retiring to Hermanus where he devoted much of his time to various Non-Government Organisations and to writing text books.

He says that not only were the leather shoes that caught his attention unusual but they also sparked an idea for adapting them to South Africa and ultimately creating a product not only suited to the local lifestyle but that could provide incomes for some poor, unemployed women in his community.

First, he had to source inexpensive shoes. Then, local women Veronica and Prisca came on board to sew on the buttons by hand and create a stockpile of shoes.

Finally, with enough shoes to sell, Blinkies arrived at its first craft market in Hermanus in November 2014.

To date, he says, Veronica and Prisca have sewn on more than 153 000 buttons and Blinkies has sold over 12 000 pairs of shoes – quite a “feet” (pun intended).

Payback for him has been seeing how such a small project has made a big difference in the lives of the two sewers. One has paid for her daughter to attend a good local high school.

At present, he says, Blinkies is producing around 20 pairs of button shoes per week but only selling around half.

Apart from markets close to his home, they are only stocked in a few shops in Kalk Bay and Knysna.

To increase production and add more sewers, the number of outlets across the country needs to be increased – and, because Blinkies makes small margins on each pair sold, there is little left in the pot to sponsor Cowan to travel across the country to sell his wares at craft markets, music festivals and the like.

Local feet on the ground are what’s needed – not to mention donations of shoes from well-known brands (many of which also come from Durban).