For centuries Portugal’s shoemakers have been crafting some of the finest footwear in Europe; the term Made in Portugal has long been a guarantee of quality craftsmanship in the field. While French and Italian designs have been prominent in recent years, there has been an impressive resurgence in Portugal’s standing; Portugal’s leather footwear exports grew by 213% from 2006 to 2013, according to Business of Fashion figures. Both at home and across the world, connoisseurs and fashion industry creators alike have rediscovered the rich history and enduring quality of Portuguese footwear.
Shoemakers in Portugal have long been passing on traditional leather craft and cobbling skills from generation to generation. These processes are almost sacrosanct in certain regions, especially Porto and Guimarães in the north, and Alcanena, about an hour’s drive north of Lisbon. Here families of shoemakers are still producing footwear using time-honoured methods. The skill is so impressive that leading international fashion brands commission many of the shoes made in these regions. Both Swedish minimalist powerhouse Cos and Spanish high-street superbrand Zara look to Portugal for the creation of their finest footwear offerings.
While the manufacture of shoes for international brands is crucial to the industry, no foreign label can capture the spirit at the heart of the country’s artisanal shoe industry like Portugal’s own footwear designers. Consumers worldwide have begun to look once more to true quality and design above fast fashion, and of course Portugal is a haven in this quest. Renewed enthusiasm for lasting craft and style has proved the perfect spur for a new generation of shoemakers in Portugal. Building on the nation’s leather heritage, a wave of creatives is heralding a return to popularity for Portuguese footwear.
One such designer is Luis Onofre, who has changed direction from making shoes for international luxury brands to creating luxury Portuguese shoes for his own eponymous label. ‘Portugal was always an excellent producer of footwear,’ he says. ‘I belong to the third generation of Conceição Rosa Pereira, a company that produces shoes for international luxury brands worldwide.’ For Onofre, it was crucial to extend the reach of Portuguese-made shoes beyond a national audience. ‘When I started Luis Onofre in 1990, I always knew that my brand should aim at the global luxury market.’
As Onofre is quick to state, other European-made shoes may have traditionally held a higher pedigree in the minds of many, but Portuguese-made shoes are now – rightfully – being considered as of some of the best in world. He explains that the Made in Portugal label represents ‘a belief that excellence and quality are not exclusives from Italy or any other referenced producer. Portugal knows how to offer quality shoes and excellence as well as any other main player in the footwear industry.’
The success of Onofre’s own label has meant that the brand is constantly expanding; there are plans to open flagship stores around the world, including Africa and the Middle East as well as the US. But the focus remains always on ‘hard work, dedication and the ability to believe in constant improvement’. Onofre adds that these are the bedrock qualities in creating new footwear collections. He says that whenever he starts to design a new pair of shoes ‘every detail must be considered: design and elegance must work with technology and handicraft to offer consumers excellence’.
Made in Portugal
At Sapataria do Carmo in Lisbon, one of the oldest shoe shops in Europe, co-owner Alexandra Lourinho has also seen a rise in the popularity of shoes made in Portugal. She credits this growth to an increased focus on superb quality ‒ the kind that has been integral to Portuguese footwear for centuries. In the last decade the industry ‘has been growing its popularity around three main pillars: handicraft, design and high quality,’ explains Lourinho, who runs the boutique with her partner and two friends. ‘More and more the chosen product is the one that is a versatile, long-term item but at the same time unique and authentic.’
Sapataria do Carmo was founded in 1904 and remained family-run until 2012 when it was taken over by Lourinho and her colleagues. They have breathed new life into the store while at the same time keeping its key focus on traditional shoes handcrafted by Portuguese artisans. For Lourinho and her team, this balance is crucial. She points out that since the 16th and 17th centuries Portuguese craftsmen have been working with leather. Adding a modern outlook and the creative eagerness of young Portuguese designers makes ‘the perfect match,’ she says. ‘We are proud to dedicate ourselves to selling shoes made in Portugal.’
Exciting designers are pushing the Made in Portugal label further afield, and a rich history of shoemaking has been brought back to the fore; it’s clear that Portuguese footwear has returned to form as a key wardrobe investment.