In northern Portugal, shoemakers with skills inherited and refined over many generations have been quietly making high-end luxury footwear for some of the world’s most renowned fashion houses for some time. It has been one of the fashion industry’s best-kept secrets, but in recent years these shoemakers have started to emerge from the shadows, developing their own brands while offering the same level of quality and craftsmanship long enjoyed by the larger labels. Portugal’s footwear brands are now competing on the global stage and piquing interest in a heritage industry that has been nurtured and preserved for centuries.
Evidence of Portuguese shoemaking dates back to the 12th century and some of Lisbon’s oldest streets honour its leatherworking heritage with names such as Rua dos Sapateiros (shoemakers) and Rua dos Correeiros (saddlers). Fortunato Frederico is president of the Associação Portuguesa dos Industriais de Calçado, Componentes, Artigos de Pele e seus Sucedâneos – the industry body that represents Portugal’s shoemaking and leather goods industry. ‘That’s nine centuries of history, culture and tradition,’ he points out. ‘The ability to combine all this heritage, craft and expertise, and pair that with modern technologies, gives Portugal’s footwear manufacturers something unique to offer.’
Blending old and new
This ability to combine tradition with modern innovation sets the country’s shoe industry apart. ‘To still incorporate traditional and handmade techniques in a modern and mechanised world is very special, and the expertise to do this is almost priceless,’ agrees Tiago da Costa Miranda, head of international public relations for ModaLisboa (Lisbon Fashion Week). ‘Many parts of the shoemaking process here are still done by hand.’
Despite tough economic times, Portugal’s shoemakers have refused to compromise on quality, choosing to protect and preserve the heritage and skills to which they owe their longevity. The Made in Portugal label represents authenticity, quality and craftsmanship. This approach has proved successful; Portugal is now second only to Italy in the world’s luxury shoe market. ‘This was our vision 25 years ago, and now we see it was the key to success,’ confirms da Costa Miranda.
High quality products
The catwalks at ModaLisboa’s spring/summer 2015 presentations served as the ideal showcase for Portugal’s shoe industry. Almost every show featured shoes so spectacular that they often stole attention from the clothes, the result of a ModaLisboa initiative to partner footwear brands with fashion designers to promote the country’s craftsmanship. ‘It has been a commercial, communication and marketing success,’ says da Costa Miranda. ‘The fashion designers have been able to broaden their product offering and thus their economical sustainability and the footwear brands have enjoyed increased publicity, not only in Portugal but internationally.’
Luís Onofre comes from a family that has worked in the shoe industry since 1939. ‘It is important to choose high-class materials and to realise inspiration by combining handmade techniques, innovative technology and attention to detail in the designs,’ he explains. The designer’s range of elegant yet flamboyant footwear is exported worldwide and has become one of the country’s leading footwear brands, worn by Michelle Obama and Queen Letizia of Spain.
Launched in 2013, Relyquia is a relative newcomer to the Portuguese footwear scene. ‘Portugal’s production heritage created the marketplace, we just added design, marketing and networking to create a brand,’ explains the brand’s managing director Eugénio Bulhosa. The brand’s strong communication strategy has given it an international presence and helped to promote its ethos of quality craftsmanship and innovative design. The bespoke ‘tattoo shoe’ is a standout piece, featuring a decorative pattern on leather produced using a new hand-application technique that took months of research to perfect – ideal for clients looking for something unique.
The pursuit of perfection
Officina is another emerging brand that draws on the expertise of established Portuguese craftsmen. ‘We don't like to compromise quality on behalf for sales,’ says brand partner José Maria Reffóios. ‘Our customers choose Officina primarily for the craftsmanship and we need to believe in what we create. We’ve only worked with local manufacturers and the experience has been great.’ The brand specialises in classic shoe styles with exacting attention to detail and designs are tweaked each season in the pursuit of perfection.
Despite its behind-the-scenes history, the Portuguese shoe industry is finally stealing the spotlight. The country’s current crop of designers promotes Portugal’s rich heritage with pride. As Fortunato Frederico puts it: ‘Portuguese brands offer high quality, fashionable designs at a very good price, and the expertise of our workers means they can respond quickly to trends to produce the latest styles in a very short space of time.’ It’s proving a winning formula.