When Miguel Ramalhoni couldn’t find the shoes he wanted – long wingtip brogues – a chance meeting with a shoe factory owner led to an offer to make the style for him. Then he put the results on his blog, to find that he was inundated with requests from people desperate to buy a pair just like his. So he decided to have three more styles made and put those online too. This autumn/winter he is launching his first full shoe collection. It’s an interesting career change; Ramalhoni was once a microbiologist.
There is, says Ramalhoni, an amazing opportunity to start this kind of shoe business in his native Portugal. ‘The quality and craftsmanship of the shoe industry here has been underrated. But now the industry has been scared by the economic situation into a change of attitude. The product has not been matched by an appreciation for design or marketing. But it is much more open to new blood now.’
The Portuguese shoe industry has previously been limited by its vague positioning somewhere between the internationally recognised industries of Spain and Italy, both known for their exceptional leather goods, but that is now changing. Ramalhoni is just one of a new wave of Portuguese designers and brands making shoes in Portugal alongside the likes of Luis Onofre, Atelier do Sapato, Ferreira Avelar & Irmão, Eject, Fly London, Goldmud and NoBrand.
Portugal remains the second-largest footwear exporter in the EU after Italy, comprising some 1,300 companies and an estimated 50,000 workers. However, despite the size of the industry, its structure allows for more intimately scaled operations than those found elsewhere. Family-run factories are capitalising on their ability to deliver small runs of often complex designs to high standards. The But Fashion Solutions company was established in 1997 and produces three brands, Cubanas, Made In and Sky. But Fashion was at the leading edge of the revival with its Cubanas women’s shoe label, launched in 2005 with a collection of clog-style platforms; Cubanas recently won an innovations award for the creation of a pioneering rubber and wood composite sole. Last year also saw the launch of men’s and children’s shoes, the opening of a concept store in Lisbon and the launch of a franchise business that aims to see a number of shops open across northern Europe and the Middle East, with four stores opening across Lebanon this spring.
‘What’s changed is that there is new confidence to create more conceptual shoes that may be quirky or have a distinctive personality that shows Portuguese-designed shoes don’t have to look like those from everywhere else,’ suggests Cubanas marketing director Caterina Monteiro. ‘“Made in Portugal” has long been able to suggest quality. More and more it can suggest design and difference.’
The collections of shoe designer Inês Caleiro are one of the most striking examples of this new ethos. Caleiro launched her Guava footwear brand in 2010 after stints designing other accessories. She has already picked up a nomination for best accessories designer in the Portugal Fashion Awards and has won accounts not just at home but also in Spain and the Netherlands. Like Ramalhoni and Cabanas, her pitch is a strong style, in Caleiro’s case an emphasis on bold geometric heel shapes.
‘A lack of appreciation for design in Portugal has dissuaded many companies from making here and pushed them to the likes of Italy for style or Spain for price,’ says Caleiro, who launches a sunglasses line next. ‘Now there’s an awareness that the same level of materials are here, the same skills. There have been huge improvements in design, as well as machinery, technology and processes. The industry may not have got that message across to the consumer yet, but it’s getting there.’
Certainly the message is spreading. More proactive policies from the Association of Portuguese Footwear, Components and Leather Goods Manufacturers – the national body for manufacturers – have seen Portuguese designers and manufacturing celebrated in a recent print campaign, Portuguese Shoes: Designed By The Future. And this is paying off.
Most telling is that the revival of the Portuguese shoe industry is not simply down to the loyalty shown to local manufacture by Portuguese designers. Brands across Europe, both small and substantial, are increasingly choosing to manufacture in Portugal, from British women’s shoe designers Rae Jones and Tracey Neuls to the likes of Kenzo, Nicole Farhi, Agent Provocateur and – even more remarkably, given Italy’s world-famous shoe industry – Armani and Prada.
‘The fact that such huge brands are now making some of their shoes in Portugal says a lot,’ says Caleiro. ‘That’s real evidence that there’s been a change in approach by the Portuguese shoe industry over the last few years.’ It’s a change of approach that will keep Portuguese footwear a step ahead.