For Portugal, the United States is a well of opportunity for its footwear sector.
In the last seven years, Portuguese footwear sales to the U.S. and Canada have increased 662 percent, from 13 million euros ($15.2 million) to 99 million euros ($116 million) in 2017, according to APICCAPS, the Portuguese Footwear, Components, Leather Goods Manufacturers’ Association.
Inspired by that growth, APICCAPS has crafted Road to America, a trade marketing initiative designed to capitalize on America’s desire to find alternatives to Chinese goods, while emphasizing Portugal’s footwear history focused on “comfort constructions,” innovative materials and new fashion.
The Road to America initiative will culminate this summer with a series of Portuguese product showcases in New York City and Las Vegas. However, the “road” technically begins 30 miles outside of Porto, where the bulk of Portugal’s footwear industry — from leather and components to finished goods — reside.
Portugal’s footwear manufacturers share a common focus on quality, yet each brings its own story and point of differentiation to the market. Here’s a look at how five Portuguese footwear manufacturers embrace the country’s heritage of traditional shoemaking, while preparing for the next generation of consumers with innovation and creativity.
The footwear worn by Ricap Shoes founder and CEO Guilherme Almeida and sons Francisco and Henrique embody the evolution of Portugal’s comfort footwear business. Guilherme sports traditional plain toe dress laceups, while Francisco, the company’s COO, wears two-tone brogues and Henrique, Ricap’s commercial director, pairs navy blue leather sneakers with his jeans.
Evolving with the times and giving end users what they want have been crucial to the 34-year-old company’s relevancy and its independent mind-set.
Nestled in the hilly landscape of Felgueiras, family-owned Ricap Shoes makes 1,200 to 1,500 pairs of men’s and women’s leather comfort shoes a day for its house brand, Softwalk, as well as for private-label brands. Anatomical footbeds, flexibility, light weight and an air flow construction that keeps feet feeling fresh all day are hallmarks of Ricap footwear. In 2017, the company had 4 million euros ($4.7 million) in sales, with the strongest markets for its sandal business being in Europe and the Middle East. The company also launched a secondary business making private-label shoeboxes.
Ricap credits its investment in technology for the strength and speed of its business today.
“If you don’t try it, you don’t get it,” Francisco said about innovation. The company stays on top of new innovations from the comfort and athletic sectors, but most innovations come from within Ricap’s own walls. Case in point: The company designs and manufactures its proprietary Softwalk insoles and made a strategic decision early on not to make the technology available to private labels. “We try to think for ourselves,” he added.
Updating styles to suit the tastes of younger generations, increasing product differentiation, introducing new features and building a digital marketing presence are among the next steps for Ricap.
“It’s a balance of the past and the future,” said Catarina Almeida, Ricap’s production manager and Guilherme’s daughter. “We don’t follow conventions. We pass down our knowledge about shoemaking generation to generation, but we strive to be among the first to do something new.”
Portugal is not traditionally known as a fashion country, but fashion brands like Zadig & Voltaire and Rag & Bone have come to rely on Nobrand for fashion footwear. The family-owned company keeps a pulse on commercial fashion trends with its own in-house design team for its eponymous line, a keen eye on what sells and the type of intuition that comes with producing footwear since 1935.
“What matters to us the most is the sell out, and we never know that until a year later,” said Marco Lusquiños, Nobrand associate director.
Lusquiños described retailers in Europe as operating in a cautious cycle—they buy little, sell out, increase their order the next season and then scale back if sales slow. However, he said, momentum is building. Nobrand’s expertise is in leather, but it has adapted to the market’s interest in new materials such as textiles, glitter treatments and knits. What’s more, the company recently secured a distributor for the United States and Canada—areas Lusquiños said have enormous potential for Nobrand’s private-label business as more retailers and brands look for ways to distinguish themselves in the market.
Designer Luis Onofre is following in his family’s shoemaking footsteps, which date back to 1939 when his grandmother would make custom shoes and his father would transport them by motorcycle. Today, the designer produces up to 2,500 pairs of luxury shoes for his eponymous label and for private labels, 50 of which are made each day in an atelier-like factory adjacent to his design workshop. The factory serves as a sample room for his jewelry-inspired women’s footwear and a manufacturing hub for his limited-edition styles that can sell for as much as 1,000 euros ($1,200) to private customers, who can order as little as one pair.
Shoemaking is a creative outlet for Onofre. He describes each shoe as a piece of art. “I get emotional seeing women wear my shoes, because it is recognition of my work,” Onofre explained.
Each collection can contain up to 5,000 materials from hundreds of suppliers, spanning Swarovski crystals to one-of-a-kind hardware. Onofre said he typically uses Italian leather, but as more brands and customers request sustainable footwear, he’s integrating Portuguese leather because it meets higher sustainability standards.
While Onofre romances shoemaking (he believes women are the best employees because they are sensitive, and “shoemaking is sensitive”), he’s completely aware that it is a complex industry. Finding a workforce to make his detailed designs is a challenge. “Our goal is to get a larger workforce,” he said. “The main problem is that the young generation doesn’t want to work in shoes anymore. We’re trying to change that mentality. I believe a lot in young people. They give [us] fresh ideas.”
Expanding into the US market is also top of mind for the luxury label, both for sales and as a marketing tool. Onofre said the company is in talks with several U.S. brands for private-label production and is planning major investments in the U.S. beginning this summer, possibly even his own store in New York City. “The U.S. is at the center of the marketing world. They know how to do it,” he said. “Anything new in the U.S. is seen all over the world.”
With 45 years of experience making soles for brands like Mephisto and Gabor, family-owned Procalçado seized an opportunity when it launched niche footwear products for the work and fashion sectors in the 2000s. The company has become known as an innovator, best known for reinterpreting classic leather styles in rubber.
Today, the company manufactures For Ever soles, the professional footwear label Wock, and the injection-molded, lemon-scented Lemon Jelly brand of fun youthful fashion shoes.
Azevedo Pinto said 70 percent of the company’s overall business is from its private-label soles. Its showroom serves as the starting ground for footwear brands each season as they begin to develop new styles.
“Lemon Jelly is not a big brand in the market, but people in this industry know it and think of it as an innovator,” said CEO José Azevedo Pinto.
Eco-friendly materials and “creating a circular economy” are increasingly becoming a focus for Procalçado. The company makes 100 percent biodegradable soles and 100 percent recycled soles, and it has started to upcycle scraps from its rubber injection process and reuse them in new soles. Azevedo Pinto said soles are made with just 20 percent recycled materials, but he expects that percentage will rise very soon.
“We’ve been working toward [sustainability] for the past 10 years ago, but the market wasn’t following until now,” he said.
Footwear manufacturer Kyaia isn’t relying on its heritage as a comfort shoemaker to carry it into the future. The company, which manufactures Fly London and Softinos, is investing in new opportunities in materials and retail.
Kyaia is in the middle of a four-year project to develop a leather alternative using bacterial cellulose and modified vegetable oils. Kyaia expects to have usable materials within the next two years.
Last month, the family-owned company launched Overcube, an online marketplace for Portuguese footwear brands and independent designers without a robust digital presence. Through Overcube, Kyaia aims to fill a market gap for brands without their own online retail distribution plan; Kayaia says its system would allow such producers to grow without ever having to buy products or manage a warehouse.
Overcube photographs products, writes product descriptions and handles customer queries, payments and returns. In return, Overcube takes a 30 percent to 35 percent commission from each sale and brands must agree to drop-shop within the time frame outlined by Overcube. The marketplace, which launched with 21 brands including Lemon Jelly and Nobrand, currently sells in the European Union and has 10,000 users daily. Overcube could start selling to the United States and Australia later this year.