At their feet

Europe's sexiest industry continues to grow in force.

APPICCAPS (the Portuguese Footwear, Components and Leather Goods Manufacturers' Association) called the Portuguese shoe industry the “sexiest industry in Europe”. In 2015, they might have to change that title to the most lucrative. While 2013 was already a year that went down in the history of the sector, with €1.7 billion in exports, APICCAPS estimates that the figures for 2014 will surpass that number. In the first nine months alone, the footwear industry exported 70 million pairs of shoes, the equivalent of €1.65 billion, an 8.8% increase compared to the same period the previous year. It also created at least 600 new jobs and the trend is set to continue: in 2015, Paulo Gonçalves, spokesperson of the business association, hopes that Portuguese footwear will reach the €2 billion mark in exports by the end of the year.

But Portugal isn't just exporting more shoes. The country is also exporting them to different destinations, with an increase in sales in the USA, Canada, Australia and China hitting the double digits. Traditionally, the Portuguese shoe industry has always been centred in cities such as Felgueiras, Guimarães, Santa Maria da Feira and Oporto, in small companies that very often excel in the quality and craftsmanship of their work. Still, despite the family character, this is a clearly organised sector, whose business association organises strategic plans since 1978, as the APICCAPS spokesperson told us. “The plan for 2020, for example, is already set out,” says Paulo Gonçalves.

Besides this, many of the family factories are today led by second- or third-generation entrepreneurs, with a modern mentality that's open to the world. Add to this the free trade agreement in the early 1960s and Portugal's entry into the EU in 1986, and we can see how, bit by bit, the sector established the conditions to achieve the export figures we see today, making footwear the industry that most contributes to the Portuguese balance of trade.

A good example of this triumph is Luís Onofre. The shoes made by the Northern Portuguese designer are the definition of quality, elegance and taste, made for a modern, fearless woman. The designer's name shines on the international market – in 2012, 97% of production was exported – with the help of some important figures: the Spanish queen Letizia Ortiz and the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, have worn his creations. In some way, Onofre personifies the success of the national industry: it began as a family business, with the designer taking the reins of the factory from his grandmother, Conceição Rosa Pereira, in 1993 and launching his first collection six years later. Many exports later, in the beginning of 2014, number 247 of Lisbon's luxurious Avenida da Liberdade welcomed the designer's first flagship store, but his shoes can be found around the world, including Germany, Angola, China, Canada and Dubai.

It's this global success that more recent brands, such as Relyquia (created in 2013) are also searching for. Founded with the objective of “creating a unique fashion brand and taking the name of Portuguese footwear to the world”, the name Relyquia was the idea of founder and CEO Miguel Guimarães, whose father would save the things he most treasured. From the word used to describe these things – relics –, Relyquia was born.

Produced entirely in Santa Maria da Feira, Relyquia shoes for men and women are made using traditional methods and genuine leather, but the brand has also added a modern touch, visible in the precious metal incrustations, the option to have the shoes tattooed with a personalised message or motif, and the Bespoke service, offering completely personalised shoes from the model right down to the colours and applications used. “In regards to the tattooed shoes, we believe we are one of few, if not the only brand to tattoo shoes and tattoo whatever the client wants,” notes the CEO. With a price in the region of €500, Relyquia shoes are available on various online stores and delivered in a wooden box bearing the client's name. “We want to be there for our client in the various phases of his or her life, creating a loyalty to Relyquia and its lifestyle.”

One of the Portuguese brands to have already done that is FLY London, by Fortunato Frederico, a self-made man from Guimarães. Frederico bought the brand in 1994 from two English partners who had fallen out, and today, FLY – with its stylised fly symbol and bold yet comfortable shoes – is one of the main ambassadors of national footwear. The UK  continues to be its main international market distributed across more than 400 independent sales points and with two flagship stores in London, but the brand exports more than twothirds of its production to countries such as Brazil, Spain and the USA.

Equally colourful are the creations from Cubanas, a brand created in 2005. With more than 500 sales points in Portugal and abroad, the brand stands out for two reasons: first, because its headquarters are in Alcanena, Santarém, far from the “monopoly” in the north of the country; second, because it doesn't have its own production, but rather subcontracts its shoes to national factories. The brand's goal is to create footwear that's fun but also comfortable – similar to Aerosoles, another ringleader of the Portuguese industry – and innovative. This original and cutting-edge approach, present in creations such as the summer Wellington boots or the insertion of a chip in the shoes that links directly to a mobile phone app that gives advice about what to wear, has garnered many prizes at industry fairs. Could this be the future of footwear in Portugal? The path, it seems, is onwards and upwards.