Portugal’s shoemakers are switching from stylish to comfy in an try to survive the pandemic

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© Reuters. The spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Guimaraes

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By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

FELGUEIRAS, Portugal (Reuters) – Weddings have been postponed, cocktail parties canceled and work events replaced with video calls. With social gatherings severely restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic, people have bought far fewer shoes.

This has hit the Portuguese footwear industry hard as it specializes in high quality leather shoes – usually reserved for large occasions and formal work environments – and most of them are exported.

“There are no nightclubs, no couples going out … all of which mean cuts in certain products,” said Joao Maia, general manager of the Portuguese shoe association APICCAPS.

Some companies have switched to more comfortable shoes for use around the house or in the grocery store. Some have expanded their production lines to include masks and other safety equipment.

But the changes won’t make up for all of the losses. Between January and August of this year, exports from Portugal – Europe’s third largest shoe manufacturer after Italy and Spain – fell by around 17% compared to the same period in 2019.

Portugal exports more than 90% of its footwear and the sector has grown by around 50% over the past decade, making 1.7 billion euros last year after peaking at 1.9 billion euros in 2017.

Manufacturers have to adapt to survive.

Paulo Martins, a partner at male shoe brand Ambitious, said his company focused on shoes for use at home or in the garden during the initial lockdown.

“People who used to dress up and put on more formal shoes are now working from home and … want a more comfortable product,” said Martins at his factory in northern Portugal, where most of the country’s nearly 1,500 shoe companies are located.

“Attitudes are changing and it will have a significant impact on our business.”

“Scary” times

Others, like ToWorkFor, have made even more radical changes.

The company, which specializes in safety shoes for the construction industry and other sectors, has switched one of its production lines to face masks and is developing further products.

“The pandemic has opened our horizons,” said Orlando Andrade, director of marketing at ToWorkFor.

“If something positive came out of this pandemic, we looked at reality in a different way and saw the potential where we hadn’t seen it before because we were in our comfort zone.”

Despite the innovation and flexibility, manufacturers expect their order books to shrink.

“The order volume that we have now will not be enough to last through the entire production period,” said Martins.

He also has to deal with an increase in employee sick days due to the pandemic, which could force the company to close one of its two shoe production lines.

Luxury shoe designer Luis Onofre, whose creations have been worn by celebrities like Naomi Watts and Paris Hilton, said many of his customers canceled their orders when the pandemic broke out.

“Maybe people have got used to being a little bit more at home,” Onofre told Reuters in his showroom as the workers in the factory below were putting together high heels where the smell of leather and glue was in the air.

He described the pandemic as a “scary time” for the luxury shoe business.

Shoe brands like Onofre’s rely mostly on overseas trade shows to sell products to customers, but most have been canceled. And with fewer customers than usual, according to APICCAPS, 70% of the factories decided to stop production between March and May.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult for the fashion industry because the shopkeepers practically didn’t sell in the summer,” said Onofre. “They are overcrowded. If this continues and they accumulate more, it could mean the end of many businesses.”

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