Virtual Sourcing Trip: Portugal

 

Benjamin Fitzgerald

Once the 'China of Europe', Portugal fell from manufacturing grace in the late nineties. When the economic recession hit in 2008, the western Europe nation lost all hope of recovery. Now refocused, the 'Made In Portugal' brand is slowly producing and exporting luxury knitwear, synthetic fibers and cork - adding to its leather success. Le Souk takes a virtual sourcing trip through the Portuguese landscape: hills and lanes that tell a redemptive story of how humble producers went out of business many years ago, only to be refined into high-end artisans.

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Portugal was one of the hardest hit economies when the recession arrived in 2008. Rises in unemployment forced many skilled workers to flee for greener opportunities in the UK and Germany, leaving a nation with plenty of manual laborers to weave textiles but nobody rich enough to buy their wares. Even before the crisis, the textile sector had been marred by cheaper competition from Asia and weak domestic demand, forcing it to shed nearly a third of its output and 36% of jobs. Portugal's mainstay producers were forced to look elsewhere for sales. 

Five years on, the nations exports have soared. Eurozone economists recorded a 1.3% growth in the final quarter of 2013, marking the highest increase in all of the Eurozone. Meanwhile, Portuguese exports accounted for some 41% of total national output, compared with 28% in 2008, according to the Financial Times. The attitude toward manufacturing and the global market is changing in Portugal, as producers and international customers begin to see the absolute value in 'Made In Portugal' textiles. 

The ATP association, which promotes Portuguese textiles abroad, told Reuters the industry now sells more products with higher added value, offsetting output drops.

"Portugal's textile sector has shown remarkable resilience against the backdrop of the economic crisis in Portugal and most of Europe ... It has been competing on the world stage for years and all the necessary structural adjustments have already been made," ATP General Director Paulo Vaz said.

 

Guimarães

 

 

Portugal's textiles hub is located in and around the northern town of Guimarães - the cradle of the nation, where the Portuguese Reconquista took place hundreds of years ago. Founded in 1939, by Leandro Magalhães d’Araújo, synthetic fiber maker, Lemar serves as a reference point to the town's historic textile industry. The company produces an array of functional fabrics, linings and prints. Materials are plain, patterned, structured, pleated and mostly technical, with added breathability, water-proofing, and stretch. Lemar exports globally to makers of sportswear, swimwear, athleisure casual wear, as well as bags and luggage. The textile firm was also a recommended exhibitor at Premiere Vision Paris for SS16, with organizers describing it as "eclectic...intimate...unconventional, vibrant, elegant, and casual". 

Despite its focus on synthetics, Lemar is big on authentic production, creating rustic fabrics and yarn dyes that remain sensually neutral.

 

Braga 

 

Just north of Guimarães is Minho, a city in the region of Braga. Here lies Sidonios Malhas - a textile company founded in the power eighties. Sidonios' main activity is knitting fabrics with circular knitting machines. Its operation lies in the heart of the city, occupying some 8000 sqm. of space. Here, 60 knitting machines find their home, with a production capacity of 15 000kg per day. Such creations include the staple circular knitted fabrics, as well as thin gauge and delicate knits, and knits with stripes. Specialist techniques known to the firm include jacquard, pointelles, interlock and rib, stitching their way into knits, cotton-look fabrics, fake fur, and linen-types. Sidonios is perfect for loungewear and knitted sweat collections - proving a contender when it comes to comfortable and soft winterwear. The firm also showed at Premiere Vision in Paris SS16, whose team recommended Sidonios for its citywear and activewear materials.

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Vila Nova de Cerveira

 

Located at the very top of Portugal is Vila Nova de Cerveira - the home of Tintex. Founded in 1998, Tintex specializes in sustainable and eco-friendly textiles. They produce organic cotton and wool fabrics, as well as cutting-edge fabrics made from the synthetic fiber, lyocell - a type of rayon made from wood cellulose. Tintex uses renewable raw materials and environmental manufacturing "whenever possible", according to its website. Although lyocell is a synthetic material in essence, its production yields very little chemical waste. And it is extremely durable. The fabric can also be made to mimic leather, silk, and suede. Therefore, it is a equal alternative to animal-based products for vegan labels. In addition to lyocell textiles, Tintex also offers lush cashmere, linen, hemp, wool, and bamboo-based fabrics.

Paços de Brandão 

 

Paços de Brandão is 22km from Porto - where the airport is also located - and is part of the city's greater metropolitan area. Textile company, 3D Cork operates in the region. Its production of cork and other natural raw materials enhance finished interior decorations, homewares, footwear, sportswear, and high tech garments. Cork is an increasingly popular element in fabrics due to its natural sourcing, lightness, comfort, waterproofness and thermal insulation. It is also shock absorbing and cushions well, making it a superior sole fabric for shoes. Cork fiber is taken from the exterior bark of the cork oak tree and Portugal owns one third of all these trees. After extraction, the cork is "moulded" to create forms and shapes with soft finishes. Today, some 60% of the world’s total exports of cork come from Portugal - contributing up to 2.3% to the nation's total exports that leave Portuguese shores.

Leather: New markets

 

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Portugal's leather shoe exports rose by 213% (from 36,510,000 pairs to 114,387,000 pairs) between 2006 and 2013, according to Portuguese leather and footwear association Associação Portuguesa dos Industriais de Calçado, Componentes, Artigos de Pele e seus Sucedâneos. Despite this being only a fraction of the number of leather shoes rival Italy produced in the same period, 'Made In Portugal' leather is making its way into footwear collections: from Britain's Topshop; Spain's Zara; and Sweden's COS. These more high-end fast-fashion retailers are perfect resume-boosters for Portuguese tanneries. Meanwhile fashion brands can ethically produce their footwear lines outside of the dangerous confines of Bangladesh factories. In 2015, it is still early days for Portuguese leather makers, who are relatively overshadowed by the leather heritage and reputable craftsmanship of Italy. 

'Made In ?'

For the next five years, North American and European mid-luxury retailers remain the target market for 'Made In Portugal' textiles. Get this right, by offering consistent quality fabric under the banner of 'affordable luxury', and a stronger trust for Portuguese textiles will surely foster among retailers and more importantly, consumers.  Furthermore, the current dominance of 'Made In Italy' fabrics and their supplies to super high-end fashion houses and theirs brands, won't be an eternal monopoly.