Portugal faces dilemma between exportation and creative independence

Portugal's tradition of apparel manufacture is something of a double-edged sword. While it is seen as a guarantee of quality and "savoir-faire", the sector's creative efforts are often overlooked by an industry which is taking steps to ensure its growth and competitiveness. Moving forward, the Portuguese textile sector, best known for its export potential, is now seeking to balance its historical manufacturing models and raw materials with a young, sustainable fashion scene and its commercial ambitions. 


Luís Buchinho's autumn-winter 2018/19 runway - Portugal Fashion

Launched in 1995 by Portugal's National Association of Young Portuguese Entrepreneurs (ANJE), the Portugal Fashion project is one of the most active protagonists in this movement. With 42 editions under its belt, the fashion platform is responsible for organising fashion weeks in Porto and Lisbon, developed in parallel with the ModaLisboa runway shows, as well as for supporting and promoting Portuguese talent both at home and abroad. For its latest edition, Portugal Fashion abandoned its now traditional location, the Alfândega do Porto congress centre – occupied by Mercedes at the time –, and erected a 10,000-square-metre mega-structure in Porto's Parque da Cidade in which to host 34 runway shows and the seventh edition of the "Brand Up" showroom, which featured 70 exhibitors. 

"The objective is to reinforce the support given to Portuguese brands in terms of developing design and creativity as factors in economic competitiveness. By joining forces and skills through a network of collaborations, we can give the work of Portugal Fashion a wider reach," stated Rafael Alves Rocha, communications director of the event, which took place in Lisbon on March 17th and continued in Porto from March 22nd to 24th. 

The main goal of the event, which was also open to the public, was to appeal to national and international buyers with an eye to promoting and commercialising the "Made in Portugal" brand, explained Rocha, highlighting the potential of fusing runways with fashion trade fairs. "Our strategic repositioning implies the increased involvement of different players in the sector and the development of synergies with other sectors which are complementary to fashion, particularly those associated with lifestyle and the creative industries," he concluded. 

Characterised by its diversity, the event's programme of autumn/winter 2018-19 runways included designer fashion and a range of commercial apparel and footwear offerings, one of the traditional mainstays of the event, accounting for six shows and featuring the much publicised participation of designer Luis Onofre. New talents took centre stage, as in the case of catwalk newbies Inês Torcato and David Catalán, as well as Mara Flora and Maria Meira, winners of the last edition of Portugal Fashion's Bloom Competition, dedicated to emerging design talent. 

A number of veterans were also on show: Júlio Torcato, for example, celebrated 30 years in the industry with a sportswear collection. Indeed, there was no shortage of big names from the Portuguese fashion scene, including Nuno Baltazar, Katty Xiomara, local star Luís Buchinho and renowned designer Hugo Costa, who took his latest collection to Porto, having presented it at Paris Men's Fashion Week in January, with the support of Portugal Fashion. There was also room for a range of commercial brands already experienced in international trade fairs, such as Pé de Chumbo, Concreto, Ana Sousa, Dielmar and Lion of Porches. 

Proximity and quality fight back against fast fashion

Hugo Costa's autumn-winter 2018/19 runway - Portugal Fashion

"Portugal has played and will continue to play a key role among the most relevant markets of our suppliers", guaranteed Pablo Isla, Inditex president, at the time of the group's annual results presentation. And the data backs up his statement: in 2017, the fast fashion giant manufactured 20% of its products in Portugal, where it already works with some 868 factories. And Inditex isn't the only one. With brands such as Bimba y Lola, Roberto Verino, Florentino and Adolfo Domínguez looking to Portugal for their manufacturing needs, the neighbouring Spanish region of Galicia has also become a fundamental support to the country's textile industry. According to the ATP (Associação Têxtil e Vestuário de Portugal), annual orders from Gaicia are already pushing past the 1 billion mark. Spain continues to be the principal destination for exports, accounting for 35% of market share, followed by France with 12%. 

The Portuguese textile industry stands out as a supplier in the European market because of its proximity. With a long tradition of textiles, the country also guarantees quality and efficiency in response to the reduced production costs on offer further afield. It's a business strategy that seeks to satisfy the needs of mass distribution, reducing the complexity of transportation and enabling the rotation of trends every few weeks in store windows aiming to appeal to consumers who are increasingly hungry for novelty. In Inditex's case, 60% of its inventory already comes from nearby markets (Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Morocco), while Asia focuses on manufacturing large runs of basics. 

According to Portugal's National Institute of Statistics, the country's economy recorded 2.7% growth last year, the highest rise since 2000. The data was also particularly favourable for the textile sector, with 137,000 workers registered in the industry in 2017. Likewise, while turnover in the national textile industry increased to 7.5 billion euros, the sector's exports, which represent 10% of total exports in the country, increased to 5.2 billion euros. However, despite constant progression in recent years, the figures also reflect Portugal's labour situation and purchasing power: the minimum wage in Portugal is currently 580 euros, compared to 825 in Spain and 1,498 in France. 

In the midst of economic recovery, and at a time when it would appear that it has every reason to be optimistic, the Portuguese textile industry has also taken something of a reality check in the last few months, with the closures of two renowned factories. Lingerie brand Triumph's factory in Loures (Lisbon), property of TGI-Gramax, has declared bankruptcy and is facing a restructuring plan which puts 463 jobs in danger. For its part, the Ricon textile group went bust at the beginning of the year, making 600 employees redundant and resulting in the exit of Swedish brand Gant from the Portuguese market – the Nordic label had entrusted Ricon with its manufacturing and the operation of the 20 stores it ran in the country.

Made in Portugal: beyond exportation, the home market

Preparations for the Brand Up showroom in Porto - Portugal Fashion

If its status as an exporter is a fundamental strength of the Portuguese textile industry, developing a solid national market will also be key for its survival in the long term, ensuring the sector's independence if importing countries change strategy. 

Bathing in the positive atmosphere surrounding the commercial results of the Brand Up showroom, participants agreed that Portugal's value is on the rise and that international recognition has helped boost this ascent. "Our raw materials are very sought after abroad, they're a seal of quality", explained representatives of Katty Xiomara. Nonetheless, the industry must go further, as representatives from eco-brand Casa Grigi commented, "Portuguese tradition is highly appreciated, consumers want our new materials, but "Made in Portugal" has to have a deeper meaning, it can't just become a label or a mere souvenir."

Sharing similar objectives, the majority of exhibitors were looking to make deals in Japan and Germany, markets that have demonstrated positive feedback from buyers willing to invest in and valorise sustainable products, highlighting a boom in vegan fashion. These approaches reveal interesting prospects beyond the country's borders but where do these brands' compatriots, the Portuguese themselves, figure in the equation? "We have to ensure that the Portuguese buy Portuguese brands", commented a number of the sales representatives at the trade fair. "We have big international ambitions, but there's still a long way to go on our own market."

The country, which has suffered more violently from the financial crisis than the majority of its European neighbours, is now steaming ahead with economic recovery and gaining stability in a number of key sectors. As exportation establishes itself as an important factor in its industries, Portuguese textiles are simultaneously facing up to the need to consolidate a strong national market and the challenge of gaining access to the international fashion scene through both designer fashion and commercial offerings. Looking forward, key strategies for developing and strengthening Portuguese fashion will need to focus on initiatives specifically tailored to the industry and the times, education at home, and exposure abroad. These days, it's not just a question of tradition.

Translated by Robin Driver

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