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Latin American footwear industries unite in bid for US expansion

By Jackie Mallon

7 Feb 2023


Cowboy Boots Made in Brazil at Inspiramais Leather Fair. Photo courtesy Inspiramais

The footwear industries of Mexico, Argentina and Spain were united at Brazil’s Inspiramais leather expo to discuss the current state of their footwear industries and their sustainability and post-pandemic goals. Daniel Santos Risafi, First Vice President of the Chamber of Footwear Industries of Argentina (CIC), expressed happiness at the opportunity for co-operation between Latin American shoe industries.

”It is my first time in Brazil. And I am happy to have the opportunity to connect,” agreed Imanol Martinéz Gómez, Director of Marketing and Business Development Federation of Footwear Industries of Spain (FICE). “We have a lot of ties to this region.”

If a rising tide lifts all boats then Inspiramais’s invite to unify the Hispanic and Latin American footwear communities demonstrates a potential strategy for expansion based on being stronger together. The ambition was palpable as each representative described the unique characteristics of their shoe industry, beginning with Inspiramais Design Coordinator Walter Rodrigues who, in his opening address to an audience of journalists and buyers more international than usual due to new incentives provided by the government, said, “We are not trying to compete with Italian fairs but aim to bring something new to the conversation.”

That newness could emanate from Brazil’s legacy of leather work and the tradition of tanneries, techniques and processes that have been passed down through generations, ensuring its spot as one of the top 3 leather producers globally. But might it also come from the establishment of new alliances to topple existing footwear powerhouse nations?

Martinéz Gómez reported that Spain exported 3000 million euros worth of footwear in 2022, 70 percent of which went to Europe with France leading the demand for Spanish leather shoes followed by Italy. “This makes us proud,” said Martinéz Gómez, referring to Italy’s legacy of manufacture in luxury fashion footwear and both France and Italy’s reputation as style leaders. “It’s like selling ice in Alaska.” Portugal is Spain’s next biggest market, according to Martinéz Gómez, followed by the US and Mexico.

By extending this invite to its neighbors or nations which share the Spanish language, is Brazil signaling to Italy that it has competition for craft and artisanry? Or is it a vow to China, the biggest global producer of footwear, that Brazil is ready to encroach on its market share?

Prospects for 2023 US footwear industry

Alfredo Padilla Villalpando, president of the Chamber of Footwear of Guanajuato, said, “Americans are retreating from China and want product from Mexico.” He noted Mexico’s production of the cowboy boot, a style that was also highly visible in the booths at Inspiramais, and cited the proximity to the US of Guanajuato which accounts for 85 percent of Mexican shoe production. “Can we take advantage of our location, our proximity, to the US border?” he asked.

According to the United States International Trade Commission, China is still by far the largest supplier of US footwear in volume and price. For the past two decades Vietnam has been eating into China’s dominance followed by Indonesia, but it’s still essentially a three-horse race. The Inspiramais alliance will have its work cut out for it but there is no denying ambition is the first step to success.

Apart from the fierce competition there are a few other obstacles to consider. While US consumer spending on footwear saw an unprecedented surge last year expanding by 25 percent percent to a record high, as did footwear imports, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, experts are predicting below trend growth if not contraction in footwear spending for 2023. Gary Raines, Chief Economist, Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America, told the Texworld audience that in 2022 consumers bought more but spent less due to an increase in discretionary spending as a result of government stimulus checks. The prospect of what he described as “the most anticipated recession ever,” estimated to arrive by summer, combined with increased credit card debt and higher interest rates, high inflation and increased energy costs due to the war in Ukraine, as well as retailers still stuck with excess inventory so that supply is outstripping demand, spells gloom for the footwear sector.

Overseas shoe speculators, take note: Footwear spending trends to be in step with footwear imports.