Unbeknown to many, a region in southern Spain has a pep in its step thanks to decades of experience producing speciality footwear. Now the world’s premier shoe brands are striding towards its factories and keeping its industry running
A 30-minute drive inland from the high-rise hotels and beach bars of the Spanish port city of Alicante, you’ll find Elche, a small, industrial town with a very different feel to its hedonistic coastal neighbour. Filled with vast, sun-bleached industrial parks, Elche has made a name for itself by producing more than half of the country’s footwear. Between Elche and the smaller towns in the adjoining Vinalopó valley, this pocket of southern Spain is home to more than 2,500 shoe-making companies that employ some 17,000 people.
Lately, more and more international brands have been turning to the region, whose workshops and factories have unparalleled expertise in crafting elegant leather sandals, loafers and fabric footwear. Their know-how stems from the region’s manufacturing industry’s history, dating back to the late 19th century, when the area was a centre for growing natural fibres such as jute and hemp. These were used by craftspeople to weave traditional shoes similar to espadrilles. When making money through agriculture became increasingly difficult, families turned to producing shoes. Hundreds of workshops and factories sprung up and the region surrounding Alicante established itself as a centre for quality manufacturing. The industry has continued to grow and today brands from around the world compete to have their designs made here.
One of the most in-demand manufacturers is Crunat, which opened in Elche eight years ago. Owner Oscar Navarro Criado spent almost a decade working as an architect in Madrid before starting a factory with partner Florencia De la Cruz. “It was easier than you’d think to switch from architecture to manufacturing,” says Navarro Criado. “The process of developing and building is similar: it’s all about ordering components.” The factory started producing shoes created by De la Cruz, a fashion designer by trade, before switching focus to manufacturing solely for outside clients. “We realised that we liked making shoes more than selling them,” says Navarro Criado.
Today they oversee a team of some 20 workers who buff, stitch, mould and glue designs with swift, mechanical precision. “Every job is a speciality,” says Navarro Criado. “So finding someone for each position who knows how to do it well is complex. That’s why in the factories you have to take care of your staff; you have to pay them well.”
And it’s not just shoes that Elche’s factories are producing. Bags, belts and all manner of leather goods are a big part of the region’s exports. Crunat has a factory in Petrer in the Vinalopó valley, where the team has just finished creating a range of bags for Montréal-based footwear and accessories firm Maguire. For co-founder Myriam Maguire, who spent five years working for Canadian footwear giant Aldo before launching the brand with her sister Romy in 2016, Alicante’s manufacturers have become one of the industry’s best-kept secrets. “The footwear world is a very small and international community,” she says. “A lot of the factories don’t go to fairs. Their names are just passed around. That’s how I got in touch with the companies we work with.”
“We don’t just come up with a new design from thin air. We search for factories specialising in a particular craft”
But just knowing the name of a good factory isn’t always enough. Spanish manufacturers are in such high demand that getting them to take on a commission can be a competitive process. “A lot of big brands who used to manufacture in China are now switching to Europe,” says Maguire. “Factories here are extremely booked up as a result, which means that they can be really picky with customers.”
Producing in Spain can be more competitively priced than in its European neighbours. “The quality is at a similar level to Portugal and Italy,” says Maguire. “But the prices are slightly lower because Spanish manufacturers are taxed less and their gas prices are lower.” Within the industry, the region is also growing a reputation for its expertise in producing some of the best leather sandals and summer shoes. “It’s really strong in fabric footwear too, because all the good fabric suppliers are based close to Alicante,” says Maguire.
One new player in the fabric-footwear game is Mallorca-based brand Yuccs, which produces its signature trainers from natural, breathable merino wool and bamboo fabric. The footwear is manufactured in the southern Spanish city of Albacete as well as Elche, where the brand announced earlier this year that it would be doubling its 150-strong workforce.
“Elche is a place that has always been famous for its shoemaking tradition,” says ceo Pablo Mas, who founded Yuccs in 2018. “It has great professionals and artisans. We were looking for the best place to make our shoes and this was it.” For Mas, there are also plenty of other benefits to not sending manufacturing abroad. “Making our shoes in Spain means that we can control all processes, with the guarantee that they respect the environment and people,” he says. “For us, the workers behind every pair of our shoes are very important and here we can guarantee proper labour conditions for them.”
Another Spanish brand that is choosing to manufacture its designs in the region is Barcelona’s Hereu. It was founded in 2014 by José Bartolomé and Albert Escribano, who met working in the footwear and accessories department of Zara’s parent company, Inditex. Hereu is known for its chunky loafers and woven leather handbags, and has collaborated on shoe collections with Studio Nicholson and Cecilie Bahnsen.
“Our first styles were reinterpretations of traditional footwear from the Balearic islands and everything evolved from there,” says Bartolomé. When it comes to creating new designs, it’s often a collaborative process with the factory that’s producing them. “We don’t just come up with a new design from thin air,” says Bartolomé. “We search for factories specialising in a particular craft or technique.” This way of working, claims Escribano, can also be rewarding for the factories. “We help them push the boundaries a bit and create something more contemporary,” he adds.
A short drive up the Vinalopó valley from Elche, through rugged landscapes that could be mistaken for Nevada if it weren’t for a smattering of ancient Moorish castles, is the small town of Sax. It’s here that Hereu’s accessories are manufactured by hand, at a small factory called Luxury Bag. Running the company is Juan Manuel González Chico, whose father founded leather goods company Luboslax, now under the Luxury Bag umbrella, in the mid-1990s. “We have eight different clients, from Europe and Asia,” he says. “Hereu is our main client and we’ve been by their side for the past three years.”
A team of about 55 artisans, mostly women, clad in blue overalls, are carefully assembling Hereu’s new winter collection. Components are cut with care from large swathes of soft brown leather at the far end of the workshop before being passed down from bench to bench for all necessary stitching, weaving and finishing. “Our speciality is edge painting,” says González Chico, motioning proudly to a woman with a thin brush delicately applying paint to conceal the join of two leather strips. “We’re a pioneer in this finishing technique.”
While the demand from clients from around the world continues to grow, González Chico says that the economy of the region will only remain robust if the new generation commits to learning the art of shoe-making – and public organisations need to step in and help. “Every day there are fewer qualified craftsmen in the footwear and leather goods sector,” he says. “We need to educate a new generation of workers in the necessary crafting skills. Otherwise, in 15 to 20 years, I believe that all these professions will have been lost in Spain.”