Portugal: Comfort Footwear Dreamland

Photo: Ricardo Santos
Shoes: Contagious

Overall, the last few months have been months of retreat. Our home has become our nerve centre; within its walls we work, take our meals, exercise and have family gatherings. Everything has become concentrated within four walls, with small windows on the world. Yet being at home is synonymous with comfort in every way. From sportswear to comfortable shoes, life at home has caused some niche markets to grow exponentially. This is the case with comfort shoes.

Internationally, one of the fastest-growing brands has been Birkenstock. For Fernando Bastos Pereira, this is “a product of the pandemic.” The fashion producer adds that “the fashion industry has long been showing signs that comfort products are here to stay, as evidenced by the proliferation of trainers.” After the trainers boom, the big international houses started to present alternatives, comfortable sandals in particular.

“The increase in average life expectancy, associated with greater awareness of the importance of foot health (the foot is the main organ for human locomotion) has increased the interest in and demand for shoes that are more and more comfortable and physiologically adapted. The advantages of using this type of footwear are numerous, but they can be essentially boiled down to stability, respect for the foot’s anatomy and reduction of muscle fatigue,” says Sofia Ferreira, podiatrist and Saúde no Pé office manager.

In Portugal, several companies and brands specialise in this market segment. Plumex is one of them. For Pedro Carlos, one of the company directors, several factors contribute to the success of comfort footwear. “What we have noticed is that comfort footwear does not suffer as many fluctuations in demand as fashion footwear, which means the customer looking for this type of article has no problem returning to the same model once, twice or more; perhaps only the pattern or colour will vary. For this reason alone, it becomes a very easy item to sell. The probability of the client not being satisfied with this type of article is very low (…). Fashion trends have been indicating sportier and more comfortable items for some time now. All of these factors contribute to the increase in demand,” says the Plumex director.

According to José Moura from Calsuave, “after dissociating ourselves from the centuries-old idea that comfort footwear is not elegant, we tried to introduce the comfort factor into the elegance of every shoe. Since the revolution in the way shoes are manufactured, things have moved quickly, driven mainly by trainers from major international brands who are familiar with producing shoes for different sports with very specific characteristics. They brought this know-how to all kinds of trainers, which today are bought by people of all ages.”

The footwear company Ropar also stands out in this product segment, with the Arcopédico brands and the newly-created Easy Walk Experience.

“The increase in demand for comfort footwear is related to the changes in people’s daily lives and habits, as a way of overcoming the stress of the daily rush. The mentality of people has been changing and even luxury brands have surrendered to comfort, and continue to invest in this segment. The market is increasingly demanding flexible, simple shoes with as much comfort as possible, and nowadays it is possible to be both elegant and comfortable. The dress code has been changing and concerns about foot health are taking precedence over high heels and narrow shapes,” say Sílvia Santos and Sílvia Pacheco from Arcopédico.

The shoe company Savana also recently launched a brand in this segment: Contagious Confort. The goal is to reach a new type of consumer.

But what makes a good pair of comfortable shoes? According to Pedro Carlos, “a few years ago I would’ve said quality, good shape, lightness, elasticity, good comfort insole, good impact absorption. Today, without a doubt, I have to add design, colours, patterns — above all, keeping in mind that the target client is not only 50-60 years old and above, but also includes much younger age groups.”

For Arcopédico’s directors, the secrets to a good pair of comfort footwear are “lightness, flexibility, foot adjustment systems, impact cushioning soles, ergonomics, respecting the width and length of the foot, and sustainability.”

“When looking for a pair of comfortable shoes it is important to keep in mind three aspects: the type of material they are made of, the grip of the sole and, last but not least, the correct shoe size. As far as materials, it is important to go for natural, breathable and shock-absorbing materials; the sole must be non-slip and the shape must respect the anatomy of the foot. With size, keep in mind that we should never buy a shoe based only on foot length — a size 37 does not fit a healthy foot the same way as a foot with a bunion, for instance. This explains why it is not unusual for us to spend our lives trying on sizes that are smaller than necessary.”

However, is this a product for the future? So it seems; and what’s more, a luxury product. Proof of this is the acquisition of Birkenstock by the owners of LVMH. The German brand has also been involved with other luxury brands. In 2020, for example, it was the turn of Maison Valentino to breathe new life into iconic sandals.

Sofia Ferreira follows the same train of thought. “I genuinely believe that the future of footwear is going to include this type of product. Firstly, because not just older people are looking for comfort and stability for their feet: younger people also prefer comfort when they buy a pair of shoes for daily wear. Secondly, because the efforts made by the footwear industry to make these products aesthetically more appealing and youthful invite all types of people to wear comfortable shoes, without the old associated stigma of the “ugly orthopaedic shoe.”

Fernando Bastos Pereira believes comfort is a trend that is here to stay. “Once consumers learn what comfort is, we’re unlikely to return to widespread tolerance of uncomfortable shoes.”

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