MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Scan the feet click-clacking to work during the morning rush hour in Manila and it’s clear that it wasn’t just Imelda Marcos who liked colorful heels.
The shopaholic widow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos was infamous for amassing a collection of at least 1,200 pairs of shoes during her husband’s reign.
But some Filipinos think the former first lady was just reflecting, albeit extravagantly, the nation’s footwear fondness.
“I think Imelda Marcos represents us in her love for shoes but I have met other women who arguably love shoes more,” said Brian Tenorio, a designer whose company custom makes footwear in leathers sourced from cows, frogs, fish and ostriches.
Professional women, particularly those working in offices in Manila, often spice up their business suits with bejeweled pumps or brightly colored stilettos.
The majority of women, who are less well-off, cannot change their shoes as often but when they do buy a new pair, the choice available is extensive, partly due to cheap imports from China.
“The demand is there,” said Teresita Sy-Coson, vice chairperson of SM Investments, a conglomerate that started out as a shoe shop and whose initials stand for Shoe Mart.
Shoes account for 20 percent of sales at SM department stores and Sy-Coson said Filipino women like color: “This is a tropical country. They are more tropical in their taste.”
Chinese competition has dealt a body blow to the local shoe industry, centered in Marikina city in eastern Metro Manila. Only 163 companies are registered today compared to 30 years ago when thousands of workshops churned out handmade shoes.
The industry has accepted it can’t compete against mass production but rather than die out, new players are emerging, encouraged by local craftsmanship and a belief that there is a demand for high-quality, handmade shoes.
“The shoe industry here was never the mass market type,” said Eric Teng of Gaupo Shoe Couture. “The Chinese know how to use the machines. They engineer the shoes. We craft them.”
Gaupo is a luxurious range of womens’ shoes that would have many a fashionista drooling.
Filipino designer Cesar Gaupo, who was principal designer for Hong Kong fashion house Shanghai Tang, creates each pair and his 60 plus designs use materials such as Swarovski crystals, peacock feathers, fluorescent pink suede and burgundy brocade.
The in-soles can be made from satin or velvet and a heel of no less than two inches is de riguer. The top-selling “Cathedral” shoe is 4.5 inches high with satin ankle straps.
The average price is around 20,000 pesos ($430). Teng, who bought the firm last year, hopes to one day export shoes. But machines will never be used. “It just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right, it doesn’t fit right,” he said.
Far removed from Gaupo’s showroom, Marylinda Magbag employs 30 people to fill shoe orders in the back of her small house. Men swelter in dimly lit rooms and the smell of shoe glue permeates.
Magbag used to employ 100 people in the 1980s, producing over 100,000 pairs a year. Chinese competition and a strong peso have hit hard but she has survived, supported by the quality of her work and innovations such as using indigenous abaca and raffia.
Her company, Bob Mars, supplies SM department stores and big local brand Rusty Lopez. She also exports to Europe and Asia.
Japanese buyers come to peruse the racks of espadrilles, pumps and flip flops lining her front room. There’s no special lighting or piped music to encourage a sale, only a lifesize statue of the Virgin Mary looking on from the backroom.
“We have the quality,” she says. “The Chinese make it good for six months but these ones last for two years.”
Magbag’s children are involved in the business, but in many Marikina families the craft is dying out as the next generation trains for jobs in call centers at home or as nurses overseas.
Tenorio, 29, who started his company two years ago, is keen to hire apprentices to fortify his veteran staff who can make anything from dress shoes to mules with coconut husk heels.
His range is for both men and women and one of his best customers is a man who “has 38 pairs and counting”.
“I think the country that loves shoes the most is the Philippines,” he says, proudly.