Perspective: Looking Forward Part 3 – A New Marikina

In the first part of this series, we talked about the history which led to the state of the industry as we see it today. We saw how the lack of foresight and strategic planning has caused the weakening of the industry as a whole. Failure to cope with the changes resulted in the choice of imported footwear suppliers over local ones.

The second part of the series was about trends. While still linked in history, we focused more on what the trends have been and what have been trending recently. Watching trends is very important. It provides us the insight and information needed so we can plan ahead. Instead of just riding the waves and letting it take us wherever, we could map out our moves and prepare so that we can focus on reaching a destination instead of just going with the flow.

On this third and last part of the series, we will now talk about Looking Forward. We needed to know where we came from, what led us to become like this, and what forces influence our possible futures so we can face the obstacles towards our goal with strategies and lessons learned from our past. We will discuss a possible path which the local shoe industry can take to try and evolve with the times in order to remain relevant in the local market and hopefully become a player in the global market.

Where We Stand

Right now the industry is near the brink of becoming uncompetitive. We have cheap entry level imports on one side and middle-high end western/European brands on the other, sandwiching our local shoe manufacturing industry in the middle. Most small and micro scale manufacturers tend to think that they have to supply in bulk to known and established brands while brands with mechanized facilities focus on supplying their own demand but leaving the style innovation and trending to imported sources.

The small and micro scale manufacturers rely heavily still on the manual process which would qualify their shoes are being purely handcrafted still. I am not sure about the in-house facilities of bigger brands but I know that some of them are mechanized although it is still unsure about how much of the processes are machine assisted. They would also employ subcontractors to fill in for various job orders for styles which can be made easily by hand. So although there are machines available (although somewhat vintage), most of the workforce still prefer to make shoes by hand.

The problem is that the quality of the shoemakers is continuously declining. The attitude of the shoemakers towards their work is somewhat lacking in terms of wanting to create something really good. The “pwede na” mentality is so prevalent that just to pass off products with slight defects, managers/foremen are willing to let mistakes and imperfections slide instead of having to repeat the substandard product. Good enough should never be good enough.

So our shoemakers still cling on to the traditional way of making shoes. Problem is that while this is normally prized over mechanized production, the quality of regularly made shoes is still somewhat below par when it comes to export standards. Our (small and micro scale) methods and techniques have remained almost unchanged for the past 30 years.

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The Silver Lining

The good thing about this is that the skill set of our local shoemakers can be polished to create something that can be worthy of competing with international brands. We have a solid foundation on shoemaking which lacks more or else a proper design direction and stricter quality controls. If cost wasn’t much of an issue, I am pretty sure that Marikina shoemakers can make great value shoes.

We still do have a workforce which is capable of producing quality shoes with the right guidance and proper business model. That is a foundation which we can build on to try and recreate a new era in Marikina shoemaking.

The market has expressed a huge interest in local handcrafted and custom items over the past few years. The honest and authentic feeling of wearing locally crafted leather shoes has become a novel experience for most Filipinos where over the past decade good locally crafted shoes have been rarely available in the market. There has been a movement to #supportlocal homegrown micro and veteran brands which offer a more personal experience than just going to a mall to pick something off the rack.

This renewed interest in locally crafted shoes should be seen as an opportunity for the remaining players in the industry to solidify the support of Filipinos for locally crafted shoes. Majority of Filipinos, young and old, given a choice now between local or imported would choose local so as long as the quality, style and comfort of locally crafted shoes are almost up to par with the imported shoes.

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Rebuilding Our Industry

We have a unique opportunity brought about by the industry’s weaknesses and the current trend to reverse the situation and create a sunrise industry rather than to quietly let it fade into the night. While big business continues on supplying for the demand for cheap shoes, Marikina now has an opportunity to reinvent itself. Why? Because the old model does not work anymore. The reason why Marikina failed is because it is trying to be something it is not. It’s like fighting tanks with switch blades… and Marikina only has switch blades. Because of the failure to read and adapt to the trends influencing the industry properly, the local shoe industry became like a hormonal teenager – confused, angry, and resistant.

Marikina tried to beat imported goods at their own game, which was mass production. and failed. Reason being as stated before, our production methods still rely heavily on shoemakers whereas mass production facilities rely on machine operators to make the shoes as quickly as possible. The industry tried to throw as many warm bodies into the manual production line as it could while trying to keep costs down. This has created an oppressive labor practice which then created a culture among shoemakers of just finishing the work with just the bare minimums and prioritizing quantity over quality. The workshops became sweatshops and workshop owners started to blame imports for ruining the industry. While they are angry at importers and their products, local manufacturers and workers still clung to the old practices and failed to modernize their production lines.

The failure to modernize has prevented the industry from competing in the mass production market. But resilient as most Filipinos are, the industry shrank but still continued to survive with the old techniques of local shoemaking intact with the older shoemakers.

So how do we rebuild? We use our weakness as our core competency. We are slow to produce so why not produce a better product since we are already taking our time in the production process anyway. Instead of competing in the entry level mass production market, Marikina has to focus on repurposing our shoemakers to become artisans. Yes, we have to become an artisan city as Marikina was originally intended to be. The age old question of industry versus business (I will be writing an entry on this soon) comes up again as Marikina needs to stop thinking about big business and profits and start thinking about industry development and cultural preservation. What good is being the shoe capital of the Philippines when the shoes that are being produced there cannot compete on an international level? Or if most of the local shoe brands are just marketing companies importing their products from China and other neighboring ASEAN countries? What good is a shoe capital which cannot create new history but instead just reminisce the old glory days when Marikina made shoes can be compared to European craft shoes in terms of design and construction?

We need to protect and preserve our heritage. We need to reinvest in our people. We need to change the system. As with any rebuild, we have the chance to make it right that is why we have to do away with the old ways and build the foundations of our industry on a more sustainable model which is fair to all stakeholders. We need to bring dignity back to the craft. And we can start by creating a better environment for our shoemakers to become craftsmen and artisan, not just laborers.

The initial goal for rebuilding is to train Marikina shoemakers to think with a global perspective so they would know what to aim for. While it is true that there is money to be had in volume production, the same can be said if we produced less but with better quality products with higher margins and budget for labor. This is the case of cheap isn’t always good. People have to remember that having a product that is too cheap means that it’s produced and sold fairly. Our workshops have to target the emerging middle class and their behavior of wanting products with value. So as long as the shoe is priced fairly and the quality meets the expectations for the price, Marikina shoes can become competitive again. Mid tier retail pricing ranges from Php3,500.00 to Php5,000.00 when it comes to shoes.

Why target mid tier products? It is actually a huge departure from low cost shoes which Marikina shoemakers sell for less than Php1,000.00. Having mid tier pricing can help local workshops raise funds to increase compensation for their workers. This will also help promote the quality and styling of the shoes as more time is afforded for the development and production of each pair. By creating a new middle class of shoemaker, more of the younger generation will also be enticed to learn the craft and would be willing to apprentice and become artisan shoemakers. This will also serve as a training ground for those who can rise up to the challenge and become master shoemakers creating true bespoke pairs which can eventually become the pride of Marikina, giving us the right to claim that we are the shoe capital of the Philippines and to become an artisan city worthy of attention from the world. It is possible, and we can make it happen in our lifetime.

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Hand painted “Playing Koi”

 

The Vision of a New Marikina

Imagine some years from now, you travel to Marikina and actually see world class shoe designs from small independent designers and artisans. These small workshops have become a community pushing for excellence in their work and through that have become worldly recognized as some of the best artisans in the world of shoemaking. Imagine creating a new class of workers where there is a good opportunity for vertical movement and future entrepreneurial opportunity in their chosen vocation. Imagine a Marikina where the shoemaking industry is actually growing and thriving, not just in terms of business but also in heritage and culture. Imagine what we can do with what we have now. We need to be able to imagine a better dream so we can look forward into a future where a New Marikina is possible.

Support local they say. Yes I agree, but do not support us just because we are local manufacturers. Support us because our products and services are competitive. Support us because we are working towards a better shoe industry. Be our greatest critics, push us to become more. Push us so that we can make an artisan city of Marikina yet again.

We owe it to the next generation not to let the heritage die out. We need to inspire them and motivate them by becoming an example that even if the odds are stacked against us, we did not and will not give up. That we will find ways to overcome our obstacles and learn how to turn our weaknesses to our advantage. We owe the next generation a New Marikina which they can be proud of. Let us look forward to a better future with a cautious mind and a hopeful heart. Let us all look forward to creating a history of a New Marikina.

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