From a modern vision of craftsmanship, Urban Shepherds has brought back the traditional Portuguese work boots. Their formula of success is design, quality, branding, sustainability and know-how.
With mass consumption, the internet of things and the robotization of the industry, all forecasts seemed to indicate that craftsmanship was immersed in an unstoppable process of extinction, with some exceptions only accessible to a small eccentric minority.
However, in recent years we are witnessing the resurgence of crafts. Every day we discover new workshops led by a generation of young entrepreneurs who recover the values and techniques of traditional craftsmen, mixing them with new concepts such as digitization, design and responsibility towards the environment.
Urban Sheperds is a good example of this new craftsmanship. Located in the heart of Barcelona, in a small alley seeking refuge from massive tourism, we find the beautiful store founded by Tiago Maximo. With just two years of life, it has become a reference of the handmade leather boots, heir of a Portuguese tradition with more than 50 years of history.
The origins of Urban Sheperds go back to Tiago’s passion for the traditional work boots, which he brought from his native Portugal to Barcelona. Despite being a very simple shoe, he always carried them with him, even riding a bike, something that caught the attention of his friends.
When, after ten years, Tiago had to leave Barcelona and return to Portugal, he discovered that his favorite boots were disappearing. Many traditional workshops were closing, others had been industrialized and most of them had stopped producing the boots because of lack of demand.
On the one hand, the artisans had no vision of how to introduce the product into the market and didn’t know how to adapt to the new regulations on materials. On the users side, the custom-made shoes looked out of date and those boots had a connotation of low quality, a cheap product for workers.
Undaunted, Tiago sought out artisans who still made the boots in the traditional way. He found a workshop that was about to close and convinced them to resist a little more. He knew those boots could succeed. He knew where he could sell them, which was the adequate market niche, and what improvements were needed, while remaining faithful to the spirit of the original model and the Portuguese know-how.
He bought 20 pairs of boots, returned to Barcelona and presented them at the Flea Market, where he sold 7 pairs. A real success. The next step was clear: he needed training. He had little knowledge about shoe making, so he enrolled in a school, where he definitely fell in love with shoemaking.
With knowledge about leatherwork, shoemaking and his experience as a user, Tiago knew that visual and quality improvements were needed. The original boots were made of very hard leathers that soon get dehydrated, the stuffing was made of paper pulp and the recycled tire soles broke quickly, as did the fragile tongue and laces.
The current public appreciates the traditional product and handmade things, but they are more sophisticated. They are willing to pay more in exchange for more quality, but also demand to know the source of what they are buying and make sure that the materials and the work process are respectful of the environment and the workers who made it.
The improvements applied to the boots respond to this perspective. The use of new materials such as vibram soles and anti-shock insoles is combined with traditional techniques. In fact, the new techniques are the old ones. The workshop is the 3D printer of Tiago’s projects. He designs and develops the construction techniques and a team of pattern designers and seamstresses shapes his ideas.
Periodically, Tiago goes to the workshop in Portugal to transmit the improvements. In the era of digital business transformation, Skype video conference calls do not make much sense. Those people don’t have email or Whatsapp. In the age of robotics, the working process of Urban Shepherds is not automated. People control the whole process.
And yet, they are based on new concepts, a new lifestyle, the pursuit of excellence and, above all, the needs of customers. It’s not just the product, Tiago explains. Being a slower working process, everything is more holistic. There is a more humane and sustainable vision of the product, where knowing who made the product is important.
To finish the interview, I ask Tiago about his plans for the future. He wants to expand to other cities and countries. And if he succeeds, what would he do in the face of an increased demand? “I would rather prefer a long queue than manufacturing in China. I will not change anything at the production level, ” he says.