Survival steps get steeper for Marikina shoemakers
MANILA, Philippines — In 1990, bank employee Vilma Fontilla decided to leave her glass-walled office and step into the gritty but booming shoemaking industry in Marikina City.
She and her family had just moved to the country’s shoe capital and bought a factory to start a shoemaking business. But, she confessed, the necessary know-how did not come with the structure.
“I bought an entire factory, but I had to study the shoe industry for a very long time. It was difficult because I had to start from scratch,” Fontilla, 65, told the Inquirer.
As the years wore on she grew accustomed to the smell of leather in the factory, where she spent her mornings ensuring that there were sufficient personnel and materials for the production of durable yet affordable footwear with the Fontelle Shoes brand.
Instead of jostling with other families in malls to celebrate Valentine’s Day each February, Fontilla, her husband and their children got busy packing hundreds of pairs of shoes they had stocked in the famed Marikina Shoe Gallery on Riverbank Avenue. Then they headed north to reach Baguio City for the annual Panagbenga Festival, where her regular clients eagerly awaited their products.
This, Fontilla said, was what she loved about the business: Wherever she went, there was always the warm welcome of clients wearing Marikina-made footwear and waiting for their next pair of evening or dancing shoes—the family’s signature product.
Fontilla never imagined that her business would come to a painful halt decades later, when the deadly coronavirus forced even the thriving shoe industry to its knees.
On Nov. 27, just weeks after Typhoon “Ulysses” (international name: Vamco) battered Marikina, Fontilla received a heartbreaking message sent “with deep regret” by the Marikina Shoe Gallery management: “Our beloved store will cease operating.”
She recalled telling her children: “What will happen to us now? Where will we bring our stocks?”
Fontelle Shoes had actually been suffering dismal sales for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It did not help that at least 100 pairs were left incomplete by the great flood or caked in thick mud.
The closure of Marikina Shoe Gallery—home of the world’s largest pair of shoes—deepened the wounds inflicted by COVID-19 on the city’s shoemakers. The retailers who used to rake in P2 million to P4 million a month became casualties of the domino effect suffered by the Philippine economy.
Manufacturers like Fontilla lost their source of income. And their regular clients could not reach them because the Marikina Shoe Trade Fair, where they had displayed their products, was temporarily closed by the local government for rehabilitation.
The Marikina shoe industry has long suffered sharp losses due mainly to the competition posed by products coming from China, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
When at one point the industry was contributing 70 percent to the city economy, this had dwindled to a mere 15 percent in December 2019.
Fontilla’s son Jonathan said they had been buying raw materials, such as shoe buckles, from China. He expressed hope that other Philippine industries could develop local materials to help boost the struggling economy.
“We are hopeful that the leather and thread industries could develop [materials for shoes] that have high quality and are affordable so that we don’t have to be reliant on China,” he said.
Marikina’s shoemakers are no stranger to the sort of heavy rainfall that wreaks havoc on their business: Back in 2009 when Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (Ketsana) struck Metro Manila, it took Fontelle Shoes three months to get back on the saddle.
But what makes the devastation wrought by Ulysses a bigger burden is that the city residents are also battling a pandemic that has left untold numbers of Filipinos jobless nationwide.
Said Fontilla: “What makes this harder for us is that we are considered a nonessential business. Even if malls have resumed operations, the flow of people has not improved. No one is buying our shoes, so all of our stocks are still there. Our customers are not placing any orders…”
During peak seasons, Fontelle Shoes managed to earn as much as P100,000 a month through the shoe gallery. But the loss in sales caused by COVID-19 was immediate.
Some shoemakers and tailors looked for other jobs, and Fontilla reduced the workdays of her remaining personnel to cushion the financial impact of the pandemic.
With quarantine restrictions and fear of catching the virus preventing consumers from even trying on new footwear, Fontilla was led back to the drawing board to develop a product made of the same material but now much more in demand: bags. She figured that with consumers venturing outside their home to buy necessities and carrying with them only their essentials, they needed inexpensive but durable bags to bring with them.
Through its official Facebook page, Fontelle Shoes is offering small bags for as low as P575, with enough room for spare masks, a bottle of alcohol, a smartphone, and cash.
“What people use mostly now are small bags for essentials when they go outside. We are hoping that we will be able to dispose of our remaining shoe stocks soon so that we can explore other products,” Jonathan said.
While the family labored to salvage what was left of its signature shoe line, Fontilla’s daughter, Kimberly, took the wheel and sold its remaining products online, where they unexpectedly reached customers from as far as Zamboanga City and the City of Dapitan in Mindanao.
But the good reception to their products played a minor role in the recovery of the once-bustling Fontelle Shoes.
Like every other Filipino, Fontilla is pinning her hopes on a COVID-19 vaccine that will eventually get the country back on its feet—preferably with original Marikina-made shoes on.
“The government is always asking us to stay at home. But when you stay at home, there’s no business. And it’s not just us but everyone else in the industry,” she said.
“We are relying on the vaccine so that the entire country can rise from this pandemic. Although the rise will be gradual, what’s important is that we still recover,” Fontilla said.
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