Making Fashion Out of Cork

Nine years ago, Sandra Correia had an idea that would revolutionise the way people looked at cork

A business woman in a very conservative and traditionally change-averse sector, Sandra Correia was able to establish her own fashion brand out of a very unusual textile – cork-tree skin.

Looking around in Pelcor’s shop in Lisbon, many items of different sizes and varieties can be found. Umbrellas, pens, raincoats, wallets and the more traditional coasters are all part of the range of accessories that makes up Pelcor’s collection. The product that they are made of – cork – is what they, and Pelcor, are all about.

The birth of Pelcor was due to the unusual circumstances that arose in the company where Sandra worked, Novacortiça S.A. A well-established company with a good reputation and dealing with cork-transformation, Novacortiça experienced an excess of cork in 2001 that could not be transformed. Sandra’s abhorrence to waste and her family experience in the field thus became the propellers for her inspiration.

“My family has been in the cork business for many generations now. But Pelcor is a more recent project. It all started due to an excess of high-quality cork that we had in 2001 and out of necessity we created this opportunity. It was then that I had the idea (very strange at the time) to make an umbrella out of cork skin. The experience went very well, both in the commercial and the financial point of view, and we decided to take a chance on this new and innovative line of business, a very challenging one”, she said.

For such an unusual concept, the beginning was hardly easy. Sandra reveals that besides the lack of know-how of transforming cork skin into a textile that is of a quality high enough to be turned into everyday objects, there was an almost absolute ignorance of what cork could be turned into. It was not just the items, but the actual market that had to be created for these objects.

“There was no market niche for cork-skin accessories. Cork and cork-items were very much associated with traditional handicraft and artisan work (except corks used to seal bottles) and associate them with fashion was a challenge. It has been a great challenge, but so far Pelcor has enjoyed great adhesion and success.”

On the lack of know-how, the company itself, as well as the providers of the raw material, had to learn to work with cork-skin in a way that had never been tried before.

“Nothing of this sort had ever been done anywhere in the world and it was necessary to create this knowledge of work, design and manufacturing associated with cork, both among our own staff as well as with our providers. It was necessary to find and create a special language for cork skin in the field of fashion accessories. While other textiles had their own language already and it is well-established, such as furs and leather, the cork skin is still in its infancy […] and it was necessary to learn and understand the material, as well as how to potentiate its exceptional qualities”, Correia explained.

"For us it is crucial that the media and the main opinion- and style-makers like Pelcor and our products"

Precisely due to the need to create a market for cork-skin fashion items, Pelcor invested a very well thought out and structured marketing strategy, both in Portugal and abroad. This strategy, involving media contacts and participation in international exhibitions and fairs, is critical.

As Sandra detailed, “For us it is crucial that the media and the main opinion- and style-makers like Pelcor and our products. The support of specialised press offices in this past year has been one of our means to achieve these types of actions. We also participate in fairs, as our re-sellers and representatives are the main vehicles of communication with our clients in a given market. Thus, their influence in the public opinion’s well-regard for Pelcor is very important.”

However, Sandra reveals that half of the marketing work is done in a continuous way – every day and at every stage of production. A genuine concern for sustainability, durability of the items, and a very well thought out design are put into the making of each fashion item or home accessory.

“Our investment in the quality of our materials, in the quality of design and production, to achieve a high-quality final product, is first and foremost to please our clients and offer them a fashion experience ecologically correct and unique. And that is because cork has very special properties which we are only aware of by regular use. Its texture, durability and very easy maintenance make our products a singular case in the world of fashion accessories.”

"Obviously, in countries where the market for eco-friendly fashion products is more developed (such as the United States or the northern-European countries), Pelcor earns greater acceptance faster"

Through its devotion to high quality, Pelcor ensures that clients, by their loyalty, become active marketers of the brand. As Sandra explains, “This experience of our brand by the clients is a crucial strategy for us. The truth is that whoever is satisfied with a brand will surely recommend it to their relatives and friends.”

Sandra also reveals that some international markets were very easy to conquer, especially the ones with a matured environmental awareness.

“Obviously, in countries where the market for eco-friendly fashion products is more developed (such as the United States or the northern-European countries), Pelcor earns greater acceptance faster. But in every fair and exhibition that we go to, or in every event and press presentation that we do, the feedback received is more than positive. The receptivity of clients has overcome our best expectations.”

A proof of a successful internationalisation is the presence of Pelcor products in places as diverse as the souvenir shop of the highly prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York, or in a small fashion store in Linköping, Sweden. Its rapid success, based on a sustainable and eco-friendly idea, gave Sandra Correia the Best Women’s Entrepreneur Award from the European Parliament in 2011. Apart from the great pride with which Sandra received the trophy, she says it came with an added responsibility.

"A brand is not made in a day... each single day it has to be built and consolidated! That is my philosophy and this is the philosophy that we abide by in Pelcor daily"

“The award for Best Women’s Entrepreneur in 2011, awarded by the European Parliament, was a true surprise and a great acknowledgement for the work we have been developing in Pelcor around the innovative and ecologically-friendly idea within the international world of fashion. But it also encouraged us all in Pelcor’s team to do more and do it better in the future. Because such an award brings great responsibility with it – to fulfill higher expectations that may now exist about Pelcor and its products.”

Pelcor is now reaching adulthood. The freshness from its innovative character is now combined with the wisdom of a company that has established its firm roots, developed its know-how and is now able to compete with large international fashion brands.

“A brand is not made in a day... each single day it has to be built and consolidated! That is my philosophy and this is the philosophy that we abide by in Pelcor daily,” Correia says.

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