Portuguese cork has long been famous, and half the world knows about it mainly because it is used to make wine corks. But a Portuguese businesswoman discovered other uses for it, founded Pelcor, and not even MoMA in New York was able to resist it.
Around two years ago, the MoMA design store in New York decided to include Portugal in its Destination Series with its very own exhibition. For several months, thousands of visitors were able to discover one hundred “made in Portugal” products, most of which had been designed in line with ecological principles and using traditional materials. For the respective companies and designers, many of whom were represented outside of Portugal for the first time, this event was a great challenge, but above all it was also a rare opportunity to be in the international spotlight.
One of the companies that enjoyed this distinction was Pelcor, a company which manufactures an extensive line of cork-based products – an honour that became all the greater as the brand was also chosen as the “campaign face” for this great event and could be seen on huge posters and billboards all over the Big Apple. For Sandra Correia, the businesswoman behind the company’s concept and management, this feat naturally gave rise to a feeling of pride. After all, not everyone can boast about having flown to New York to see their work exhibited in one of the largest, most visited and renowned modern art museums in the world. “MoMA was a springboard for Pelcor to enter the American market and the exhibition brought great recognition to the brand. Today, it is our showcase in New York.”
However, all this media attention wasn’t entirely unknown to Sandra Correia. In the recent past, Pelcor had already made headlines because of the cork bags used by Madonna, the presents offered to the heads of state at NATO’s Lisbon summit, and also because of the order placed by the Saudi Arabian princess Jawaher Abdulaziz in 2007 for 1,500 individual cork placemats with which to adorn the tables of her palaces in Riyadh and Paris. The exhibition at MoMA in Tokyo was also important, as were the fashion shows at the Paris Fashion Week, and the company’s participation in the ModaLisboa and Portugal Fashion shows, which are the most important Portuguese showcases connected to fashion and the textile industry.
Sandra’s low-key profile also extends to Pelcor, and yet there is widespread consensus that cases like this one are important international victories. And it is inevitable that we contextualise such cases in the short ten years of the company’s existence, and note how an idea that came from a small workshop lost in the hills of the Algarve has made its presence felt around the world.
From the Algarve to the world
São Brás de Alportel. This is the small hillside town where Pelcor is based, and where you will also find its showroom and one of its stores – as well as all the cork used by Pelcor. The history of the company overlaps in part with the history of this settlement, which was considered the largest producer of cork in the world in the 19th century.
Sandra’s family, the Correias, have always been dedicated to this industry. In 1935, her grandfather set things in motion with a wine cork factory. Decades later, her father developed a technique that made it possible to produce the same corks for champagne bottles as well. And Sandra, who has obviously always lived surrounded by this environment, started working with the family when she was a young girl and has now contributed to the company by creating a more contemporary line of business, based on using cork for home and office products, as well as fashion accessories. We’re obviously referring to Pelcor, which was “born” in 2003.
The story behind its creation is rather interesting. A never-before-seen object, an umbrella made entirely from cork, was made for an event that Novacortiça (the family company) would be attending. To begin with, the idea itself was strange as it rains very little in the Algarve, but it became even more unique due to the huge interest it sparked during the whole event. Sandra, who had gone to this fair, noted all the interest and held onto this idea, thinking that it might very well be the answer to what to do with the cork that is leftover from normal factory production. It didn’t take her long to establish that everything can be made from those cork sheets: from watches to aprons, from simple shopping backs to footballs.
The Correias had yet another innovative product on their hands, and over the last decade Sandra has worked tirelessly to capitalise on this – a task she has carried out little by little, from project to project and collection to collection, by means of partnerships with designers, nationally renowned companies and international fairs. “A great part of this success is due to the surprise factor, as cork is still associated to bottle corks. Then there’s also the quality of the raw material itself, which is much loved among the Portuguese. And finally, there’s the whole ecological issue associated with cork, a raw material that is 100% recyclable and has a transformation process where nothing is wasted.”
To visit the store in São Brás or the one in Lisbon – the only two flagship stores – is to enter the vast world of Pelcor. The shelves are lined with over 50 products with many different uses, which not only reflect the scope of this universe, but also Sandra’s ability to turn ideas into reality. This was duly confirmed at the end of last year when the European Parliament chose Sandra Correia as Europe’s Best Woman Entrepreneur in 2011 – a distinction that was soon followed by another innovation prize awarded in London at the Pure International Fashion Show.
At the ceremony where she received the trophy for Best Woman Entrepreneur, Sandra Correia noted: “This award opens new doors for Pelcor and for cork, and it should represent a source of pride and motivation for Portugal”. And it seems she continues to make the most of this visibility, judging by the company’s growing presence abroad. First she took on Europe, as her brand became known in countries such as France, Germany and Russia. Then later it was the turn of the United States and Canada, while Brazil, Dubai, Macau and China represent more recent conquests.
When we ask her how far she intends to take Pelcor, she answers with an almost cheeky grin: “My dream is to open a store on New York’s 5th Avenue, alongside Prada and Louis Vuitton. The day that happens it will mean that the brand is firmly established on the international market and in the world’s main fashion accessories circuits.” “It costs nothing to dream,” concludes Sandra.
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by João Nauman