“I am 77 years old, I created a sneaker company with my grandson”
I have lived and worked in Minde, a small town in Portugal, since I was 15 years old. When I was 8 years old I had started working on a farm but it was a very difficult life so when I was 15 I moved to Minde to try to find a better life.
I started working in a yarn factory, where I met my husband, and stayed there until I was 24, when I got married. It was difficult to raise a family and work in the yarn factory, so I changed jobs and started weaving clothes. It allowed me to work during the day and to be home at night with my family.
After a while, I fell in love with making clothes and my dad bought me a sewing machine. I started making clothes on the side for my husband, kids, grandchildren and friends. When my grandson Bernardo was little, I adjusted his father’s old clothes to suit him. But I didn’t graduate from any school, I just learned on my own.
Bernardo first told me about starting a sneaker business in 2018, when I was 74 years old. He had moved from London to Portugal and spent a lot of time with me; come for lunch and dinner. He had been saying for a long time that he wanted to start his own business, but when he came to me with the idea of making sneakers from cannabis or hemp, I said to him: “No luck! drugs, you’re crazy! ” I remember telling him not to even think about it.
Then he explained the process to me, that it is not illegal and that there would be no problem using this hemp to make sneakers. Bernardo told me that the hemp would be used for the exterior and the insoles of the sneakers, and that the sneakers would be waterproof.
But what really changed the game was when he brought me tissue samples. We started testing the fabrics and I was able to tell him which ones broke easily and which were the best to use. As my sewing machine was not strong enough for the fabric, we had to look for a factory that would make the shoes to our specifications.
After finding one, I would go to the factory to check the quality of the sneaker samples, evaluating if everything was done right. A key part of the production was not performing well, the labels were sometimes tilted to the side and Bernardo struggled because he had no experience in textiles. I spent days with him in the factory and lectured employees on how to do their jobs!
I helped with all the details of the shoe, explaining to the staff when the seam was not well done or when the glue was getting on the outside of the sole of the sneakers; aspects that Bernardo did not know.
We then launched a Kickstarter in 2019 to raise $ 10,000 via pre-orders to start producing more sneakers, but we actually raised almost $ 250,000. We then had issues shipping the shoes in early 2019 as we weren’t expecting so many orders!
Faced with such a large number of orders, we had to bring the shoes to our garage in batches from the factory. Then we would call friends to create labels and help us package each pair to send to its final destination. Those days were crazy. It took us six people in two weeks to ship everything.
But before delivering a single shoe, we checked them all individually to make sure they were of good quality. At first the sneakers were heavy and I was not happy because I have knee problems. So now the shoe is lighter and very comfortable. I still wear one of those early, heavier prototypes, but mostly use the newer, lighter version now.
I’m still the person Bernardo sends all the samples to, he might think it’s ready and I’ll tell him the parts aren’t right, and I always go to the factory here in Portugal to check the quality and production of the sneakers. I’m like the Technical Director (CTO) Bernardo who manages the business side and we also have an American investor. I would visit the United States, but unfortunately I’m afraid to fly. So Bernardo goes there and I stay in Portugal.
So far we’ve sold around 10,000 pairs of our hemp sneakers to people all over the world, although Bernardo tells me that 80% of our sales are in the United States. To be honest, I don’t know much about the internet.
We currently have seven colors of hemp sneakers for men and women, and I told Bernardo that I wanted us to make sandals for next summer and see more colors for the sneakers, but I understand that ‘every time we want to launch a new product, it takes time. 8000Kicks is still a startup, so everything we do is put back into the business.
The best part about working in the sneaker brand is the time Bernardo and I spend together. I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to start a family business at my age. It is also very rewarding to have positive feedback from customers.
My friends laugh at me, but they think it’s good that I’m working on a sneaker brand at 77. We sell a lot of our sneakers to the elderly in my village in Portugal. I think they might be a little jealous of me!
Maria Otilia is the technical director of 8000kicks, a sustainable hemp sneaker brand. Find out more www.8000kicks.com or follow the brand on Instagram @ 8000 kicks.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
As said to Jenny Haward. Translation of the interview provided by Bernardo Carreira.