From humble beginnings in a small garage, Pizarro, a family business with its headquarters in Guimarães, northern Portugal, now occupies 34,000 square metres of land and has a production capacity of 18 million pieces a year. The very first machine bought by the company is displayed at the entrance, standing tall like a flag.
Pizarro started out as an industrial laundry, but quickly became a vertically integrated company, offering quality, flexibility and high speed throughout the entire process from the co-creation stage to packaging. A global leader in laundry, dyeing and finishing, Pizarro stands out for its sustainable practices and techniques. It has over 2,000 clients worldwide, with brands such as Balenciaga, Vetements, Off-White and Grupo Inditex.
Vasco Pizarro tells us about the 38 year history of the company founded by his parents. His pride in the company’s past is apparent in every word, as well as an overwhelming desire to continue innovating in the future. He describes Pizarro as a conscious company, with an open mind and a positive attitude in the market.
PRINÇIPAL How would you describe Pizarro and how does it stand out from other companies?
Pizarro is a versatile company, offering design, pattern-making, samples, laundry, dyeing, printing and finishing as its core business. It stands out by providing all these services and, above all, for flexibility, innovative techniques and sustainable practices and processes.
PRINÇIPAL When did you adopt these sustainable procedures?
The path to sustainability has been a very interesting journey for Pizarro. We’ve created a wastewater treatment plant, made constant efficiency improvements to our machinery and installed photovoltaic panels on our buildings. Another very important step we took was the automation of the company’s dry cleaning and laundry systems in 1992, which gave us even more control of the colours, processes and resources. This too allowed us to gain ground on our competitors.
Our goal was to become one of the most sustainable companies in our segment, which we’ve proudly achieved.
PRINÇIPAL Not only one of the most sustainable companies but also a pioneer in this area.
We were the first factory in Europe to have automated dyeing and laundry systems. This brings us to another distinctive feature of Pizarro, which is our workload capacity. Nowadays, our dying department can dye 11 tons every day, which translates to about 4 thousand pieces a day, with five operators working each shift. Furthermore, we know there’s always room for improvement in our business and we bring a very positive approach to our market. This also differentiates us from the competition. We take pleasure in serving our clients.
PRINÇIPAL Pizarro is recognised for its constant innovation. What are the most recent developments?
We have developed a closed-circuit water system that allows us to reuse the same water in the laundry for 22 days. This system allows us to save 180 litres of water every minute. At the end of the month, we are saving around 2 million litres of water.
We’ve recently created a department dedicated to the development of sustainable processes. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we stopped our factory’s activity before the first mandatory lockdown in Portugal, because many of our employees are part of high-risk groups. We used the lockdown period to develop this department and we’ve created a suite of new processes, in particular, a new process to disinfect personal protective equipment. Today, we are fully prepared to disinfect reusable personal protective equipment, such as gowns, sheets, bedspreads, blankets or medical supplies.
We’ve also managed to develop a new bleaching process — which is usually one of the “dirtiest” processes in the clothing business — without using any chemicals and using half of the usual time. I believe this will be one of the greatest sustainable innovations in the market.
This new department is called SENSUS (from the Portuguese “SENtido SUStentável”, which roughly translates to sustainable mindset) and, in its essence, SENSUS is a laboratory composed of textile engineers led by my father, who is the head of innovation for the company.
PRINÇIPAL Is your father still the backbone of the company?
Absolutely! My father is that person who never stops thinking about new stuff. Both my parents are the true pillars of Pizarro. In fact, this all started with the two of them working in a garage. Since the founding of the company in 1983, we have been continuously growing and innovating. First came the laundry, then the dry cleaning and so on, until we became a vertically integrated company. The path they have chosen is unique, and it is something that I value a lot, just as I value the work of my siblings in this company.
PRINÇIPAL Other than your father, what’s the role of each member of the Pizarro family in the company?
My mother has always been a seamstress, and she’s currently in charge of the finishing department. My brother Ricardo is the financial director. My sister Margarida is the production director and handles all commercial matters in Spain. I joined the company later and manage international commerce (except Spain), as well as the communication and marketing department. I truly admire my siblings because they joined the company during the 2008 economic crisis. They deserve all the credit. It was a really rough time. We had to search for new ways of improvement. We had to reinvent ourselves.
We went from a structure with more than 1000 employees to just 315, but nowadays, we produce as much as we did in the past. Despite the difficulties, we always had an incredible team that believed in the project and fully supported us, so every day we try our best to give back as much as we can and provide them with the best working conditions possible. It is during these harsh times that you truly get to know the people around you and I believe that today we are more united and stronger than ever.
PRINÇIPAL Was it part of your plan to continue the family business?
My brother has been coming here since he was a kid. He started by helping load the vans. My sister’s favourite hobby was to come to the laboratory to play with dyes. You see, my parents’ house is right next door, so whether we like it or not, this was always part of our life. To be honest, my father always encouraged us to follow different paths, but we always wanted to be part of this project. It is lucky that we are all so different and our work complements each other. My brother is more of an introvert, and he’s very good with numbers. I’m more communicative. And my sister is the assertive one.
PRINÇIPAL Despite the global scale that Pizarro has now achieved, does its family based structure allow the company to continue operating with the same values it was founded on?
No doubt! The values my parents passed on to us are always present throughout the day. Above all, we never forget where we came from and how it all started.
You probably noticed that right at the entrance we display my father’s first machine. We have a display upstairs of the machines that are dear to us and tell the story of Pizarro, from the first tank in which my father did the laundry.
We know every project starts small, and we know that nobody can grow alone. We work closely and always with the same excellence with each of our 2,000 customers, regardless of their different market placements, from the Inditex Group to brands like Balenciaga, Vetements, Off-White and Tommy Hilfiger.
PRINÇIPAL Do you notice a growing demand from niche brands or brands that produce smaller quantities?
Sure! At the European level, Portugal is highly valued both in the knitwear market and in the denim market, which is our core business. As a versatile company, Pizarro can fill orders of as few as 300 pieces. These are brands that, although they’re ordering smaller quantities, require another kind of special detail in the craftsmanship, in the choice of accessories and in the sourcing of fabrics.
These luxury and premium orders, due to the need for greater care and control, are entirely done in this factory, while the orders that exceed 5,000 pieces are produced at our partner factories in Egypt and Bangladesh.
PRINÇIPAL Do these companies abroad share Pizarro’s values, including those regarding sustainability? Why did you choose these countries?
These are companies that share our vision, values and philosophy. Our company in Bangladesh works with the same certifications and is very socially inclusive. It has programs for transgender people and other minorities that suffer abuse in the country. Bangladesh allows us a great deal of flexibility in the types of product we create. Egypt has a large variety of denim fabrics to choose from. They are versatile, flexible and competitive companies, which is very beneficial in terms of logistics.
All their processes are monitored by our quality control teams and also by the people who certified the companies during the selection process. These partners allow us to have a global dimension.
Although we are based in Portugal, we manage to have a position in the global market and serve a variety of customers with quality, versatility and sustainability.
Furthermore, everything that is produced abroad is finished here in Portugal. The fabrics and clothing are manufactured at our partner companies and then the pieces are shipped here for us to wash, dye and finish. These last processes give the garments the colour, the texture, and the look that make our pieces stand out.
PRINÇIPAL How can brands or designers start working with Pizarro?
Pizarro offers several business streams, according to the size and needs of each client. Firstly, we have the collection system, in which the client has an idea for a product and we develop this together — from patterns and fabric sourcing to finishing — in a very close relationship at every step of the process. The starting point can be either a piece of clothing they send us as a reference or a mood board with inspiration and examples of what they want to create. We also have a sourcing department to assist when they need to choose quality fabric, according to the desired weight, elasticity and fit. It is a very organic process and we guarantee all the tests and the delivery of the samples within a week and a half.
The other two business models stand out on the logistics side. One of them is what we call “Negative Stock”. This is the only Pizarro’s service that has minimum quantities, but it is very beneficial in financial and logistical terms for some clients. Starting with 5,000 pieces, we allow the clients to store their raw pieces here at Pizarro and, each week, they can decide to add different washes and finishes. Obviously, it has to be a flexible fabric in terms of colour, which has a good light and dark wash and allows an accurate size control. By guaranteeing the possibility of placing weekly or monthly orders, our clients can always be launching new products. We must never forget that sustainability is also about avoiding waste, so by working in this way the client prevents dead stock.
Our third business model is called “PZR Up-cycle”. Internally, we call this service “hospital”, because it basically consists of giving the customer the possibility to collect the unsold pieces to be reprocessed and reintroduced in a new collection. It works as if the clothes are “sick” and they enter Pizarro to be treated. In this last business model, the advantage is that we allow clients to reintroduce an old piece of clothing as a brand-new product, and it can be sold at the initial or even higher price point, instead of being sold at a sale price.
Right at the first contact, each client fills out a form and we evaluate which business model is the best suited.
PRINÇIPAL Does Pizarro have a design department?
We have an internal design department. One of our designers specialises in laser and printed designs, which is a very versatile process allowing many applications. This department is also dedicated to research, mood boards, database construction and providing quick responses to the clients’ needs. As we work with a diverse range of clients, we have to know how to interpret various aesthetics and offer flexibility.
PRINÇIPAL When you are researching, travelling or in a shop, do you ever find pieces that you don’t understand how they were made?
Nobody knows everything and we are always learning. It can often happen that we are intrigued or surprised by new pieces. Currently, there are many clothes, mainly from “out of the box” brands, that are handcrafted. This handmade process gives a special character to the piece and makes us reflect on how to scale that character for production. When we don’t know how a certain item was made, our instinct is to immediately buy it to take with us. Then, it’s a trial-and-error process.
We do it because we want to keep learning and innovating to be ready to constantly present differentiated products and new trends to our clients. After brainstorming with our designers, technicians and engineers, we try to understand if we can achieve this differentiation by mechanical or chemical means, and with which process or combination of processes. We always keep in mind that it needs to be replicable at an industrial level and meet our sustainability criteria.
PRINÇIPAL Is sustainability a value that Pizarro tries to instil in clients or do they already contact your company with this awareness?
Today, fashion designers or the person who creates a product, creates their design with sustainability at heart, whether in fashion, shoemaking or even in the construction industry.
This awareness is already intrinsic from the outset for most of the clients we work with. Some brands always work with sustainability as a starting point. Others are still moving towards sustainability. But I think everyone, sooner or later, is going to be sustainable.
At Pizarro, we separate brands into two camps: sustainability and ecology. To make it clear, everything we do at Pizarro is sustainable, because we save resources on every level of production. But if the customer wants an 100% ecological product, it means that we do not use any chemical products and energy use is kept to a minimum in all processes. Unfortunately, greenwashing is a reality and it happens a lot more than we imagine by brands from whom we do not expect it.
It should also be noted that Pizarro’s success is not just a result of our own efforts. We count on a fantastic, dedicated team. So, therefore, we try to make a contribution so that the people who work with us evolve and keep feeling motivated. We have several training programs taking place this year, from manufacturing to the maintenance of machines. Sustainability is not just about the environment.
In contrast to Portuguese standards, there are factories with very difficult realities in terms of hygiene and safety. The human cost is still highly overlooked in the textile and clothing industry. Attention must be drawn to these social issues.
PRINÇIPAL How can transparency and proximity to the industry be guaranteed?
A few years ago, I was at Kingpins in Amsterdam and one of our Italian denim partners took a loom to the fair. We noticed that design teams, including the ones from the brands we already work with, were really fascinated. They kept taking pictures and commenting that they had never seen a working loom. Indeed, we noticed there is still a very large gap between fashion designers and the industry.
With that in mind, we had the idea of organising a contest for students of fashion and textile design. We named the competition “Paulo Ribeiro by Pizarro Competition” after the company’s first employee, who died in 2015. The only contest rule is that the coordinate has to be composed of denim and natural fibres. From all the entries, we select 10 finalists to bring their ideas to life at Pizarro.
The 10 creations are presented at a fashion show. Afterwards, three winners are selected by an international jury, composed by Donwan Harrell, designer and owner of PRPS, Alice Tonello, from Tonello Marketing and R&D Manager, Alberto Candiani, general director of Candiani, Israel Frutos Bonache, creative director of 11 by Boris Bidjan Saberi and my sister Margarida, representing Pizarro. In the last edition, the winner received a trip to New York, the runner-up travelled to Milan and the third to Venice. We had to interrupt this event because of the pandemic, but we intend to relaunch it as soon as possible.
PRINÇIPAL What message would you like to send to everyone in the textile, clothing and fashion industry?
This pandemic has put many things into perspective and we are witnessing a collective awakening. We quickly realised that nobody is too big or too small and that nobody is where they wanted to be — whether it be the brands, the producers, the laundries or the dry cleaners.
The importance of partnerships and joining efforts has been reinforced. And with this opening of the industry, there is also an opening of minds.
The industry is huge, very fragmented and highly specialised. Although the Portuguese textile and manufacturing industry is highly valued for its quality, flexibility and know-how, there is still a lot of separation between us.
The industry has to come closer and think more as a collective. We should all work together to build a strong and unique brand that reflects this union and attracts even more value to Portugal.
When we celebrated 30 years of Pizarro, we made a video with our workers called “the lives behind the jeans”. This film ends with an idea that our father always instilled in us: we are not going anywhere if we are alone. We all must come together — employees, workers, partners, customers or competitors — because even competitors make us want to be and do better. I think we are on a good path already. But it is a path that can get even better. This union and these partnerships will only bring benefits to every one of us.♦
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