Plascencia said he supported the Mexican industry's calls for China to eliminate any unfair subsidies and other alleged illegal practices that gave it an advantage over competitors. Still, he says sky-high compensatory tariffs on shoes have only encouraged smuggling of Chinese footwear into Mexico; by some estimates, 20 million pairs a year are brought into the country illegally.
"We have to have a plan of attack and not just play defense," said Plascencia, owner of Calzado Elefante.
He said Mexican producers needed to focus on niches and strengths, such as their proximity to the U.S. market, which allows them to quickly fill and deliver reorders of popular styles.
Plascencia also is helping to push an industry effort to establish a distinct international identity for Mexican shoes, much like Brazil and Italy have done. He said Mexico's government could help by cutting taxes and red tape and lowering utility rates.
Raul Gallardo, general director of Leon-based shoemaker Industrial Zapatera JR, said his company was investing heavily in new technology and opening Mexican retail outlets for its Brantano brand of men's and women's footwear.
Gallardo got his start in the business at age 18 with a friend and four employees. A quarter-century later, his firm has 1,000 employees and produces more than 2 million pairs of shoes a year.
A nattily dressed man who wears $500 Italian dress shoes, Gallardo said profit margins at his company were a lot tighter than they used to be, and added that it was almost inevitable that more Chinese shoes would enter Mexico.
He said he would consider importing some low-end styles from China to keep his workers focused on producing higher quality products.
"At some point I'll do some importing," he said. "It's tough to talk like this. But that's the reality."