Her shop is a shrine to the past, but curiously and cleverly in tune with the present. It exalts everything from ceramic swallows, which are a national symbol, to a soap that Oprah can't get enough of, to Coração metal polish, which still uses its original 1928 logo of a heart pierced by an arrow.
“Brands spend millions to create a history for themselves. Normally items that are 60 to 80 years old won’t be bad things,” she says with a touch of irony. “If they’ve lasted this long, they’re bound to have a certain quality.”
The objects Portas stocks are iconic brands and part of the greater "national brand”—each one having reached a hallowed status where it can be equated with what it means to be Portuguese—each possessing little bits of the country’s collective soul and the reverence that brand managers around the world would die for. The products trace the arc of the 20th century, including the 42-year reign of dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, up to the country’s 1986 inclusion in the European Union and the rapid modernization that followed.
Now many say the country is going through a reflective period where people are weeding out the globalized products they don’t want and keeping what they’ve been doing right the whole time.
"My feeling was that with globalization, we were all starting to be alike, to dress alike, to use the same products. It was clear that we'd see a resurgence of the local," Portas says.
“A chocolate manufacturer told me the other day, ‘We’re successful today for the same reasons we had trouble ten years ago: we’re small, local, have a tiny production, are artisanal and have an old-time image and packaging.”
Portas is conscious of the blooming nostalgia of older Portuguese citizens for the good products from their past and of a younger generation’s newfound appreciation of them.
Some of A Vida Portuguesa’s clients are of the generation that grew up with these products and sees them as practical, nostalgic and part of something good that came from a tough time. Younger clients seek a connection to the past and often use the products simply because they work well.
“Our clients are old, young, rich, poor, people from Lisbon, Portuguese, foreigners and old ladies who still want their favorite hand cream,” Portas recounts. After the better part of a century, her brands are still expanding. “Couto toothpaste is 75 years old and still finding new clients,” she says, citing one example: “Now vegans like it because it was never tested on animals.
“When you get to investigate products from daily life, you touch on a lot of subjects,” she says, explaining that many of her products are still in production thanks to their quality and connection to the Portuguese past. “It’s quite possible to tell the story of a country from the products they use.”
Curiously, she explains this using soap.
“There were king’s soaps, soaps for Salazar, for national fairs, soaps for songs of the revolution,” she says. “Most of our products,” she adds, cutting off the question about the worrisome idea of being identified with a dictator, “existed before Salazar. You can’t make an absolute connection between the two.”
It’s also the soap brands Ach Brito and Claus Porto—founded in 1887—that she says have best understood their potential and continued growing as brands.
“They know how to do it. They use the best vegetable ingredients and do a lot of milling to make their soaps softer and keep them from cracking,” Portas says simply.