This paper investigates a success story from a country in crisis: the shoe industry of the Sinos Valley in Brazil. The main question is to what extent the industrial district model captures the reality of the Sinos Valley. In many ways it does. The sectoral and geographical concentration of shoe manufacturers is formidable. Even more striking is the depth of the local economy which includes almost the entire range of supply industries and producer services.
Collective action has also been significant in the development of the cluster but has changed over time; initially it was based on a common sociocultural identity, then it crumbled and its recent return is based on an economic rationale. Where model and reality differ most is in the strong presence of large firms. Most of these large firms, however, were small two decades ago. The inclusion of export agents is crucial to understand the radical transformation of this industrial cluster in a span of two decades. Indeed, some of the most interesting conclusions emerge from tracing changes over time.