Interview with Natalia Barbieri of Bionda Castana
NATALIA, TELL ME ABOUT LAUNCHING YOUR BRAND. HOW DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO BUILD BIONDA CASTANA WITH JENNIFER PORTMAN?
"I knew my life would take a creative path around 2000 when I was thinking about how I visualized my future and what made me essentially happy. I had to be creative and it had to revolve around shoes. My family didn't deem this as a serious idea - hence the move into finance. But when I had saved enough money to be able to get researching, travel and put together a sample collection, BC was born alongside Jennifer Portman (my business partner whom I met at University). Jennifer and I are of a similar mindset. We have the same business acumen and drive, and more importantly, the same vision for the brand. We wanted to build something. Granted, we built it on a shoestring but, you don’t get the opportunity to actually make something that often so when I could... I took the risk. The business was born in 2008 with a very small amount of capital. For our first season we showed a very small capsule collection for Spring /Summer 2008 at the WSA show in Las Vegas. We are now stocked in some of the most influential stores in the world namely Net-a-Porter, Intermix, Shopbop, Opening Ceremony, Hudson’s Bay, Harvey Nichols, Shop at Bluebird…. to name but a few."
YOU MET JENNIFER IN BUSINESS SCHOOL – DID THAT EXPERIENCE HELP BUILD A FOUNDATION FOR THE BRAND?
"Absolutely. The creativity was already there but we knew that business knowledge was necessary to carry us through."
WHAT SPARKED YOUR PASSION FOR SHOES?
"My first pair of designer shoes were bought for me by my brother, Alberto. They are by Sergio Rossi. Blue Crocodile stamped leather court shoes, single sole, 10cm stiletto heel with thin tie cross over ankle strap. I guess they can now be called vintage. This opened my eyes to the world of luxury shoes and was where my obsession first began. I analyzed and analyzed the shoes, which made me start sketching. My friends were always much taller than me, so I spent most of my teenage years (and still to this day) wearing high heels."
HOW DO YOU BEGIN DESIGNING EACH COLLECTION?
"Once a season has come to a close, we literally start again on a blank canvas. We are inspired by day to day, our friends, films, our travels, cultures - anything and everything. But it is predominantly our gut feeling. In each collection there is a style for everyone be it more conservative or more eccentric."
WHO HAVE YOU LEARNED THE MOST FROM IN YOUR CAREER THUS FAR? DO YOU HAVE A MENTOR?
"Our mentor is currently Michael Ward, the MD of Harrods. To be honest, the most important thing I have learned is to acknowledge and celebrate our victories. We spend so much time thinking about a collection of a season that is happening in a year’s time or forward planning a particular sales/collection campaign etc., that we tend to forget what is happening right now."
WHO WAS THE FIRST RETAILER TO CARRY BIONDA CASTANA?
WHAT’S THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE FAMOUS “LANA” PUMP?
"Lana is our take on the classic single sole pump and is reflective of our love of architecture and art. This particular shape and style is very on trend. It is not ‘plain’ yet works in the same capacity as a ‘plain’ pump would with added cool. Easily worn with any outfit and eye catching, yet subtle, signature geometric paneling make for an easy addition to anyone’s wardrobe. It’s available in every color of the rainbow. The fabrication of the style is popular because it is breathable. When wearing heels, our feet naturally swell, but the soft mesh at the front of the toes keeps our feet comfortable and this style doesn’t rub in the same way a leather lined pump would when in warm weather and after long wear on the red carpet."
BC OFFERS CUSTOM DESIGNED SHOES WITHIN 4-WEEKS - BRIDAL, TOO. WAS THIS SERVICE A CHALLENGE TO ESTABLISH?
"Not a challenge at all. A very smooth process. The integrity of ‘Made in Italy’ is the founding principle of the brand and is what the brand is committed to. From initial sketch to final product, skilled Italian craftsmen and luxurious materials are invested in each and every one of our products. Traditional Milanese artisans carry out 150 separate processes to complete each of our designs. We wanted to extend our design studio, offering a refined custom-made menu of our signature styles, color ways, textures and finishes for our customers to create their perfect shoe. It has been very interesting to see what our clients create. We particularly loved the bi-color LANA we produced in both black and white. The first of its kind."
WHAT IS THE MOST REWARDING PART OF YOUR BUSINESS?
"Seeing our shoes on the production line at the factory always feels like the biggest achievement."
WHAT ARE SOME OF CHALLENGES?
"I think if we were to have raised more finance in the beginning, it would have helped better manage our cash flow. I personally would have reduced my initial product range and have kept a tighter edit and most definitely would have engaged with a business mentor sooner. There will always be challenges but what changes over the years is that you learn how to find solutions better."
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU AS A DESIGNER?
"When demand for our styles reaches an ultimate high. It keeps you going through the really stressful times."
"Our first store opening in London for Summer 2015."