The Blonde and the Brunette

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Icon1A relationship that began in 1997 with a shared dream grew into a company that brings unique design to shoe lovers all over the world. Sharon Carvalho speaks to Natalia Barbieri, one half of Bionda Castana, about inspiration and the ‘Made in Italy’ stamp

How did it all begin for you?
I’ve always been interested in fashion, particularly shoes. My brother brought me a pair of Sergio Rossi blue crocodile skin pumps with I was 15 and I fell in love with them. Somehow, it didn’t feel like just any pair of shoe. I picked it up and looked at it in a different way. I looked at the construction, the fabrication and even elements that I would have done differently, so, I guess, the eye for shoe design was always a part of me. But in my late teens, I decided to study business and it was on the first day of University in 1997 that I met my business partner, Jennifer Portman. And while she’s more of a handbag woman and I’m a shoe woman, we shared the same dream. After we finished studying, I went on to work in investment banking and Jennifer worked in a marketing company. We knew what our calling was so it was a matter of when, not how. We saved up money, created our first sample collection and a few years later, resigned and set up our own business in 2007. Everything that we did was a new experience for us. We had to learn about fashion marketing, sales and public relations all on our own. We also knew that we had to find a production facility in Italy. Both of us are half Italian and all the quality, the artisans and the craftsmanship is there. Plus, the ‘Made in Italy’ stamp holds a lot of weight. So, we packed our backpacks, made appointments from the top of ‘the boot’ to the bottom, met different factories and found the facility that we still work with today. They are in Milan and, for want of a better word, they gave us our apprenticeship. We had no real shoe crafting experience and we learned something new everyday.

Describe the relationship you and Jennifer share?
We are family. We don’t take each other for granted and there’s a lot of respect. We’re like sisters and we talk everything through. We’ve never had an argument over the 20 years that we have known each other and worked together. Dividing our roles was a natural progression too. We sort of just fell into it with me as the Creative Director and her as Production Director. The way we see it, without her, this wouldn’t function and without it, it wouldn’t function either. We don’t let little things take over, we communicate and resolve them quickly, just like any relationship.

What is your design process?
It varies quite a bit. The thing is, even when it’s not design time, you’re always designing. We design together but we’re constantly inspired by anything. Every season, we start with a blank page and don’t work towards a theme. We hone in on our strengths, work with opposing fabrics, find elements that are masculine yet feminine, give it a vintage feel and build it from there. From start to finish it takes around five months from starting of concept, to finishing of sample collection. We design four collections a year, but some overlap within a three-month period. Then we go on to sell the collection in New York, London, Milan and Paris.

What inspiration surprised you?
I have this ring that my mother gave me. My father gave it to her in the 60’s. It’s this beautiful knotted ring, like a beautiful gate with all the twists made in Spanish gold. And that, oddly, took me to a 60’s vibe for this one collection where we did a lot of knotted turban sandals. When it was done and we looked at it, I realised that’s where it came from and we carried that theme through to bridal shoes. It’s a nice way of working a strappy sandal that isn’t typical; it’s a high, knotted, latticed crossover sandal.

Describe the Bionda Castana woman?
The Bionda Castana woman is cool, she’s elegant and she’s very well put together but not in a contrived way. You can tell she has put thought into it but she’s effortless. She cuts a striking figure but it’s not all made up. She’s very laid back with clean lines.

Where did the brand name come from?
Bionda Castana means ‘blonde brunette’ in Italian. I’m the brunette and Jennifer’s the blonde. We were inseparable at university so when she wasn’t around me it was ‘Where’s blondie?’ and vice versa. When it came to deciding the name, our names didn’t work. I have a very Italian name and she has a very English name and it didn’t go together. So, we decided to call it something neutral but still relating to us and having it in Italian was because it sounds more refined than in English.

Why do you think Bionda Castana has worked well in this region?
I think we have a lot of support here from the media and the influence of celebrity has helped here as well. I hear our shoes are comfortable, regardless of heel height. We feel that is because we use mesh, which is a soft breathable fabric so even in the heat, when your foot is expanding; the shoe is
expanding with you. It’s nothing that we’ve invested in, it’s just part of our DNA and I think that’s the reason why. Also our designs are unique. Women are trying to seek something novel and new that not everyone has. We’re also difficult to find because we’re not everywhere, so I guess women feel like they are getting something special, in a colour palate and style that works for them.

Describe the Middle Eastern woman?
Fabulous. I love their use of colour and I find it very vibrant. There is a traditional aspect but I still feel like I could be in London or New York. They are also adventurous with their fashion here. Stockists here are far more adventurous because of that. They pick the sky blues and reds while anywhere else is all about the black, brown and greys. We take a lot of feedback from the stores we have all over the world. We create a collection based on what we want it to be but if a store thinks that a particular colour will work, we take that into consideration. Say we produced something in silver metallic leather but a Middle Eastern store would like it in a Neon Yellow, if it’s possible, we do it.

What’s next?
SS15 is now on the shop floor, and then we go to New York to sell Fall 15.We’ve started Summer 16, which is for next January. We’re due to open a store in London. We’re also increasing the team because there’s more work now. We’ve got lots of collaborations, travelling and trunk shows to look forward to.

Favourite me time activity?
I go to spin classes.
What is your beauty pet peeve?
Wearing too much makeup.
What is your fashion pet peeve?
Not dressing for the occasion.
What is a woman’s must have?
A good pair of shoes.
Celebrity you would love to see wearing your shoes?
Jessica Chastain.