Natalia Barbieri and Jennifer Portman are the designers behind the increasingly popular shoe collection, Bionda Castana. The friends, both half-Italian, launched their line, which means Blonde Brunette, in 2007 and currently run the business in London with frequent trips to a remote town near Milan to check in on their handcrafted shoe production. Barbieri and Portman started out with careers in marketing and finance, but shared design aspirations led them to shoemaking. Bionda Castana has effectively filled a niche in the market for shoes that are well-made, unique, and feminine without being too girly – a tough combination to pull off.
It’s rare to come across a truly unique shoe these days – what do you attribute most to your creative inspiration?
It’s slightly difficult to explain when it is us that designs as to how they arise precisely – as it comes rather naturally! But I certainly think that being a woman and being the ones that test drive them most definitely helps.
What is the relationship between you two? How did you meet?
Myself and Jennifer met at university in 1997 in London on our first day in class. We were both studying business with languages. Pretty inseparable since.
How do you split the labour in the office?
We both design the collection, but then every other role is split, i.e finance, marketing, sales, production, material sourcing, e-commerce management…we both oversee every part of the business.
Can you describe the process of designing a pair of your shoes from beginning to end?
The entire process for designing one collection takes around 4 months. We hone down all of what has inspired us, and being to mood board. We have design review for one month, sketching, re-sketching, sketching, re-sketching – we then have all the sketches drawn onto plastic sheaths which we then modify. This is where we see the shoes to ‘scale’ per say on each last. We select all the materials per style and order these, as they tend to take between 6-8 weeks to arrive. We sometimes work the other way, we begin with fabrics. The materials can be quite humble in origin, but that’s not how they wind up after we have got our hands on them.
Then we move onto prototypes, testing fit, ensuring we are pleased with the design. We can go from developing 1 prototype and completing the final sample, to having 8 prototypes that lead to final sample. It completely depends on complexity.
Does Bionda Castana describe the two of you personally or the creative direction for your shoes?
The name Bionda Castana started purely as fun, as we were both known as the blonde and the brunette, (Natalia the brunette and Jennifer the blonde) but I suppose with time, it isn’t necessarily about our hair colour as such, just a reflection of our differences as individuals. The dark and light of our personality, our yin and yang…despite us personally being rather different, we both have the same vision for the brand.
On your website you describe your shoes as, ” feminine without being girly and standout without being gimmicky” – a difficult task to pull off – how do you begin to do this each season?
We are not an eccentric brand. We never have been and we never will be. I think there is a fine balance between being standout and adventurous, and being commercial and wearable. It’s the aesthetic of the brand, it’s not something we come up with per season. It just is.
Bionda Castana has been around for 7 years – do you feel like in the past few years you’ve really seen a difference in the response to your brand? In what way?
It does feel like we have been having more momentum over the past few years. I think the product is becoming far more available globally (we are stocked in over 20 countries), and it is seen more often in the press and on celebrities at red carpet events. It’s been rather organic as the team has grown.
When we interviewed Kate Foley, she mentioned your brand as one to watch – in what ways does she encompass the Bionda Castana woman?
She is cool, confident and elegant in a non-traditional way. She is fashion forward: unafraid to mix and match and is experimental with her look. She is playful and young at heart, modern with a classic taste. She appreciates rich fabrics and craftsmanship.
Do you enjoy collaborating with ready-to-wear designers for runway? Any favorite working relationships?
Working with Matthew Williamson is always effortless. We run through his mood boards/concepts with the team, decide on which already existing styles from our collections to use for the show, and adapt to his colour palette. Seamless, and the end result is beautiful.
Where do you see the brand in 5 years?
We would hopefully have opened our first store next year, and second in year 5. We would have branched out into other soft accessories, and would have increased our wholesale business substantially. We hope to launch children’s shoes, men’s, leather handbags, costume jewellery…there is a lot in the pipeline.
Can you tell us about your SS15 collection?
Imagine every pair of shoes you’ve ever loved all stored in a beautiful walk-in closet. Like your fantasy shoe collection, our SS 2015 collection has more superstar styles than any season before. Surprising interpretations of the season’s trends are our hallmark, so the Sixties mood finds its outlet in print and sexy-sheer geometric cut-outs on modern shapes, rather than the stereotypical platforms or curved heels – drawing on an era that saw women newly emancipated and ready to take on the world.
Playful fringing adorns ladylike pouch bags, or shimmies unexpectedly on the toe or ankle of shoes – and new laser-cut leather is so fine it could be mistaken for lace, in scarlet, nude and baby blue. Geometric, spiked and scalloped leather rests on the sheerest mesh, making the foot appear almost naked, while tiny pressed bows and miniature Braille studs add femininity with the deftest touch.
A kaleidoscope of colour – from rich indigo and cool hydrangea blue, to cherry red, juicy orange and a veritable macaroon box of pastels – means that the urge to start your look from the ground up is irresistible.