Get ready for a new series appearing on The Daily Shoe, Feet First. Over the coming months I will be interviewing like-minded women on the shoes that shaped them and the memories they evoke. Hearing my friends and colleagues talk about footwear, I’m always thrown by the raw emotion shoes can tap into. Voices falter as memories flood back, eyes glint and all the feelings sparked from one conversation spring back to life, triggered by shoes.
If you had to choose five pairs of shoes that defined you, what would they be? The loafers that bagged you your dream job; sparkling sandals to walk up the aisle or fancy flats that gently broke a heart; career-defining public speaking stilettos or the freedom of flip-flops for your first solo travels… Feet First delves into the wardrobes of my trend-setting contemporaries and uncovers those top five shoes, sandals and boots that carry the most meaning, tap into the wildest stories and simply hold the most special place in our closets and hearts.
‘I still have my feet on the ground – I just wear better shoes.’ Oprah Winfrey.
Natalia Barbieri, freelance creative director and co-founder of Bionda Castana
Photographs: Aya Sekine
As co-founder of Bionda Castana, the shoe label I relied on for every shoot I styled, Natalia has designed some of the most iconic styles of recent years. But the road has been rocky. Starting with winning VOGUE Italia’s Who is on Next competition in 2008 (Nicholas Kirkwood scooped the previous year’s prize), the brand exploded onto the international fashion scene with 75 stockists worldwide and their own boutique in Chelsea. In 2012 Natalia and business partner Jennifer Portman found private investment to take the label next level but, as happens in so many relationships, they chose to divorce and in 2016 the brand took a temporary closure.
We meet in the top floor meeting room of an office in Soho, hastily styled with ferns, flowers and cushions and green tea to make it more cosy, as Natalia is mid-house move. Although handily she still has access to all her shoes and was able to bring her top five to the interview today. Managing to perfectly pull off the dress over jeans look I’ve been attempting to work for months, in a silk TopShop Unique version and her own design shoes, I can’t wait to meet the shoes I’ve seen on a quick phone snap, for real.
As well as the memories within Natalia’s shoe collection, I also want to find out about the return of Bionda Castana, after the recent 18 month hiatus. Now a freelance creative director “It sounds silly but when you become a designer of your own collections, job titles aren’t relevant because you are involved in everything,” Natalia talked me through the shoes and corresponding life lessons she has absorbed during her 15 year career. “I didn’t attend shoe design school or fashion college but what makes you decide what you want to spend your days doing, is through jobs that don’t fulfil you. I worked in nightclubs, restaurants, retail and investment banking - all taught me something new about myself - but nothing felt quite as satisfying as the prospect of becoming a true entrepreneur and giving myself a job that I would enjoy.”
1) Sergio Rossi crocodile-stamped leather slingbacks
These are the ones that opened my eyes to the wonderful world of shoes. I used to spend so much money on shoes and trainers growing up (shoes were always my indulgence) and chose ones that looked expensive or were versions of… but when these were presented to me by my bro in 1995, it changed the game. Even thinking about them now makes my heart race. I wore them to death but I always save my shoes regardless of the state they are in. Clothes I hand down but shoes I keep. I keep them for reference purposes - a timeline of sorts - but these were amazing because I loved the emotion and how they made me feel in such an elegant heel. The shoebox, the branding, the melt-like-butter leather, the Made In Italy artisanal stamp. It was then that I began becoming more intrigued to discover the process of shoemaking… could I make shoes that made someone as emotional as I was when I received this gift?
Shoes allowed me to dress up my more modest wares. I didn’t receive them for a special occasion, but my brother is very much into fashion and the big Italian brands - although he doesn’t work in the industry - and he was my fashion introduction. It was the time when I first starting getting into nightclubs too, funnily enough, and these became my dancing shoes. These pumps helped me decide that when I eventually had my own accessories line, they needed to maintain a classic silhouette, like these have. Once I had this pair I started jotting down ideas of what my shoes would look like if I designed them and what my message would be.
2) Bionda Castana, woven silk Christa plaforms
This was the Kylie moment (Alex, ‘yes, I styled Kylie in a pair for Stylist magazine in 2011.') Celebrity support was so key for us as a young brand and it was pivotal at the time. After I saw Kylie tweet a photo of herself in this shoe, I discovered other fans of the shoe - such as Elena Perminova (who had grabbed them in navy blue exclusively designed for Browns). They were a real statement at the time and the perfect platform to add to our assortment within the collection. I do think that if we released them 3 years later they would have sold more than they did. When you come from a place of business and creative, they need to work together (with business trumping creative in most cases!) but here the creative took over the commercial. I love this shade because it’s a neutral although it’s not just for summer as I have also worn mine with socks on occasion. We saw a few brides wear this style too which is always magical. It took so long to get right as the weave itself is difficult to mould around a last. The factory staff were like, “are you sure?” Similarly the material had to lend itself to a platform - it’s a big style and it needed to be used on a big ‘personality’ shoe. Christa came at a time when Bionda Castana was moving away from the single sole sandals we’d been designing since the brand launched. They definitely weren't a best seller but they were our “Wow” shoe.
3) Bionda Castana, Vassilisa print collaboration pumps
I wore these at a birthday not long ago as I kept them safe in storage. They were our very first collaboration. We had met a Russian scarf designer called Nadia Solovieva in Paris. We loved her and her beautiful hand drawn prints. She had never collaborated with anyone before and neither had we, so it felt right that this was to be our first printed shoe. It became such a popular aspect in our collection that each season we always included a print. Our customers simply loved it for what it was. The fan detail is ultimately a really exaggerated Victorian neckline. We always think, ‘What can we do that is a little bit bonkers? What can we do on a classic silhouette that will stand out? What can ‘scream’ on a classic shape?’. I loved the drama. They give you amazing posture and are season-less. It’s a single sole pump on a 12 cm heel which is the business, but they are really comfortable, trust me!
4) Bionda Castana, khaki Lana pumps
We always sketch our designs and when we created Lana it was the time of the pump’s resurgence, although we had never really explored it fully within our collections. The mesh meant your foot could breathe and remain comfortable as your feet naturally expand when you’re standing. We hoped it would be a success but we didn’t know how popular it would be. The geometric panelling felt new and combination of textures between the fabrics sat well with one another. We had developed a rainbow of colours and materials in the design so everyone would be happy. The red carpet picked up on them as you really could wear them with anything. They’re a shoe you don’t have to think about. When I am getting ready I ask myself, ‘What day am I going to have?’ I choose the shoes, then the outfit. If you started with this style you could literally pick anything out of your wardrobe and it would go with it. 90% of the time (with red carpet) it’s about the dress and then the shoes have to make sense with that - but because they were easy to style that’s how they became a celebrity favourite. (Zoe Saldana, Emma Roberts and Eva Mendes have all worn Bionda Castana’s Lana pump.) We even hit The Daily Mail with a story on how ‘This is the celebrity shoe of the moment’ and we weren’t prepared for how much impact that sort of press would have.
5) Jil Sander velvet platforms
I was wandering around Portobello for inspiration and I walked past Mary Portas' charity shop. These were in the window. As soon as I saw them, someone inside the shop grabbed them and I was like, no, no! Purple, velvet and platform, I needed them. They were my first purchase after closing Bionda Castana and were £50 and current season. I loitered around for a bit while I saw someone else try them on, begging that they didn’t fit. She left them on the side as they were too small so I tried them and had my Cinderella moment.
Lessons I wish I’d learned…
I would tell my younger self - and I still need to remind myself now - to let go a bit more! I was raised by two incredibly hard-working immigrants who came over to the UK in the 60’s. Hard work is in my DNA. No doubt part of my inner desire to join the entrepreneurial club was no doubt also inspired by one day being able to say “Look, I did this too, and dinner’s on me” to my entire family so they didn’t have to work so hard and I could take that burden on myself. Sometimes this attitude cut out other opportunities though, I’d be thinking, “I have to be at my desk constantly for all the hours of the day, I need to finish this before I can possibly think of having any sort of fun” throughout my GCSES, A levels, degree and later on in my work life… I felt I would fail if I wasn’t serious and serious meant having no other distractions. But they aren’t distractions, it’s personal development. Since Bionda Castana took it’s temporary closure in 2016 I’ve been spending more time with my family and friends and in all honesty, they are my therapy. Had I embraced that sooner, and learned to let go, I feel I would have developed further earlier on. So enjoy every stage of your career. I have only recently been able to look back with clarity at what we achieved (with Bionda Castana) whereas I should have celebrated more at the time while I was living it.
Learn common best practises and principles of running a business before starting one. You will save time and money! No one here is reinventing the wheel but you will make fewer mistakes this way. Learn from others what you should be doing.
Network more and make friends that champion you. It’s imperative. It’s hard getting invites to events that you want to attend in the beginning but eventually there is always one good mate who will take you along. Also, you need people close to you who like what you’re developing and if they don’t, you need to stop and rethink. If your friends aren’t going to buy and believe in your creations, then who will? Private sales are what funded our business to start with.
Team up with someone. I couldn’t do what I did without my business partner. You need your ride or die through the highs and lows of this wonderful journey of business. I met Jenny (Portman) on my first day at university in London. There were 30 people on my degree course and she was the first person I spoke to. We are both half Italian, seriously admired luxury and were both just as creative as we were business minded. Subconsciously, I was already establishing the team from early on. We ended up becoming business partners and best mates. I notice this in my consultancy life now - you really can’t get to the next level without a skilled team. Roles need dividing and trust needs to be built between team members to ensure all aspects are handled well and efficiently.
I’m a roll-up-your sleeves person but another lesson you learn quite quickly is that the fashion industry is not hard glamour - it truly is not!
And what’s next?
When we closed Bionda Castana in October 2016, I remember that moment like it was yesterday. Jen and I hugged it out, posted the keys of the store and office through the front door and went out for a cocktail! We were sad but we knew we had a bright future ahead. This was just a change, one of those life lessons and certainly not the end. We had too much fire and talent in us to let that happen.
I thought I’d want a long break as the emotional exhaustion really caught up with me… perhaps I’d travel or do lots of yoga… But soon the phone started ringing with enquiries and offers to collaborate - be it from design to distribution strategies, online, art direction, styling… All the multiple facets of what I had been doing on a daily basis, I was being asked to assist with by different companies. I took on new projects and that feeling of being valued again was truly a breakthrough for me in regaining my confidence. It’s also great to work with brands that aren’t solely focused on shoes too.
The last part of the year will see a small relaunch of Bionda Castana but available in a completely different way… We will be selling a library of archived designs which have become synonymous with the brand and using pre-existing fabrics that we have kept and maintained over the last 12 years. The limited designs will only be available online and are then made to order. Each month will see the launch of a different set of archive pieces. This is luxury in it’s true form - digital and supplying the demand of the customer.
I think there is too much product out there so using archive pieces and pre-existing fabrications feels sustainable. I don't feel we need to unleash new Bionda Castana designs for the moment and this is what people want from us - the iconic styles that make them emotional.
All entrepreneurs face tough decisions, moments of exhaustion and uncertainty. The hiccups, detours, and distractions are many - but ultimately the work is worth it.