(Natalia wears shoe style Lana)
Natalia’s passion is shoes. She designs and makes them with her business partner Jennifer, the Bionda to her Castana. I first asked Natalia if I could photograph her as one of my Inspirational Women a few years ago. At the time there had been a huge change of circumstances for the brand and as you will read later in our interview she was not quite, ready to talk about everything they had been through. As you will see and read, things have moved forward again and there are very good times ahead for this exciting and beautiful shoe brand and also for Natalia in a very personal way.
D: Tell me a little bit about your origins, I know you have a brother. Did you grow up in England?
N: My mother is from Spain, my father was Italian they met in London in the 60’s. They met at work here and pretty much stayed in London since they left their villages when they were in their early 20’s. They decided to start a family here, so my brother was born in the early 70’s and then I came along. But yeah London born and raised essentially. In a Mediterranean house.
D: You speak Spanish. Do you speak Italian as well?
N: My Italian is OK. I guess I spent more time with my mum as a young girl I attended after English school, Spanish school as well. It was the one out of the two I picked up slightly quicker. Italian, I don’t use it that often in my daily life. My father passed about 12 years ago and don’t have much Italian family so it is not used unless I go to the Italian factory, so my Italian is for work rather than social. I will never get lost when I am there.
(Natalia wears shoe style Maggie)
D: Your artistic side, when did you start becoming interested in art, fashion & shoes?
N: When I was around 3 years old mum enrolled me in dance school, which I stayed at until I was 16. So I have always been around that artistic flare, of flamboyant costumes and interesting different types of footwear and make up and always being on show. I always thought that was the path I was going to take. Until I got to around 15/16 and I figured it was only school and I knew I was going to start a business. So it became more of a hobby at that point than an aim as an eventual profession. But that kind of got me interested in the creativity of self expression through garments and accessories. Mum made all my costumes and I would be with her assisting her. She was the maker and I was pushing beads together, gluing and sticking things together.
D: So always creative at home too.
N: Exactly in the home. And shoes, I always had way to many, whether they were inexpensive, or slightly more expensive, whatever could be afforded at the time. I guess the story that resonates with me the most because it is the most poignant was that when I was around 15-16 my brother who is 7 years older than me, he was very much into his style, a tall good looking guy, great hair. He would travel a lot to Europe to go find designer clothing and he brought me back a pair of Sergio Rossi heels which at that time you know, they were, well we always felt we were a bit ahead of our group. He would be in his Valentino or Moschino and I would just wear his oversized clothes and try and see if I could get away with it and style it out. So when he brought me back these shoes they made me feel quite emotional because they were like nothing I had ever seen, nothing I could ever have afforded personally. They were stamped blue, light blue, sky blue croc pump really quite long nose because that was the 90’s kind of point that’s kind of back now, with a delicate ankle strap. The way they made me feel and the way that I held them meant something. So that kind of inspired any fashion choices around that time.
Still I went to University and I studied business and it is where I met Jennifer (Portman – co-founder).
D: Where did you study?
N: Here at Westminster Uni. We did an international business course together, Jennifer studied with Italian and I studied with Spanish to mine. We had a year abroad as part of the course and we visited each other during that time. Then, with that came the question how do we mix the two? So, now I have a foundation in business and knowing I want to fulfill my business side. Bringing them together kinda came slightly later. I had other jobs before cause you can't just start a business when you feel like it. A business degree is quite broad and you get to learn so many different aspects if it that when it comes into practice you know you’ve got all the different elements to kind of bring together. So that was the foundation of everything and then the love. We have spoken about my love of shoes already and then meeting Jenny who had the same passion.
D: Its fantastic you were on the same course.
N: Well we met on our first day, because we were a very small group of people, I think 25 of us and we had to stand up and introduce ourselves and where we came from. She said she was from Croydon. I knew were that was and she knew where Wandsworth was, we started chatting and that was kind of really it.
As the years went by we would always kind of discuss the dream, then went our separate ways as we both needed to earn money and gain experience. When the time was right we got together and formed a plan.
(Natalia wears shoe style Natalie)
D: When did you get back together and where did the name Bionda Castana come from?
N: We stared talking around 2004 although we didn’t officially launch until 2007/08 because we were in our early 20’s and we were in great jobs that we had managed to find after University, but, it was a job, it wasn’t fulfilling. We were earning and meeting people but something didn’t sit right. We kept chatting, we were best mates, so we would see each other as often as we could and we were brainstorming and stuff and then we both decided to leave our jobs and find enough work that allowed us to work on the business during the day, so we would work evening jobs or promo jobs or whatever you could find allowing us the capacity and headspace to focus on the bigger task at hand. So we asked our parents for a bit of money to set us on our way. Our first port of call was to find a manufacturer. So in '07 in the summer travelled from head to toe of the boot of Italy by train and had meetings with various manufacturers to see who would work, with a brand, who essentially, had no track record. They do exist. If they like you they will work for you. Once we found the right partner we started unleashing these designs that we had created, getting samples made, some were obviously awful, some were better than others. It was a learning process. Those first collections were obviously not great, we had no factory experience, we had no shoe school degree, we had a concept and what we thought was a niche product that we wanted to put to market but we didn’t have that expertise.
To learn the factory we selected brought us in as apprentices, so we spent a lot of time on the factory floor learning the process. It really isn’t a case of turning up with a sketch on toilet roll and saying do it. You really have to understand the science. It not just a t-shirt. So that is kind of how it evolved but it took from the initial OK we are going to start this in '04 – 3 or 4 years to get to the stage where we felt we could go to market. The name Bionda Castana was a no brainer in the sense that I am dark haired and Jenny is blonde. Blonde, Brunette is Italian is Bionda Castana.2007 we were up and running and beginning to grow – laughs – ish.
(Natalia wears shoe style Lana)
D: What were the next steps you took that took you to Elizabeth Street, which is where I met you for the first time?
N: Well that is quite a long period of time. In the beginning we had to decide how to get out product out there. We had no customer base, no track record, no contacts in the industry, so we decided that wholesale was the best route the best marketing route we could choose to get our brand on shop floors shelves and getting customers to know how we are because the association with big stores meant that we were great. It’s a business method that has been used for many years and will be used for years to come.
So we researched into what would be the best trade shows because back then actually they were great and very functional and we knew that our buyers would attend. So we decided to showcase our first collection that we were happy with at the Venetian in Las Vegas, it was one of the biggest trade shows in the world.
D: Wow jumping in at the deep end.
N: Exactly, every bedroom in this hotel was hired out for this show. In every room was a big name brand – it was your stand. It wasn’t in a convention center or anything like that and we were next to Sergio Rossi and Lulu Guinness was down the hall. They were the brands we wahted to associated with , some more than others, but we were there and we figured this was the best thing. We had some footfall, we had some appointments, we had some traction. We didn’t sell anything but that didn’t matter what we needed was feedback. What we need to understand was how they felt when they walked into the room, how they felt when they tried on the shoes. We were being asked questions we weren’t prepared for, you know “what are your landed dollar prices?” I didn’t even know what that was. Our reply would be “Oh, we will get back to you on that” or pretending we weren’t the brand, just sales people and would have to ask HQ. During that time there was no instagram to find out who the fashion editor is, we had to pull the first page of magazines of investing in lists like File FX. Doing all those things we managed to get some mentions here and there. And then some stylists would call up and we would loan to various people, taking it slowly figuring it out. There is only so much you can do when you are not entirely sure how. Fast forward a year and with a new collection we were back in Las Vegas. More appointments came through, no orders, but that was Ok because we had strengthened the look and feel of where we were aiming to be.
In 2008/09 on one of Jennys visits to the factory she had bought an Italian Vogue on the way home and saw a competition called “Who’s On Next”. Nicholas Kirkwood had won the year before. We decided to enter, thinking what have we got to loose. We were nominated and were asked to present, again sent more informationetc and got through to the finals. There were 4 accessories and 4 ready to wear brands, we had to go to Rome, we had to present in front of a panel of 8 which included Avril Oats, Franca Sozzani, Andre Leon Talley, it was mental really. I was very much of the feeling I can do anything. I wasn’t really thinking about it, until I walked into that room.
D: Putting all your acting skills into practice.
N: And I didn’t really know who some of them were, what power they had. When there and you know did my thing. It was like any of these competitions, it lasts a few days. There was a really beautiful dinner, there was a glorious gathering. Another presentation, this time in front of really important people in the industry. And then we find out we had won the accessories category.
From that moment it gave us a lift you can’t pay for. From that moment there were buyers , buyers we had been trying to contact to just get face time with and before they wouldn’t give us the time even if they did reply.
Our first stockist was Browns and that is was lead us to build the building blocks.
It was a year and a half of making your own luck.
It doesn’t take us to Elizabeth Street but it does put the brand on the page, people are buying, we have a good foot up and we can put everything we were thinking about into action. It becomes easier, going to say Selfridges we can now say we are in Browns, it is easier than no-one has bought us.
D: Your foundation is built.
N: Yes and we are going to make it better.
D: When did Elizabeth Street happen? Did you have shops before then?
N: Elizabeth St was our first shop. We had built our wholesale business to the point were we were sat in the majority of the major stores globally. What was frustrating for the customer was that we had designed 70 to 80 piece collections of which our partners and the way the business works and for volume only a few of those styles end up being pushed as no-one buys that wide and everyone ends up selling similarish styles. Our thoughts turned to how we could get far more choice, more product out to the customer, you have to open a store. That really took time, money and all the staff, the stock, where do you get all that from? So we decided to take the leap and Elizabeth St felt like a good choice, it’s a nice parade of shops, it’s a unique almost family run street. The restaurants are independent, the oldest family run business has been there from 1846, the street is world famous, couture bridal stores, jewellery stores, even the cake shops, it all felt very one off, it is a pretty street. Not the busiest street but you make your own footfalls and we knew we had a customer would come. We took a lease for 6 months, because we wanted to feel our way. You just want to touch the surface with it because it is a big leap. We had a really great store manager who had worked in shoe stores for a very long time and he was really good at building a rapport with the customers and we were there very often, sometimes we would work weekends, you know. You really needed that the data and feed back, what sizes, what colours, what do we sell more of? What do we not sell at all, the good and the bad, that really was our first step into retail. It was a really good decision for us because that led interestingly to successful e.commerce because it was almost like we have a shop, we must be huge. “I can’t get there, though I can buy it anyway.” It was great so 6 months later we took the store next door, which was a much bigger space and had an office in the basement.
(Natalia wears shoe style Natalie)
D: When I met you a few years later everything had changed.
N: We had closed temporarily, that was 2016.
D: That was an external force that had created the closing ____
N: Yes, so in around 2012 we sought external investment because it was necessary but turned out to be the wrong partner. We sought investment via a private family fund, which was a great way for us to start achieving our real dreams for the company. It does get to a stage where we need to live and we need a team, we can’t keep juggling all theses wholesale accounts, all the collections we were doing alongside collaborations. It was a lot, so we found a partner. It was quite a quick realization however that they were not right for us. But we stayed together for 4-5 years until we couldn’t anymore. The moment it started to not feel creative because of all the stresses that were unnecessarily put on us was the moment we had to put our hands up and say ‘actually its not worth it’. Looking back at 2004 when Jennifer and I had our initial start discussions the whole point was not to be like this. So we parted ways. It was heartbreaking but we were grateful because mine and Jenny’s lives would not be how they are now if we had still kept that pace. We were quite luck actually. I guess the best way to describe it was, we went through a divorce and now we are dating again. And it feels great.
D: Your new way of working I feel is really very exciting, insightful and I love that you have zero waste. Setting aside the buzzyness of sustainability how you keep it as a great driving force moving forward?
N: It’s definitely not a trend for us, it is a business model, that works well. We have maintained a really good relationship with our manufacturing facility that we have worked with the beginning. When we decided we had the energy to come back, actually we were getting so many requests, we thought it was a no brainer. How can we make it work, where we still keep our creative but are not harming the environment, not contributing to landfill with overstock or creating the overstock in the first place the way everyone else relies. What keeps us motivated, excited and caring for the world effectively. Essentially the idea is not designing anything new, for the moment. We have designed so many collections, only referring back to the ones created for wholesale, and some style just never got a look in but were beautiful can all find their way back. So for now we are utilizing our 12 years of patterns, x 4 collections a year, there is a lot to choose from. We still have customers telling us ‘I saw it on pinterest but could never find it.’
D: Your shoes are timeless with a beautiful edge.
N: They don’t come from a particular year. The heart and soul of the business now it that we release 4 styles a month and they are only available to order within a 45 to 7 day period online, for the customer to come and pre order. The shoes are then made to order and delivered within 4 weeks. The zero waste, sustainable option point in the business is that we have a entire warehouse full of fabric and components that have been kept in storage. Unused and ready to use now. We are not producing any more fabric than is required. It already exists. We are recycling. Keeping everything was part of our forward thinking. We often get asked ‘what happens when it runs out?’ When that day comes there are many other companies that have done what we did and you go and buy their cut ups and their second hand fabrics. That is the only way we can reuse and not create waste in terms of fabrication. Right now we are giving the customer exactly what they want. Everything we release has been requested, numerous times, ‘I’m looking for this in suede, when is it going to come out?’ We say October. ‘Great I’ll wait.’ There is already trust there. Those are the nuts and bolts of the business. We are not show casing so much product. It is an edit our women select from, they really want it because they are waiting for it.
D: There is an excitement around each drop.
N: There is, absolutely, but the key is that the customer really wants the product. They really love it. They are not just frivolously saying, ‘Oh, that will do.’ No, because you cant do that you’ve got to wait. It is a style they have had before and they want it again or in a different colour, or it got lost or they missed out the 1st time because they are in a different place now where they can purchase. Our prices have reduced because we don’t have wholesale partners, or the same overheads as before, so we can pass this saving on to the customer making the shoes are £200 cheaper than they used to be. It is all aligned and way more appealing for the customer, with a product that is exactly the same quality as it always used to be. The customer really loves our back story, they don’t feel guilty and absolutely are less likely to make it throw away because it is a special item. So that’s really the nuts and bolts of what we are doing and it does keep it way more exciting for us as well because we have constant content that we have to have coverage for. Gone are the days (for me anyway) where you drop an entire collection in Feb and it still being there in August, with nothing in between. We are literally dropping every month without making anything, just showcasing and if you want it you can have it.
Little Eisa joined the team a little earlier than expected on the 27th of June.
More new and exciting changes are coming for the brand you can keep up-to-date here.