The Wylde Interview: Natalia Barbieli

A Meeting of Minds

What does it take to create the perfect heel? Wylde meets Natalia Barbieri, one-half of the cult shoe brand Bionda Castana, to discuss camaraderie, craftsmanship and their super-hot collaboration with LK Bennett. 



The 'trend' within the industry for working as a duo gains momentum each season  - Hillier Bartley, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, The Mulleavy sisters at Rodarte. How important is working collaboratively to Bionda Castana? Can you explain the design process of working as a twosome?

Jennifer and I met on our first day at Westminster University in London almost 20 years ago, and were immediately joined at the hip. Aside from both being half Italian and studying international business, we were obsessed with accessories and design. Jenny and I wear multiple hats in our working lives now. We design the collection together and then all other departments of Bionda Castana are split between the two of us: Jennifer primarily focuses on production, and myself on e-commerce and marketing. We’re running a global business—we’re stocked in over 60 boutiques worldwide, we have our flagship store in Belgravia and the online business too. There are so many different elements, it’s not even like we’re doing different things every day—it’s every hour! Working collaboratively with so many facets is key.

We couldn't do this on our own. We design our prints in house which is a continual process in-between seasons. We use the same leather and suede suppliers as we always have done, and when it comes to lace, we work with a French house to get the intricacy we need. We design constantly as we produce 4 collections each year. Each season starts as a blank canvas - without referencing a particular genre or theme. We start sketching and the flavour of the collection comes from there. We are continually inspired by the 50’s and 70’s, so there is always an element of these decades within our work, and we also love French cinema. The point by which we finish, isn’t necessarily the point by which we began. But that's the fun part!

Tell us about your collaboration with LK Bennett. How did it come about and what are the inspirations behind the collection?

We were named a Walpole ‘Brand of Tomorrow’ in December 2015 and through the programme we got to know Robert Bensoussan, as he has mentored brands in a similar position. Robert and the team then approached us (with the support of Caroline Issa) and asked if we would be interested in collaborating. The rest is history. We feel honoured to be the first brand to collaborate with LK Bennett and to be supported by such an iconic fellow British brand.

We looked to the past when designing, as we always do. We are constantly fascinated at how shoes have evolved with changing aesthetics and the way in which shape and line has developed this past century. We mixed classic elements of LK Bennett with our Bionda Castana signatures. This meant for example creating a 50s-esque mid-heel that is complemented with a modern transparent mesh accent. The result is a collection that transcends the decades, whilst appealing to a wide range of customers.

We found that the Bionda Castana woman and the L.K.Bennett woman have much in common – both seek timeless elegance and a mix of classic style with a contemporary feel. We wanted to take this ethos and combine it with signature design elements of both brands. For example, L.K.Bennett are known for their polka dot print bright colours and mid-heel heights, while we are known for our bold prints, elegant heels, chic trims and subtle use of mesh in a ladylike way. Once we identified these signature traits we found a natural synergy that made for an exciting collection.

Describe the Bionda Castana woman in 3 words.

'The Thinking Woman' - refined and anti-tribe.

LK Bennett and Bionda Castana are both quintessentially British brands. How important is London to your aesthetic?

The lifestyle of London women is one we look to to establish the feel of a collection, because we are both London women! Understanding those needs is what makes for successful design.

What criteria do you use when designing a new shoe?

"What has the world not seen before?” This tends to be the starting point to a cohesive and well-edited collection.

Which is your favourite shoe from the collection, and why?

‘Alexa’ is such a relaxed, city-girl shoe. The detailing is refined, but enough to be your stand-out shoe this summer, and for seasons to come. Not trend lead at all, timeless and not only for special occasions.