Natalia Barbieri and Jennifer Portman, otherwise known as Bionda Castana, first met while studying business in London. After graduating and working at corporate jobs the duo, driven by similar tastes and an interest in the fashion industry, decided to join forces to start a company. Their venture? Luxury footwear.
Eager to succeed and with a love for shoes, they founded Bionda Castana in 2007. Fast-forward 12 years of hard work and great accomplishments, today they are looking into the future. By combining traditional production with modern technology, they have adopted a new business model: selling their Italian-made shoes through a direct-to-consumer and zero-waste approach.
We sat down with them to talk about their inspiring career journeys and their innovative approach to selling shoes. Here is what we learned.
Founding Bionda Castana
Prior to founding Bionda Castana, Natalia and Jennifer had 9-5 jobs in finance and marketing. “It’s about doing jobs that you don’t love at the beginning, in order to find what you like,” says Natalia. The decision to start their own business came easily. “We were in our late 20’s and we didn’t have strong [financial] responsibilities such as mortgages and children” Natalia adds. Both of them wanted to work on something they related to and shoes seemed like the perfect fit. With no specific contacts or previous experience in the industry, they founded Bionda Castana in 2007.
Coming from a business background, they knew how to properly position themselves. “We wanted to sit next to Sergio Rossi, Valentino, and Gucci,” Natalia says. “We sourced the manufactures and supply of components of fabrics in all of that came the business plan,” Jennifer adds.
“Our ultimate goal at the beginning was to be at every great luxury retailer that was”. And they did. Browns was the first big store to get interested in their shoes. “Back in 2009, the support of a retailer like that was really profound”. In fact, after partnering with Browns other retailers started to request their collections. Soon they accomplished their goal and were selling at the biggest luxury retailers in the world. “We were hungry for the big retailers. That’s the acknowledgment that money is coming in and the way of growing your brand awareness,” says Natalia.
International expansion and opening a physical store:
After eight years of international retail success, good press and big stars as clients, they were ready to open their first store. “We felt it was important that our customers could find our whole collection in a single place and not only the part you could find in the shelf of a retailer,” Jennifer says. “We wanted our customers to come to us for everything” Natalia adds.
The store opened in London in a pop-up format and performed above all their expectations. Given those results, they decided to expand and moved to the next door bigger unit. “It was a bigger store, allowing us to relocate our office in the store and have a full 360 view of our business”. However, during the second year of their brick and mortar experience, something began to change. “The relationship with our external investors broke down. It was like a divorce and after 9 years, it was the right time to reevaluate our whole business and question ourselves about what our customers really wanted”.
After a two-year hiatus, Jennifer and Natalia relaunched Bionda Castana, with a fully digital approach to distribution.
Looking into the future:
Natalia and Jennifer reinvented their business model. They moved from a successful retail distribution to a direct online sales channel. Every second Monday of the month, four limited-edition shoe styles become available to buy on their website. They are made-to-order in Italy and shipped to the customer, direct from the factory, within three weeks. “The calendar in which a new collection drops in the normal stores does not match the weather, the season and so many other factors,” says Jennifer. “The beauty of what we are doing is that we work two months in advance and we provide the right products for that specific time, having full visibility in terms of feedback from our customers,” Natalia adds.
In terms of what is next for Bionda Castana, Natalia says: “Bringing in more offerings and learning more about the ever-evolving digital space. Keeping those novelties in your business and obtaining more customers. Maybe targeting new countries and territories”. “We really want to push our business model. The beauty of our business now is that everything can be changed from one moment to other”, Jennifer concludes.
Given their new beginnings, we asked the duo to give advice to aspiring entrepreneurs while highlighting their biggest accomplishments:
What advice would you give to someone starting up a new business?
Natalia: Do your research and make good friends – I think a lot of times people think what we do is about drawing pretty pictures. Even when we were in our highs, 20% was creative 80% was business. Plus, find people you can trust and work hard. Remember to be patient, success does not happen from one day to the other. You have to build your own luck.
Jennifer: Be realistic to what purpose your business really serve. You must have a business plan. Know exactly how you will be selling your product and why people will want to buy it.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Natalia & Jennifer: Because of the pressures of running a business, we were too hard on ourselves. When we were hitting our goals the only thing we thought was: “what is next?”. Looking back, we didn’t celebrate our victories enough. Remember to celebrate your wins, does not matter how small they are. Moreover, running your own business will take over your whole life and will be hard to focus on your priorities. We wish to had delegated more when possible.
What is your biggest career accomplishment?
Natalia & Jennifer: Still being friends. It has been 20 years of friendship, we are like sisters. People often ask us how are you in business with your friend. We know what we have is very hard. But the truth is, we don’t know any different. Plus, building a brand from nothing and with own determination and will, succeed. It has been a great journey.
Jennifer and Natalia are reimagining Bionda Castana while still offering shoes made in the same Italian factory they have used in the last 12 years. It is an incredible business model, tackling the importance of sustainability and consumer needs today. Their March collection is live and can be purchased here. Enjoy.