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For young designers, no day is typical and any 24-hour period may be packed with commitments. I tracked down Natalia Barbieri and Jennifer Portman of London-based Bionda Castana several times during the markets in Europe to get a realistic look at what it takes to build a luxury footwear brand. “We have a wish list a mile long, but our time will come,” said Portman. “We’re glad our path is the one we’ve come down.”
2 p.m., Sept. 22, Milan
“Everything’s great here. We’re selling and doing editor previews,” Natalia says via email from Milan, as I sit waiting to take off from New York. When I refer to her jet-setting plans for the next two weeks, she quips, “Sadly, day-to-day life as a designer is not as glamorous as you’d think.”
9 a.m., Sept. 27, London
It’s a sharp change to cool fall weather in London as I make my way to Rivington Grill in Shoreditch to meet the duo for breakfast. Now in their seventh season, the pair continue to find new ways to drive the business. “It’s a huge learning curve. We try to be unique and creative, but commercial as well,” Natalia says. Jennifer adds, “We’ve matured in our designs. The customer is the same, but we’re expanding into new markets.” For fall, Bionda Castana opened Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and Boston, as well as several other global accounts. “Fall was a huge turning point, and spring ’12 is looking good too,” Jennifer says. “This is the first time we’ve had people fighting for a slot,” adds Natalia.
11 a.m., Sept. 27, London
The pair pull out their sketch books to show the spring ’12 line. It has a 1970s feel, with pastel colors, woven platforms and a touch of leopard print. But the duo is already thinking well beyond spring. “We’re at a point where we’re not just thinking about next season. We’re projecting where we want to be in three years and how we’re going to get there,” Jennifer explains. Evening bags and a London boutique (along with e-commerce) are on both their wish lists. “Hopefully it’s not too far off,” Natalia says.“You’ve got to keep up momentum.”
12 p.m., Sept. 27, London
Jennifer must depart for a trend forecasting seminar at London’s Soho House, while Natalia and I make our way to the designers’ PR showroom, Relative MO. There, we peruse the mood boards, try on the spring collection and talk about Paris Fashion Week. “I’ll pack up the shoes for the courier after this,” Natalia says. “You start out doing literally everything yourself, but it’s time to give another impression now.”
4 p.m., Oct. 1, Paris
I stop by Natalia and Jennifer’s Bionda Castana stand at Premiere Classe and happen upon the owner of their Italian factory, who is there with his family. They proudly show me the favorite styles they produced for the brand this season, before stopping off to see former clients Tiffany Tuttle and Laurence Dacade.
6 p.m., Oct. 3, Paris
At my last check-in with the Bionda girls, Natalia reports they had a surge within the Japanese market, were picked up by a Chinese department store and got confirmation from Nordstrom for the U.S. But it’s not always so easy. Of the entire trade show period, Natalia admits, “The ups and downs on the show floor are more than you experience in six months of regular life.” Happily, after the frenetic show circuit, the pair will stay for a day in Paris to see Moulin Rouge and a museum or two. “This [leisure time] is new for us,” Jennifer says, “but we’ll start sketching winter on the way home.”