“Blonde brunette” (or in Italian, bionda castana) was Natalia Barbieri and Jennifer Portman’s nickname during their days studying business at the University of Westminster. “We met on our first day at school and bonded straight away — partly because we are both half-Italian and love fashion and shoes,” says Barbieri, the brunette half of the duo.
After several years each working for high-flying finance companies in London, the pair launched their London-based luxury footwear label Bionda Castana in 2007. Neither had any formal training but learnt their craft through an apprenticeship in an Italian footwear factory.
“Comfortable statement shoes” is how Barbieri describes her designs. “I think great shoes are about the balance between being wearable and aesthetically pleasing,” she tells us over the phone. And it’s this delicate balance — classically feminine yet fashion-forward, wearable yet glamorous – that has made Bionda Castana’s shoes so coveted among fashion editors, A-listers and a loyal following that has grown with them.
Aside from top-quality Italian leather, Bionda Castana shoes use French lace, mesh and woven silks — all materials Barbieri says let the feet “breathe”. “We use materials like mesh that can expand with the foot and is more comfortable than leather lining. We use really fun fabrics like canvas and satin — things you wouldn’t necessarily find in shoes.”
Bionda Castana’s best-selling shoe style, Lana, in suede (£525)
Below, Barbieri shares her day-by-day plans for this week in London.
Monday: The Light Centre (7-9 Eccleston Street, Belgravia, SW1W 9LX)
Monday evenings take me to the Light Centre, around the corner from our store on Elizabeth Street, for Power Yoga with Liz Jacobs - my ultimate yoga guru. I started yoga about a year and a half ago but as I did ballet as a kid, I felt I could learn quite quickly. It’s simply practice but the energy I feel after each class is mind-boggling — it’s the perfect start of my working week. And it’s great because it’s something I can go do with friends.
Tuesday: Huckletree (18 Finsbury Square, Alphabeta Building, EC2A 1AH)
This Tuesday afternoon, I will be visiting Huckletree, a co-working space in the Alphabeta Building owned by one of my best friends, Gabriela Hersham. It’s this really well-curated workspace — perfect for networking, brainstorming and getting work done outside of my usual environment. It allows me the time to think, which is a luxury these days, and to speak to people outside of my industry. There is a fashion/tech talk happening in the evening.
Wednesday: SHOT (23-23a Bride Lane, EC4Y 8DT)
On Wednesday, I will be taking our team for lunch at the new organic restaurant SHOT, near St Paul’s, for a celebration marking the end of resort 2017 sales. It’s a relatively new spot and you get healthy food without compromising on flavour. Their cold-press juices are the best in town and the white tiles are so pristine you could eat from the walls.
Thursday: Newport Street Gallery (Newport Street, SE11 6AJ)
I’ll spend Thursday afternoon looking through the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Newport Street Gallery. I like artists who have a really bold, recognizable signature. His pieces are so iconic and they could only be made by him. I missed the exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York when it was showing so am pleased that I can now see it in London.
Friday: Foley's (23 Foley Street, W1W 6DU)
The working week will end with friends at Foley’s for dinner. I went to the pop-up a few months ago in Shepherd’s Bush where they set up in a garden off the main road and I have been waiting eagerly for the full-time restaurant to open. The polenta is made in the most amazing way and they change the menu all the time. Even as a vegetarian, I still get that sense of excitement and newness in its menu. I hate it when the only veggie option is really starchy carbs like pasta or a burger with a massive mushroom inside. Sharing? Absolutely not!
Text by Jainnie Cho