INTERVIEW WITH ARIANNA CASADEI. 

OUR SPIRIT IS UNBREAKABLE

 

Instead of some charming cafeteria in Rimini, in which they serve the perfect Italian espresso, I have met with Arianna Casadei in a virtual space, as the current situation does not allow for anything more than that. My meeting with the eloquent and witty director of communication and marketing in Casadei stretched out into an hour of conversation about the present and future of fashion, the beauty and the strength of family, and the unbreakable spirit of Italian people that are currently faced with the largest crisis of modern era. And, of course, we spoke about the shoes with Casadei signature.

At times like these, it seems appropriate to begin this interview with a simple question: How are you?

I feel grateful that my family, my friends and our employees are all safe, and that we are all healthy. I do not wish to say that too loud because, unfortunately, the situation changes in Italy from one minute to another. We are concerned, of course, for what the future holds. However, at this moment, it is most important that we maintain our good health and a positive outlook on things.

Italy is dealing with the most severe health crisis in its recent history. Are you currently in Rimini or Milan? Can you tell us how does an ordinary day looks like for you and your family under extraordinary conditions?

I am currently in Rimini, some of my closest associates are in Milan, while a part of my family is in Rome. As you probably know, Milan belongs to Lombardy, a region that has been most affected by this situation. Milan holds a special place in my heart. I truly feel as if my home has been attacked. As for my days, nothing has significantly changed. The days go by as they did back when the situation was normal. Oh, I say this as if the normality stopped years ago! The only exception is that we are now all working remotely, from our homes. The inability to go to the office is strange. That is why I try to keep up with my routine. I wake up every morning, get dressed, put makeup. And, I do it for myself, really. It makes me feel better. Also, I cook more than I ever did before. You know, when you think about Italians you feel that God has given them some special talent for cooking, but he most definitely did not give it to me (laughter). However, I have impressed myself with my cooking skills and I use this quarantine time to try out some new recipes. A big portion of my day is, naturally, still connected to shoes. When I speak to our team members, we try to predict the consequences that we will have to face one this is all over.

We have seen the Italian people sing from their balconies, organize virtual concerts, applaud to the medical staff, and care for their elderly. When this is all over, will we remember their solidarity, unity, and strength more than anything else?

Yes, there is a strong feeling of unity and community, and it makes me really proud. I have grown up with my grandparents that lived through the Second World War. When I was a child, they have told me stories about the war, about their daily lives in the midst of a crisis, about the sounds of emergency sirens. They remembered it all so vividly.  I could not truly understand them at the time. Then came on 11 September. I believe that we can all clearly remember what we did and where we were at the time when the news about the terrorist attack broke. That was the first global threat that I experienced. Today, in a digitalized world in which we live, we are all very strongly connected. The truth is, this virus is not selective. It is not Chinese, nor Italian. It affects all countries, all nations, and all societies. SARS did not spread outside China in 2002 because people were not traveling as much as they do today. I don't consider myself an old person, but I remember the times when my father traveled to Japan, Russia, and the United States. For me, that felt as if he was traveling to the moon. I don’t think there is a person today that has not been to one exotic destination. And, when I say exotic, I’m not thinking about the tropical beaches and the sea, but the places that are far to reach. I think our spirit is unbreakable and I truly hope that this unity of Italian people will remain because I am sure we will need it in the months ahead of us.

 

The coronavirus pandemics has most definitely impacted the fashion industry, causing brands and design houses to temporarily shutter their doors. Can you tell us in what sense did it impact Casadei?

It is still very early to talk about it because the pandemics is still ongoing. We do not even know until when we are going to be quarantined. Some say until the Easter holiday, some say until the end of May. At the very beginning, when this was still a „Chinese problem“, we were already affected by it. By the end of 2020, we planned to open three new shops in China. These plans had to be postponed, of course. Then the virus came knocking on our door, which was a very emotional moment for us. Namely, we had to close the doors of our Rimini shop that was open back in 1981. That shop has never before been closed. We have been through many personal and business challenges, even birth labor, but the store kept its continuity. That was the moment I realized the situation was serious and that we are faced with something my generation has never experienced before. Everything started to change so quickly. Before the coronavirus outbreak, we have been working on the establishment of a new sale system, omnichannel, which we tested for a long time. Once the situation escalated, this project was put on hold as well. All of the available merchandise was made available in our online store that still functions very well. Our online sales are still strong. I feel very emotional and happy these days that we are, as a family company, surrounded by a team of amazing people that are making our lives a bit easier in these difficult days.

Being a third-generation member of the Casadei family, a person that certainly brings fresh vision and a new perspective to the brand, can you possibly predict the changes within the fashion industry that will inevitably occur?

I have recently listened to a very interesting podcast on this topic will Emanuele Farneti, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, as a guest. The first thing he mentioned was numbers, tens of thousands of people that are employed in the Italian fashion industry. He emphasized that fashion is not something superficial and trivial, as many people perceive it, and that its share in the Italian economy is large and significant. What I currently see as an important matter is the preservation of the term 'made in Italy'. It is a concept that symbolizes people that work in our fashion industry, their know-how, and expertise that is being transferred from generation to generation. That can never be adequately replaced by the machines. Made in Italy has its human component and that is why our production is different from any other. Of course, we will have to come up with new ways of work. We are standing before a period of research and development of new ideas. Italians are a very creative nation and I am sure that we will lead these changes. There is one more thing I would love to mention, a thing we learned from this crisis. Smart working is not an ideal solution. As much as we are technologically connected, the emotion and exchange of information in personal contact cannot be replaced. However, I am very grateful that we are living in an age where we can still reach one another via technology.

You recently stated that we need to use this situation as an impetus for a reboot. Is it finally the right time for fashion to get back on the right track towards becoming much more meaningful, sustainable and ethical?

I often make jokes with my father that, from season to season, my daughter status slowly degrades. He designs so many different shoes each season and sees them as his children. So, it is difficult to say what place I'm currently holding (laughter). In order for our shoes to come to life, they do not have to be a part of a certain category, or as a result of some sales analysis. For us, they are still a product of magic and possess the charm of some past times. To us, each collection is meaningful. Last year, we presented a collection made in collaboration with the Ethical Fashion Initiative. The collection was designed out of fabrics woven by women in Burkina Faso. That idea came so spontaneously, not because we wanted to force such collection to happen, but because we felt that we share the same DNA. Even though we were working on such a distance from one another, the collaboration was perfect. That is the beauty of global society.

Aside from ethical fashion, through this project, you promoted women empowerment, as well?

Yes, exactly. You know, if you came to our offices in Milan, you would see mostly women. The two men that work there are our chief operations officer and our finance accountant. In our factory, the situation is pretty much the same. My father is accompanied by his closest associates that are all women. Multitasking is a female noun! My grandfather used to say that men can focus on one thing at a time, while women can focus on two or three at the same time. He was so ahead of his time. Of course, we should not forget that shoemaking is a difficult job that requires the use of force. That is why we have many men working in our production facilities. I grew up in a family where men and women were equal. I never questioned this principle until I grew up and started noticing that my female friends, architects, engineers, lawyers, and doctors, face different ways of discrimination just because they are women. That is why today I remain grateful for two things: growing up in a family that valued people by their competences, not sex, and growing up surrounded by fashion. Because fashion to me is such a democratic world.

From this point of view, where do you see the future of digital retail space? How important are the physical retail spaces today?

That is very difficult to say. Omnichannel is very important and significant at the moment. I truly believe in e-commerce because time is such a luxury. Imagine shopping in a crowded boutique after a long day at work? From that perspective, a relaxed online shopping from the commodity of your own living room sounds so much easier. Actually, shopping in a physical store is an experience. It is a search for the right garment or a shoe, and it implies a sensation of touch. That is why I don't believe that physical stores will disappear, but we have to bear in mind that there are different target groups. One thing is for sure, omnichannel is no longer a dream- it's our reality.

Have you noticed an increase in sales numbers? Do people shop more during this pandemic?

It all depends on which stage of quarantine are they in. Do you know the phases of brake up after a relationship? Well, something similar is happening with the quarantine. In the beginning, you feel very proactive, even hyperactive, you have so many different ideas, and you're feeling good. In this phase, you wish to become the best version of yourself, you want to cook more, start an online class, learn a new language... buy those shoes. In this phase, you are focused on yourself and you finally feel that you have time for all those things you wanted to do before the pandemics began. In the next stage, you start watching the news, listen to the number of people who got infected and those who have died. In this stage, shopping is definitely not on your mind. In the third phase, you rethink the economic consequences of this crisis, which makes you feel a bit worried and overwhelmed. I believe we are currently at this stage. I am not saying that people stopped shopping, but they do not do it as often as they did before. Online shopping still provides people with joy, and a reason to look forward to something. I think it gives people a sense of normality. Because, even in challenging times such as these, fashion has the ability to make you dream.

Fashion changes over time, and so do the tastes. However, Casadei shoes stand the test of time. How do you explain this fashion phenomenon?

My father is behind this phenomenon (laughter)! I believe that the passion we feel for this business is deeply engraved in each of our collections. For me, it is very interesting to see how a man reflects for years what women want, and what they will want in the future.

Does he allow you to participate in the design process?

I think he has no other option than to listen to my ideas. I am so happy that my father never wished to put tape over my mouth. On the contrary, he encouraged me to state my thoughts, to follow my dreams, and to listen to my intuition. When I graduated, he wrote a very emotional speech in which he especially emphasized that I should always listen to myself and that inner voice, my ‘gut’. We work as a team, of course, but it is always important to say your own opinion, however wrong it sometimes might be. It’s the dialogue that is important. That is how I became a part of our family business. For months, I bored my father with the idea to establish an online store and one day he told me: Okay, now you have your degree. Why don't you do it yourself? This was back in 2012 and we launched our online store in February 2013. My grandfather did not understand at the beginning what the online store is all about, but when I showed him the figures by the end of that year, he encouraged me to continue being successful in what I do.

Casadei is passionately committed to the art of crafting shoes. But, in a fast-paced world of today's fashion, do you believe that crafts and technology can coexist?

As the answer to that question, I will give you one example from our practice: the Blade heel. It is a perfect example how craftsmanship and technology can go hand in hand. My grandfather could not even imagine that one day there will exist a heel made entirely out of stainless steel. Ten years ago, when my father designed this model, it was still difficult to achieve its perfection. I do not think that we should perceive things as black or white. We can take the best from both worlds.

 

How does Casadei balance art and commerce?

Each model we ever designed has been made out of a desire to make women feel confident and comfortable in our shoes. This does not necessarily imply high heel shoes. One of our most iconic shoe models is Soraya, flat sandals that were in a way an answer to a private life situation. My father's second wife does not wear rings, so he put a ring on a shoe. Our first bridal collection came when we noticed that bridal shoes are the second most researched term in our online store, right after the blade. At the time I was in a long relationship with my today husband, so when I brought up the idea of establishing a bridal collection, my father thought I finally decided to get married (laughter). Then I realized that we need to adapt to different types of brides and decide different shoes to get married in, from stilettos to sneakers.

Can you share with us one of the earliest memories you have of the Casadei brand? Growing up, what ignited the passion for shoemaking the most?

I can share several memories because they are equally meaningful to me. When my father used to come home, upon finishing his working day in the factory, he used to bring different fabric samples with him. These were small pieces of fabrics, among which one I still keep. It is a sparkling leather from our early 1990's collection. I remember it so vividly because it was named after me. It was a good tactic, I think, to name something after me. It immediately made me interested. It was a sparkly collection and I was a child like any other, one that loved glitter and sparkle. Today, that situation changed and I became more interested in color which can be seen through my outfit choices. I also remember the weekends that I used to spend in the factory. I was very bored to listen to long meetings, so I went to Oriana to play. It was my special place. Oriana is a wonderful lady that started working with my grandfather in the 1960's, back in the day when Casadei shoes were being sold to tourists in the Riviera. She was a master of embroidery, and I remember she used to teach me how to make things. From different scraps of material, we made hair bands and bags. I was very fascinated by that.

We often hear how people from the fashion industry are nostalgic about past times. But, you seem to be more curious than nostalgic. Do you believe that curiosity is the key to creativity and innovation?

You can now start talking about motorcycles, that I know nothing about, and I would beg you to tell me more. It's just the way I am! I truly believe that we can learn something from everyone and that each new experience and conversation enriches us. So, yes, I do believe that curiosity sparks a process of creative thinking which, as a result, gives birth to new ideas.

How do you envision the future of the Casadei brand? Will it be a future you will wait, or a future you will create?

The only thing I hope for in the future is that we preserve our DNA. We can change the way we present it to the public, we can change our voice, but the values we share and that are entangled deeply into our beings... I hope they remain forever.

(Interview was originally published in Elle Croatia, May 2020)