But a career as a footwear designer wasn’t always part of the plan — at least as far as her parents were concerned. A gifted student with an aptitude for chemistry and math, the then-college-bound Kanani was following her mother and father’s wishes by studying pharmacology. “They didn’t know anything about fashion,” explained the 34-year-old. “They wanted me to do medicine, engineering. But it wasn’t to be.”
Kanani, who was born in Iran and raised in Spain and London, decided to follow her dream, enrolling at London’s Cordwainers College to study shoe design. Upon graduating in 1997, she moved to Italy, where she honed her skills working for a series of companies, including Bruno Magli, Studio Tordini and Miss Sixty.
In 2004, she founded her own consultancy, BRK Studios, based in London and Italy’s Le Marche shoemaking region, and collaborated on collections for a mix of high-profile clients. Two years later, with nearly a decade of experience under her belt and with her brother, Rasa Kanani, by her side, Kanani launched her eponymous collection.
Distinguished by their bold colors, sculptural shapes and almost exclusive use of luxury materials such as alligator, mink and iguana, Kanani’s shoes are meticulously crafted by hand in Italy. The collection, which retails for $1,300 and up, is carried by some of the world’s toniest shops, including Harvey Nichols in London, Ardecolini in Moscow, Maxfield in Los Angeles and, beginning this fall, Gregory’s in Dallas. To ramp up her U.S. presence, Kanani recently signed a deal with the New York showroom Nexus, which will represent her collection starting with spring ’10.
Here, the London-based Kanani talks about the perks of working with her brother, her plans to expand in the States and why, despite the economic downturn, luxury will live on.
1. What prompted you to start your career in Italy instead of in Spain, where you grew up?
BK: I didn’t consider Spain to be luxury enough. Also, Spain was too much within my comfort zone. I was the only person from my class [at Cordwainers] to go to Italy. And it was also a challenge because I didn’t speak Italian at the time.
2. What are the benefits of having your brother as a business partner?
BK: Full trust and understanding. We are very close and work side by side, which creates a strong team. He is very good on the communications side with the clients, sales and managing the business.
3. What do you consider the Behnaz Kanani signatures?
BK: I use mostly luxe materials and exotics, and my heels are high and sensuous and typically come covered in leather. My color palette also is very distinctive. In addition, I like to play with materials. For example, I worked with my tannery to develop a special brush-off technique on crocodile.
4. Where is your collection better represented: in shoe stores or clothing stores?
BK: Most of our clients are multibrand stores that sell both. I find that shoes work better when they are sold alongside clothes, and multibrand store customers tend to be less resistant to price.
5. Now that you’re being represented by Nexus, what U.S. stores are you hoping to break into?
BK: I’d like to be in stores such as Jeffrey, Bergdorf Goodman, Blake and Stanley Korshak. I believe the U.S. appreciates my product, as it’s a real luxury product. The U.S. is still our main market, even though it was the first to be hit by the economic crisis. [But] there is a greater appreciation for spending on exclusivity and high quality in the American culture.
6. How has the global recession affected your business?
BK: We cannot ignore the economic climate. Everyone seems to be scared — some with real reason and some because they’re being negatively influenced by others’ fears. We work with very high-end boutiques worldwide that are aware that they need to continue providing [their customers] with avant-garde, high-quality collections with a point of difference. The bottom line is that we, [as designers], need to continue to be creative without losing integrity. And [the retailers] need to continue to invest and provide for their key customers. For our brand, if the global economy had not been in a crisis, we would have expected higher sales right now.
7. As a smaller brand, do you feel more vulnerable to the unstable climate?
BK: The large players have been hit much harder. Although they have greater market share and selling power, they have been faced with sales cuts and severe cash-flow dangers. Smaller players have benefited from their greater ability to adapt to severe and sudden market changes.
8. Are you facing any resistance to your prices?
BK: In our case, it is not about pressure to reduce prices. The market segment we target is less price-sensitive than the rest. However, the luxury footwear industry has grown a lot, with the number of designers [who occupy this space] doubling in the last five years. [Therefore], the vast offerings in the market puts pressure on the competition.
9. Do you think even luxury customers have a ceiling on price?
BK: If a customer is going for real luxury, there’s no compromise, so price is really not an issue. When I first launched my brand I had in mind the very rich, who appreciate and desire the best and most exclusive product. Nevertheless, we would like to satisfy everyone out there at some point in the future, but for now, we’ll stay with our integrity of high quality and craftsmanship, with the consequence of being a brand for a few who are not cash-poor.
10. What’s next for your brand?
BK: Next month, exclusives by Behnaz Kanani will launch in Harrods in London. For fall ’09, I have introduced a marine fossil logo that’s featured as a metal tab on the heel of every shoe. For spring ’10, I’m adding a shorter heel, as well as a capsule collection of bags. I also am hoping to open my first store in London in 2010.