Growing up, Arianna Casadei remembers spending weekends in her family’s workshop under the watchful eye of head embroiderer Oriana Morigi. “There’s no better place to put a girl than one that is full of pearls and crystals. She let me play with the colored stones to keep me quiet,” Arianna laughed. Morigi, who retired at the end of 2017 after a tenure of more than half a century, came back this year for a special reason: to help craft Arianna’s wedding shoes. They were designed by her father, Cesare Casadei, and took a full two weeks to complete.
“Every time I walked into a room, everyone was working on the project, so I had to leave,” Arianna said. “I was so happy to have all of the people I love [involved].” For the wedding, her father crafted bespoke sandals with slivers of white nappa and a lace overlay embroidered with flowers handstitched in crystal. The soles were adorned with a special message from her father — “alla mia cucciola” — ewhich translates to “my darling girl.”
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The shoes have inspired a special Arianna wedding shoe now in development. “Work started on it a few days after the ceremony,” she said. “We hadn’t planned it, but we were all so blown away when we saw mine that we wanted to share the love.”
Last Thursday, Casadei unveiled its spring ’19 collection at Milan Fashion Week. Cesare drew inspiration from the 1960s, incorporating glitter and metallic details and ring-inspired gem embellishments. A caged sandal was a standout as well as an archival heel from 1993.
The close-knit family has marked many big moments together — and this year, the Casadeis celebrate their 60th anniversary in the shoe business. They invited FN into their factory and headquarters for a rare all-access glimpse into their inner shoe sanctum. “It was time,” said Cesare. “We wanted to express to everyone what we are doing here — our identity, our focus on quality and the respect we have for our DNA.”
Cesare’s parents, Quinto and Flora Casadei, founded the luxury brand in 1958 with a small workshop in San Mauro Pascoli, Italy. During the 1950s and ’60s, Italy’s Adriatic coast was riding the wave of the country’s economic boom — and the fledgling business started selling sandals to moneyed tourists vacationing on the Italian Riviera. (These days, the brand’s signature blade heel might be a little too high for sightseeing.) The business continues to be headquartered in the same town, now among the country’s major shoe regions.
Viewed from above, the curvature of the building’s ’70s exterior recalls that of a grand piano. Inside, Cesare likens all the hammering, stretching and soldering processes to the instruments in an orchestra. If one step goes awry, he said, the whole thing could fall apart. “The shoes would be a disaster,” he said. “You can buy materials in perfect quality, but if you miss something, you’re in trouble. People who work in the shoe business have to be crazy for shoes.”
Despite innovations in technology — CAD software now enables the team to develop models with just one click — Cesare maintains that the factory floor, with its terracotta tiles, aluminum flues and conveyor belts, remains the “soul of Casadei.” And while machines speed up the production line considerably — Casadei’s father finished all the shoes by hand with a needle and thread — there are still 200 steps that go into the creation of each one. Although he is officially retired, Quinto retains a desk in the design studio and shows up for work at 9 a.m. daily.
Art is central to Cesare’s creative process, and visitors are greeted by a colorful installation of an elephant by the artist Marcello Lo Giudice in the lobby. (Andy Warhol’s pop art served as the inspiration for Casadei’s 60th anniversary collection of Perspex slingbacks.) The building is also a living archive — bursting with family photographs, a library of past styles, whimsical illustrated shoeboxes from the 1960s and prototypes including various iterations of Cesare’s interchangeable “tacco calcio.” The heel was thus named because it came with a key to remove it like a soccer boot.
Three generations of family members are intimately involved in the business, but many of the brand’s employees have spent their lives working for Casadei. “I hear things like ‘You play with your necklace just like your grandma did,’” Arianna said. The youngest Casadei serves as the company’s global marketing and communications director — and has been pursuing new growth opportunities for the brand. She spearheaded the launch of its bridal collection after seeing online demand. “Before we started it offi cially, I noticed that ‘bridal’ was the second-most-common keyword people were [searching] on the site after ‘Blade,’” she said.
Since the redesign and relaunch of the site in 2017, the company’s online revenue has grown 57 percent. Overall, sales sit at $41.5 million, with a growth projection of 8 percent for this year. The brand’s sixth decade, she said, heralds a deeper penetration of the U.S. market and expansion into Asia.
“We want to grow consistently and organically, increasing season by season,” she said, noting that as of this year, Casadei shoes are stocked at Bergdorf Goodman in the store’s Linda Fargo boutique. In Asia, department stores such as Harvey Nichols Hong Kong and Luxemporium China are fueling growth. But the biggest driver has been branded stores under the moniker Cesare Casadei. Four locations opened this year, with 20 launches slated by the end of 2022.
“We started exporting to China 15 years ago but have been increasing the business in the last five,” Arianna said, adding that the name variation is due to a trademark issue but also reflects cultural differences. “In China, everything is very local, and people are very proud of their heritage, so you adapt your language to their codes,” she said. Beyond its brick-and-mortar growth and e-commerce business, Casadei operates trunk shows with Moda Operandi.
“These give the customer the chance to see and order items yet to be released to the market,” Arianna said. “It’s important for us to balance our physical and digital presence so we have the chance to be seen in real life as well as to be internationally recognized. It’s that 360-degree idea of progress.”