Ibiza style: Designer interview – Barbara Bonner
Talented designer, natural-born nomad, nurturing mother and authentic free spirit, Italian-born Barbara Bonner embodies all the characteristics of the women she lovingly crafts her signature leather and fringed bags for. Initially however, she spent many years denying her creative side, as she studied psychology with the desire to follow her parents’ successful, yet traditional, career paths. Further back in her lineage however, some powerful creative influences had a hold over her heart: three generation of jewellery designers and an incredible circus performer grandmother who was known for her sense of style in addition to bold life choices.
After graduating from university and completing a Masters in PR and communication, Barbara headed to London to follow her passion for fashion, studying at the prestigious Central St Martins. With the talent of a designer, the brains of a psychologist and the skills of a PR whizz, she was fast on her way to conquering entrepreneurship. The Barbara Bonner brand as we know it today was conceived in Ibiza in 2008, and today her bags are seen on the arms of ‘it girls’ around the world.
Tell us a little about your background?
I was born in Verona, which is between Venice and Milan. It was a very beautiful town, but a little boring… so I was inspired to travel a lot! My parents also travelled a lot – my dad is a doctor and my mum a teacher. When I was five, we moved to London, then the Toronto in Canada, and then Washington. Being nomadic is in my blood.
How did you get involved in fashion?
I think I inherited my creativity and my artistic side from my grandparents. My grandmother was a circus performer – she’d ride a bike through a ring of fire – and my grandfather was a jewellery designer. My mum and dad instilled strict roots in me, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps but I realised during my time at university that fashion was my passion.
What led you to designing accessories specifically?
It really started at that time when I was studying. I found beautiful handbags were so expensive that I couldn’t afford them, so I started to make my own. My friend’s dad worked for Diesel and gave us a big box of cast-off leather to work with. The girls in my course would ask where they were from and we started to make a little production and we were quite successful. After I finished my studies, I moved to London to study at Central St Martins and that’s when I finally found my true path.
Where does the inspiration for your signature fringing come from?
The fringe is all about my mum. She wasn’t a hippy, but in the 70s she wore that style, you know, long hair and a lot of fringing. She had a strong 70s look that even I still follow to this day. It was in 2008, here in Ibiza, that I conceived my first fringed bag inspired by her. That was the beginning of it all.
Tell us about the evolution of the Barbara Bonner brand?
Originally, I wanted to do a complete line of clothing and accessories, but it was almost like destiny that I would be known for fringed bags. Buyers from shops around the world fell in love with that very first bag. Over the next eight years, I would sell my bags through trunk shows and at fashion week to some of the best shops in the world: Selfridges, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman… but in January of this year, I had a wake-up call.
I realised that by working in this way, my bags were becoming very expensive, too expensive, like the ones I couldn’t afford when I first started out and I wasn’t happy about that. I don’t design bags seasonally – they are carry-over pieces, as I believe when you buy a bag, it should be ‘forever’, I don’t like fast fashion – but then these shops would put them on sale after two months, even though each bag took five months to make. So I decided to go solo, and I took all my bags out of these big stores and now only sell independently. Now I am going to start to open my own shops and launch a complete lifestyle brand. I also do pop-up trunk shows and private sales around the world.
What are your production processes like?
All of my bags are made by artisans in Tuscany in Italy, and I personally go to the factory every week to check on the quality of everything. From the very first sketch until the finished prototype, I am there. First, we do the sketch which can be quite fast, but then we have to source the materials. With leather, we usually have to wait around 40 days while it goes to the tannery. I also design all my own metal embellishments (inspired by my jewellery background), so we have to wait for those to be produced. The realisation process is very long, but once you have it and you’re happy… it’s like you’ve created your own baby!
What is your connection to Ibiza?
I first came here with my friend Valeria, who I made the first bags with at university. It had been our dream – I was working in a big club in Verona while studying, so I knew a lot about music. As soon as I was 21, we came and got a little bike and rode it all over the island, up and down, all week long. We fell in love with the island instantly and it also bound our friendship. Now I come here often and it is my retreat. I love the energy and the peacefulness at the same time.
How much time do you spend on the island?
In the summer, I have a house here and it is such a happy environment with an amazing energy for me and my daughter Mia (aged six). I have to travel a lot to keep my eyes on the production factory, but I would love to be here more – I am definitely a beach girl! I have so much more energy when I am here.
Does the island provide inspiration for your work?
My brand is Ibiza related, and of course, I conceived my very first fringed bag here in 2008! It was born here. But it’s not just about Ibiza. It’s more inspired by that kind of bohemian girl who travels, the nomadic ones, and Ibiza is one of her places for sure. I do work a lot while I am here though – I feel a lot more creative here.
Where else do you look to inspiration?
I get really inspired by people, and that’s why I love it in Ibiza. I feel like I am in a cultural melting pot, a beautiful place, but it’s not like being in a big city where no one has time for you. Here, you can meet people and not know what they do for days – it’s not superficial.
Who do you see as a BB girl?
My woman is a very secure woman – that’s where my psychology comes into the design process. If I can help my customers feel comfortable with their bodies, I am happy. I like girls who look very curated, without being over the top. I like it when a woman can look dressed even when she’s naked, or naked when she’s dressed. It’s all about confidence.
How do your bags help with body confidence?
Take the Lilith bag for example. It’s very soft, tactile, organic. It sits on your hips and when you move, it follows you. All of my bags should feel like an extension of your body. I have a party range, a beach range and a city range and I feel like I am the test model for all of them. If they aren’t comfortable and don’t make me feel confident, I change the model.
How do you describe your personal style?
I like vintage. I like simplicity, I think less is more, but then I still end up putting on loads of things! I need to feel confident when I am dressed. I love the way I dress in Ibiza – it’s like I start dressing like am in love, but in love with the environment, the island and the universe. It’s my same wardrobe, but I mix it differently. I am more colourful, more funky, more crazy here.
How important is it for you to work with online influencers?
We work with a lot of influencers but I think it’s very important not to become a slave to this. You have to retain your identity and integrity. I love that these girls fall in love with my brand, and usually we end up being friends because they have the same vibe as me. A little wild – and by that I don’t mean crazy, I mean a free spirit who doesn’t conform. Someone who is in a good relationship with the universe and happiness. Someone spiritual and sophisticated.
Do you have a favourite creation from the BB range?
My best creation is my daughter Mia! I started my company when I was pregnant with her, so it was a difficult and challenging time, but this gave me so much more strength and strategy. Mia has really helped me – I feel I have grown and I feel balanced.
Does Mia share your passion for fashion?
She loves it! But more like dressing up – she puts on make-up and feathers, and sometimes I will say, “Darling that really doesn’t match.” She replies “Mama, your taste is not the only taste. It’s not important that you like it – it’s important that I like it.” She’s a very strong little girl.
What’s next for Barbara Bonner?
People told me I was crazy when I wanted to quit the major department stores, but I think it was the best decision I ever made. Working in fashion is definitely a job for a tough person – it’s not easy. Now I will have to see where the business takes me, but at the moment, I am looking to open my first shop here in Ibiza with a complete lifestyle range and vintage pieces selected by me. I have to wait for the right space. More will follow around the world. We are starting to offer the ‘BB Experience’ which is a holistic pop-up, with juices and yoga and a trunk show – the last one I did in Rome was very successful, and I would like to take these on the road: Ibiza, Tulum, California, Japan… who knows?
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