Brazilian-born handbag designer Paula Cademartori is as bouncy as her shiny brown locks and as resilient as a ten-ton tank. She has single-handedly built not just a covetable product that street-style celebrities like Anna Dello Russo clamor to get onto their arms each season, but also a very admirable business.
The designer’s turbo-speed rise—her bags are now sold in 160 of the most covetable boutiques around the world—is exceptional in entrepreneurially unfriendly Italy and has raised more than a few classically arched eyebrows in this traditional town. After all, she wasn’t coddled by the Italian press and wasn’t the daughter of someone socially lofty. So how the heck did she build such an impressive company in just four and half years?
“Perseverance,” Cademartori replies, sitting at her desk, with eyes shining behind Céline glasses and her perfectly made-up red lips breaking into a big Brazilian smile. “I never take no for answer.”
Strong-willed tenacity mixed with her innate, sassy Latin charm has worked wonders on the Italians. At her factory outside of Milan, the grumpy artisans initially rejected Cademartori’s early designs for her signature colorful intarsia bags, telling her they were too difficult to produce. Later they watched in amazement as the designer came in on the weekends to cut, glue and sew together the bags herself to show them how to do it. She had a formidable sales strategy as well—calling posh stores like Corso Como 10 no fewer than 50 phone calls in her first season, pretending to be her own assistant, requesting a sales appointment!
The obstinacy paid off. The factory now hums along as it briskly produces Cademartori’s intricate leather work—from suede flower petals to swirling lines and geometric blocks; the store roster has grown to include Bergdorf Goodman, Lane Crawford, Harvey Nichols and, of course, Corso Como 10. Her enormous handbag offering, which includes everything from tote-bags and pochettes to her new mini backpacks, has just been supplanted with the launch of her very first footwear collection, a sexy range of petal-trimmed, block-heeled, lace-up sandals that were crafted to make a woman walk with a certain “lift”.
“Shoes should be made for the butt,” Cademartori declares, adopting the finger wag of a proper Brazilian schoolteacher. “Not for the feet. But mine are very, very comfortable.”
Mimicking her ambition and success is a glamorous new showroom in Milan, a workspace that has been decorated with the consuming detail of a well curated home. “My apartment is currently empty because I moved all of the best pieces here,” the designer sighs, citing her treasured Fornasetti plate collection, the Cole’ table and chairs in the office’s chic kitchen and a pair of vintage 1950s chairs. “But that probably makes sense since I am living in my office,” she adds cheerfully. “I have breakfast, lunch and dinner here!”
Located just off of Milan’s central Piazza San Babila, the space was designed by Emiliano Salci and Britt Moran of hot Milanese design firm Dimore Studio. Fornasetti’s metallic monkey wallpaper lines the entryway and hallway, while Dimore’s own graphic furniture, carpets and metal display pieces carve out an architectural edge to showcase her feminine designs.
“When I first came here at age 21, I was just a kid,” says Cademartori who grew up in Porto Alegre and moved to Milan to study for her Master’s in Fashion Accessories at Marangoni. “I knew nothing about fashion or design. I didn’t know how to dress myself.” But she was a quick and astute student: She’s often spotted in bold runway confections by Prada, Marni or Céline, and trots lightly around town in high heels— a cue she’s adopted the ways of the rigorously well-groomed women of Milan. “They really know how to enjoy life in a fashionable way,” Cademartori enthuses. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 8am on a Saturday—you can always be beautifully turned out.”
Cademartori bows to the mythical Miuccia Prada (much like we do!) as the quintessence of impeccable Milanese style. “She’s always got the killer heels, the skirt with a perfect embroidery with a cool zip front jacket and 1930s earrings,” she gushes. “It’s AMAZING.” But she also picked up a few tricks from Donatella Versace, for whom she worked as a junior handbag designer before starting her own label. “We all worked like crazy but Donatella always took the time to prepare a nice sit-down lunch for everyone in the design studio on beautiful Versace plates,” Cademartori recalls. “I wanted to create a little bit of that atmosphere here.”
Her office is indeed chic, cozy and well assembled—even her coffee for guests arrives on a sleek, wooden tray replete with a Tina Tsang ceramic sugar bowl in the shape of a bathtub with two sexy legs as a spoon. But it is also buzzing with the building of her soon-to-be empire. What’s next? “Clothes!” Cademartori gushes. “I’m working super hard to get BIG!”
– J.J. Martin