An entrepreneur focused on balance; Alexandra van Berckel - co-founder of footwear brand Pinucci...

Alexandra van Berckel, founder of new footwear brand Pinucci is polished; there's no denying it... A woman who could easily provoke envy, were she not so engaging and to use an insipid but accurate turn of phrase 'nice'. Yes there’s a trend afoot; the tough talking workaholic founders of yesteryear are being replaced by a whole new breed of entrepreneur, a breed focused on ‘balance’; and Alexandra is nothing if not testament to that vision; a woman who (with a little help) can have it all – and why on earth wouldn't she?

Following a gilded career history; Alexandra has turned her hand to creating shoes of rare quality, with a focus on top quality design; a range handcrafted by artisans using only the highest quality materials; and the cherry on top? A serious nod towards altruism with a percentage from every sale donated to a selection of handpicked charities.

So how did the Pinucci brand kick off? ‘I started my career as an architect in the City,’ Alexandra reminisces. ‘After a few years, I went into into project management. My boss at that time was Sir John Armitt [chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority]. I was in charge of all the petitions against the Channel Tunnel High Speed Rail ink. We had to take about a thousand through to the House of Lords. We passed every single one of them.’

Alexandra’s CV is one of the most interesting things about her; this is a woman who despite being elegant, feminine and softly spoken has worked and thrived in several male dominated industries, banking amongst them. ‘When the three stock exchanges (Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels) were merging to become Euronext, I was one of the six project managers working on linking the Custody & Settlement platforms, with my focus being to link Brussels and Amsterdam together. I was very used to doing these national projects.’

So how did this uber talented business brain decide to turn her attention to shoes? A market that could be seen as a lot more frivolous, and a lot more risky, ‘I would doodle; a little sketch here and there. I would always say to myself “One day, I should really design a shoe properly.”

In the end circumstances prevailed; ‘With a recent relocation back to London and the children getting more independent, I cut back on all these major projects. I had a bit more time to myself.’ Alexandra set about designing her first prototype; ‘It was a very simple little shoe. I was quite pleased with it; I thought: “Okay, how do you turn this doodle into reality?”

Reality wasn’t far off; with the help of husband Gerard, the pair set about channelling their hard earned capital into the brand. ‘It keeps you motivated,’ Van Berckel says of the decision. ‘It’s rewarding as well, because at that point, you know that you’ve really done it yourself, a hundred percent – and you give it all you have.’

Next came the supply chain; and it was in Spain and Italy where the Van Berckels set about establishing relationships with small family run Artisan workshops; the ‘human element” as well as great craftsmanship was really important to them and the combination of those two elements were what the Van Berckels were after; ‘We also try our best to minimize our carbon footprint, and we didn’t see the need of going further afield, when on our doorstep we have generations of artisans that have been making shoes for centuries.’

There it is, detail, quality, cratfsmanship; a brand identity that infers late nights and early starts, though Alexandra seems remarkably composed in light of the demands of the brand. Is she invested in making it seem easy? Or perhaps that’s because for her it is? ‘The brand is a series of lots of different projects all going on at the same time,’ she says. ‘My background in project management has really helped to take something that was so conceptual – a doodle – and create the infrastructure around that to bring it to production.’

This backs up the impression evoked on speaking to her; of someone used to the daily requirements of big business, who approaches even the most challenging tasks with almost horizontal calm, ‘There’s so many things that can go wrong, and do go wrong. But when these things happen, they just enrich your experiences. Next time you will do it differently.’

So the question left unasked; to what can Berckel attribute her success? Is it nature or nuture? Education foremost she believes is key, ‘I’ve been so privileged. My parents were fantastic and ensured that I’ve gone to excellent schools from kindergarten through to Secondary schools and finally, University. My mother used to have a boutique stocked with clothes from amazing designers and was a dedicated “fashionista” so when I was young, I constantly raided her wardrobes! My education as a whole has made me confident , and I feel that anything is achievable, as long as you are truly passionate about it.

Education is clearly the motivation for her support of various charities, many of them devoted to underprivileged children; ‘I’m drawn to things that affect children, and that affect education. I just don’t like to see children without a home. That makes me quite sad,’ Van Berckel says, visibly moved. ‘With the cancer, there is a personal thing there. One of my nieces had leukaemia. If it doesn’t happen to anyone close to you, you can never realise how important it is to have an organisation like The Teenage Cancer Trust.’

‘The youth of today are also the leaders of tomorrow,’ she continues; the charity donations at Pinucci are all about giving children a start more akin to Van Berckel’s own; ‘We like to start early,’ she says, ‘We don’t want to wait until later….it’s sometimes too late then.’

So there it is; balance even within the brand itself, profit tempered with altruism, modern design tempered with detail and traditional craftsmanship. As is so often the case we’ve come full circle. ‘We’ve given up on this idea that [as women] we can do it all,’ Van Berckel says on the subject. Despite her dedication to the success of Pinucci, her favourite time of the day is spent with her children, ‘I’m a very early riser, so I’ll be up around five o’clock/six o’clock. I’ll read my e-mails for about an hour, then get the children ready for school. We love having breakfast together – it’s important to us. Once the School run is done, then my business day begins in earnest.

So with this wealth of life and business acumen, what advice would Alexandra give to those hoping to follow in her footsteps? ‘You have to be passionate and measured in your decisions. Without the passion, nothing else can happen. If you go into something thinking: “I’m going to make a lot of money”, I think it’s very hard to be successful.’

We’re about to wrap up but I want to know where this ethos comes from? Is there someone to whom Van Berckel can attribute her work ethic? Top of the list was her grandmother; ‘Not only did she establish a primary school, she also started the first summer camp in Greece’ Van Berckel says. ‘As a woman in Greece in the fifties which at that time was traditionally a patriarchal society that was incredible; nobody had done it before.’

She was still running the Summer Camp with more than eighty employees until she passed away in her nineties. She came from a very privileged background, where women were not expected to work or have careers and then she became this entrepreneur who was the chairman of all the summer camp unions in Greece for more than two decades. My grandmother always encouraged all the girls in the family to be well educated. She wanted to make sure that none of us ever felt, “We couldn’t try to be like her.” 

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

September 2012.