My Work: Caterina Occhio

Portrait of Caterina Occhio of SeeMe

Interview: Haris Stavridis // Portrait: Giovanni Gastel

You've worked in Brussels for the European Commission before starting SeeMe. How did you get involved with jewellery? Is this something you’ve always wanted to do?

I’ve always had a passion for design and art. As a little girl, when asked what I wanted to become when I grew up, I remember answering with passion: a painter. Later on, I took a different path; I studied geopolitics before starting to work in development aid as a gender and employment specialist. When starting SeeMe, and finding a way to bridge the fair trade movement with the luxury world, it felt like connecting the dots, the little creative painter met the grown up development aid manager…

You said in an interview that you did not know a lot about production or other aspects of running a brand. How difficult was setting up your company?

It has been pretty difficult to learn the ins and outs of such a delicate job, from creating a brand from scratch and running it to success. On top of it, SeeMe being a social enterprise, the task became even more arduous as we were struggling with a double bottom line: assuring the economic and social development of all people involved. Luckily, I met many valuable professionals that later became dear friends. People like Simona Clemenza and Antonella di Pietro who have decades of experience in the fashion field, have been precious to me and have always been on my side along the way, guiding and inspiring me. Also, Stefano Martinetto from Tomorrow Ltd, who generously welcomed SeeMe in their renowned showroom and are supporting our premium sales and distribution.

Was your previous working experience helpful in any way?

It was essential. I have worked in about twenty countries around the world and, whenever I had time, I would sneak away from official meetings and wander in local market places. Treasure hunting as I called it. The sad part was that the incredible craftsmanship I witnessed almost never translated into effective economic independence for the people who mastered it. Connecting craftsmanship to high-end fashion while assuring fair treatment for all people involved was the lessons I took. The dream that followed was to make sure wearing our jewellery would make people look good and feel better.

How did you manage to meet and convince people like Andrea Panconesi [chief executive of Luisa Via Roma] to help you?

With a big smile and a clear idea: it’s about time to have beautiful products with a precious soul. Each of our hearts is a unique piece, carefully handmade in our atelier in Tunis by women who have suffered abuse and violence, using ancestral techniques. When Andrea saw me wearing it at one of his parties during Firenze4Ever, he liked the object. When hearing its story, he loved it and wanted to have it at Luisa’s.

SeeMe is the only certified fair trade brand in the Middle East. How did you achieve this?

Once again, it was not an easy journey. We have had many discussions with the World Fair Trade Organisation and pledged our way on the necessity of bringing fair trade to the Middle East. After almost eighteen months, we finally found an expert that was able to run an audit on our premises and to finally certify our compliance to the ten principles of fair trade.

What is your typical day at the office like?

To be honest I travel most of the time. When in Amsterdam, I spend most of my time in our shop. We do not have a typical office, but instead transformed our flagship store into an open working space/atelier where customers can purchase our collection and meet us as well as witness all parts of our work. I am typically in the atelier/shop from 10 am to 6 pm and I usually run all meetings in our premises as well. But most importantly, it is located 300 metres away from my son’s school and it is where he runs to after he finishes his lessons. Finding balance between family and work is a constant struggle, but merging them is essential to well-being, I believe.

What do you enjoy most in running SeeMe?

The part I love the most is meeting our customers directly. I am never tired of telling the story of our jewellery and it’s always amazing to see people’s reaction to it.

Which are your three biggest headaches at work right now?

Product development: how to re-invent the heart, translate it into new fashion designs while staying true to our iconic symbol. Expanding our retailer distribution while making sure the story behind the jewellery is clearly presented by them. Forging, as some brands are starting to copy the heart and we are afraid that it will get mainstreamed without any consideration for the ethical luxury aspect that we stand to promote.

Are there any new retail concepts/initiatives that have caught your attention recently?

Small boutique shops always fascinate me. The kind of little gems you find in each city. In Amsterdam, where I live, sometimes I like wander around the centre and discover treasure caves like Restored and HutSpot, for instance, a store that gives space to young designers.

When it comes to fashion and business news, what's on your daily reading list? Any great business books you'd like to recommend?

The E Myth: Why Most Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It. This book opened my eyes as to what the reality of owning/operating a business is. Interestingly enough, it also attempts at explaining how to get your business to run without you. A success factor but also a limitation for a business run by someone with a strong personality.

Could you tell us about the biggest setback you have faced in your career? How did you respond to it?

The biggest setback was when I realised that it was very difficult to measure the concrete impact of the work I was doing as a development aid manager. I felt that I was just talking about making a difference rather that actually making one. I realised at that time that my life was not going to a direction I wanted, so I resigned and started SeeMe. I can now see with my eyes the real impact of my job in the lives of the people involved in my company and I struggle to improve theirs as well as mine.

What is the most solid, specific piece of advice you have for anyone wishing to start their own brand?

Dare. And, in case of doubt, dare again. It doesn’t matter if it is not perfect, sometimes a little jump into the uncertain can reveal new opportunities never explored. And be prepared to have countless sleepless nights and incredible doubts. But most of all, never forget to have fun in the process.

Looking back, is there anything that you would do differently when it comes to running SeeMe?

Well yes, I wish I could have hired a professional sales manager from the start.

Could you please tell us about your business priorities in the next six months? What are your plans?

Now that I can finally count on a strong team, we can expand into new markets with our classical collection while releasing a new one to feed the interest and the aesthetic demands of our premium retailers. And, last but not least, we are planning beautiful collaborations and exclusive collections. For now, I can only disclose that there will be a special heart for Valentine’s at Colette!

Who would you like to recommend next for My Work?

Stefano Martinetto, CEO at Tomorrow London Limited.

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