Aperitivo Chat with Chris & Eva of Shabby Sheep Design: On 14 years as British Expats & Starting a Business in Italy

Aperitivo chat: Meet the people behind the passion

The Italians know that nothing pairs better with food & wine than good conversation. At the heart of the Italian ritual of aperitivo is connection. That’s what the Italian at Heart ‘Aperitivo Chat’ interview series is all about – a chance to meet Italian & Italian-inspired authors, bloggers, creators, teachers & artisans to learn what fuels their passion.

So grab your favorite drink, pull up a chair, and join the conversation with Chris & Eva, the dynamic duo behind Shabby Sheep Design, apparel designed with love for Italy and a very witty British sense of humor (or shall I say humour 😉 )!

I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a real life aperitivo with Chris & Eva twice now, in the Cinque Terre and at their home in the Lunigiana region of Tuscany. I absolutely love their spirit and enthusiasm for life, and especially Italy, good food, and Spritz! Please join us for an aperitivo chat and get to know Chris, Eva & Shabby Sheep Design a little better.

Ciao Chris & Eva! Thank you for chatting with us today. It’s been 14 years since you left your native Cotswolds, UK to become “immigrants” in Italy (your preferred term over “expats” since you came here to better your lives with the view of integrating and making Italy your permanent home). What initially sparked your desire to live in Italy, and what keeps you here 14 years later? How has Italy improved your day-to-day life? Spill the beans, does the ‘Dolce Vita’ really exist, or is it a mythical unicorn?

It may sound like an odd reply, but a lot of it was down to the fact that we had up until that point holidayed extensively in France and Spain. We felt we’d grasped the essence of what life might be like in each of those countries but after a couple of ski holidays in Italy we began to recognise that we felt more in tune with Italy. But it took us years to move from thinking it would be great to live there to actually achieving it – ‘piano, piano’ they say! – buy let’s face it Italy is probably the best place in the world you could live, so it’s worth waiting for!

Shabby Sheep Design Born to Gelato Tee
Chris of Shabby Sheep Design

We’re not huge fans of the phrase ‘la dolce vita’ because ‘la vita’ can be ‘dolce’ wherever you live and whatever you’re doing. For sure we eat better, live slower, are more connected with nature, were able to afford a better place to live than we could ever have hoped for in the UK, but the contentment, true contentment comes from within. We have made an effort to learn the language, get to know our neighbours and make new connections, so whilst we cannot say that we have completely assimilated our lives here we have become very much a part of the local community. 

Lazzaro & Eva

But you need to remember that the mundane things in life are mundane even in Italy and can be even more irksome when you are not ‘native’. We’re talking about things like dealing with Utility Companies, and trying to swim against the tide of bureaucracy that Italy is so famous for. When you come and spend a few weeks in Italy on holiday you never experience any of this, but anyone living here will probably tell you that for everyday living the ‘dolce vita’ there is another spent tearing your hair out!  Nevertheless we count ourselves amongst the luckiest people in the world and not a day goes by when we don’t remind ourselves of that fact.

I can personally vouch that you have made good on that promise to integrate into Italian society. From jovial exchanges with the waiters in fluent Italian and pranzo di lavoro amongst the locals, mastering the art of aperitivo, and cooking an excellent cinghiale (wild boar) supper, your interactions seem effortless. Did you experience any initial culture shock or challenges in the early days? What is the key mindset that immigrants must adopt to adjust to daily life in Italy? In other words, do you have any advice for others aspiring to leave it all behind for ‘La Dolce Vita’

Thanks Kelly – glad you enjoyed the cinghiale. We are surrounded by chestnut forests which make an ideal habitat for wild boar. The hunting season runs from October through to December each year and during that time you can guarantee a lot of activity for the local sqaudra di caccia. The joint of cinghiale we cooked for you was a present from a friend who actually prefers to go hunting alone with his dogs rather than en masse. We respect him for that.

The culture shocks can be huge and can still creep up on you after 14 years here and take you by surprise! Our bit of Italy can be hyper charged and hyper relaxed. The values are different, there’s way more emphasis on the family, on eating well and taking proper time out to do it – hence the ‘pranzo di lavoro’ where workers like plumbers and electricians etc can stop for an hour and eat cheaply and well, in company rather than having to a sandwich and a bag of potato chips alone in their van.

Chris’s excellent cinghiale (wild boar)

The key mindset could be ‘yes hang on to all you’ve learned in your home country because that’s what has defined you, but get ready to have to re-calibrate just about all your internal points of reference!’ If you don’t you’re going to stick out like a Hippy at a Bikers’ Convention. And get mighty frustrated too when things don’t play out the way you’re used to.

One thing I LOVE is the British sense of humor, which I have to say Shabby Sheep Design apparel exemplifies very well! Are there any other English habits that you still keep while living in Italy? How do you deal with the occasional bout of homesickness, if it still occurs? 

Thanks for the positivity Kelly – btw not all British people carry a sense of humour, but we know what you mean. It’s certainly core to us and to Shabby too. The Brits are also known for their punctuality and sense of fair play. Both of those can be challenged on a daily basis. Queue jumping is an art form in Italy – but Eva has mastered it now and can even talk her way in front of the most experienced old ladies at the Poste Italiane!!

To be honest we rarely get homesick for the UK. But on the rare occasions when we do it’s usually based around food (my goodness how we miss watercress!!) or having a laugh with friends more frequently than just when they visit us. Chris especially admits to occasionally missing the chance to go to an English pub, have a few pints of bitter and listen to a live band. Whilst there are some pretty decent Artiginale beers being brewed now in Italy the live music scene around us and possibly across most of Italy is not in a healthy state and it’s a rare treat to get to see an upcoming band live.

You’ve made your home the rugged & rural Lunigiana region of Italy – in Northern Tuscany right along the border with Liguria. Is there anything that drew you to this region and rural life in particular? What do you love most about living in Lunigiana?

It’s just situated perfectly between the Tuscan and Lugurian coast and the mountains and hills and forests. The connection with nature is palpable. It is an area not greatly affected by tourism despite the fact it’s really well located with great connections to Pisa and Genova airports (1 hour by car) and likewise up to Parma the same sort of distance. Plus it’s like the place has been caught in a time warp of 50 years back and we loved the thought of being able to work our own land and get back to nature a bit more.

Lunigiana, Tuscany

Let’s talk about your apparel line Shabby Sheep Design – inspired by Italian icons like gelato, prosecco & spritz. Is there a story behind the name – Shabby Sheep Design? (You know how much I love sheep and have to resist cuddling them, lol!) 

Stay away from the sheep Kelly or you’ll get ticks!!

We originally thought the business would focus on more general humorous designs – but there is already too much of that sort of thing all over the internet. So we wanted to develop a brand identity and Eva came up with Shabby Sheep Chic which over a few weeks evolved into Shabby Sheep Design. We actually think that the two of us are a bit Shabby Chic – a bit tired, with hints of bygone style!! 🙂 Our designs are more stylish and cute than funny funny and held together by a ‘Love of Italy’.

I love that Eva’s work as a fine artist has been translated into wearable art. What, aside from drinking Spritz (*wink, wink*), sparked the idea to translate art from canvas to apparel? In other words, how was Shabby Sheep Design born? 

Eva’s history after a career in Advertising was as you say was as a fine artist – we ran our own commercial art business in the UK selling bespoke paintings by Eva to commercial  interior designers who managed the interiors for banks, offices, restaurants etc. We even worked in the Film and TV industry selling and renting Eva’s work – look closely and you’ll see Hugh Grant standing in front of one of her pieces in the film ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’!

Office spaces can be BIG spaces and Eva specialised in BIG paintings – the one you see her walking in front of here is 3m x 7m.

Eva, the artist behind Shabby Sheep Design

Of course over the years she’s produced smaller works as well, in response to requests from numerous friends who kept encouraging us to get her work OUT THERE more, which with art is not easy.

We quickly realised that the internet is rammed solid with the kind of general humorous ‘stuff’ we’d been developing and so we set about identifying a ‘niche’ that we truly were knowledgeable about and that we felt we could represent with our sense of ‘design’ and humor. Eva had started developing some smaller Italian themed pieces for one particular exhibition commissioned by our local Mayor and that was a catalyst for the light bulb moment for us to switch medium and embrace new technology to support us take Shabby Sheep to market. The niche we were looking for was right under our noses – it was the very country where we were living. Or more particularly the niche was those people around the world who have a love for Italy or maybe have an Italian family connection like you, Kelly! Maybe the name Shabby Sheep Design doesn’t make it obvious what we’re about, but our strap line of ‘…Italy on a Shirt’ covers that off.

Shabby Sheep Design Vespa

What was the journey to entrepreneurship like in the Italian countryside? Italy might be dolce for vacation, but I presume starting a business in rural Tuscany has its challenges. What challenges did you have to overcome to set up Shabby Sheep Design in Italy? 

Shabby Sheep Design is essentially a digital design lead, tech supported business and so is not really impacted by us living in Lunigiana. But of course for inspiration, being close to the home of Prosecco and the Aperol Spritz helps a lot!

The only things we are 100% dependent on are electricity and the internet. Interestingly enough it was us that brought the internet into all the villages around us about 12 years ago by getting locals to sign a petition encouraging a wireless broadband company to invest in a repeater located on the roof of an agriturismo on the distant hilline. It was pretty fundamental because back then (as now) even landlines and mobile phones don’t work properly. Chris negotiated the whole deal with all the parties involved and because so many people signed up to the new service we had free broadband as opposed to paying a fortune for the Irish satellite service we had previously dependent upon.

We create all the designs digitally from home and upload them to our website. We use a company in the UK to print our products to order and drop ship them on our behalf to customers around the world. That company has a digital link to the platform that powers our website and so can access all our designs. Which means that the whole process happens automatically – so an order from a customer in New York for example for one of our ‘Spritz Me’ t-shirts placed on our website instantly pings over to our UK printer who gets to work on it asap and when the order is ready they ship it on our behalf (in plastic free packaging) using our branding.

Shabby Sheep Design Package
Shabby Sheep Design plastic-free packaging

We did try to find an Italian company to provide us with this Print on Demand service but they just don’t exist as far as we could find. Also, given that so many of our customers are in the US we have investigated using an American based supplier, but the main issue with that would be that we would have to manage a supplier in a very different time zone which would bring problems.

8. The Shabby Sheep Design collection already features apparel from tees, hoodies, totes, hats, towels, and mugs with designs featuring Gelato, Spritz & Prosecco, Caffe, the Cinquecento and Vespa and ‘The Love of Italy!’ What are the latest designs that you have added to the collection? 

Well, funny you should ask Kelly!! We’ve just launched the ‘Pasta Power’ collection which we’ve made available on Kids clothing and Chef’s Aprons initially and they’re going down very well with Mums. Like our earlier designs, we’ll look to grow awareness and sales for these designs organically. To support this we’ve also just launched our Customer Rewards and Tell a Friend Scheme which rewards customers for their support and for spreading the word too.  

We’re also close to launching a brand new set of designs for our ‘Art of Aperitvo’ range based on the classic ‘Negroni’ – so watch this space because they’re going to be ‘hot’.

After that we’re planning to create a series of really ‘arty’ designs based around the major towns and cities of Italy. Of course there’s lots of products out there with ‘I Love Venice ’ written on them, but we promise you the designs which Shabby puts out there will ROCK!

How does it feel to know people around the world are wearing your Italian-inspired designs? 

It’s brilliant Kelly, every time we take an order we do a high five and skip around the kitchen. Our designs make ‘happy’ feel purchases and the fact that people around the world can wear them makes us feel less like two people living up a hill in Tuscany and more connected with the outside world. We get lots of customers sending us photos of themselves wearing whatever they’ve bought from Shabby Sheep Design and that makes the whole thing feel like one big happy family – or maybe that should be Flock!

Shabby Sheep Design
Kelly & Eva at Cantina Lunae

Italian at Heart readers can get a special 15% discount on any Shabby Sheep Design items by using the code ITALIANATHEART15!

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Ciao, I'm Kelly!

Welcome to my adventures in learning Italian, often while cooking authentic Italian recipes and wine tasting! I love discovering the traditional regional cuisine of Italy and trying to recreate those dishes when I'm back home in the US. I'm also on my way to becoming an Italian citizen through jure sanguinis (by ancestry).

WSET Level 2 Certified Wine Blogger

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Join me for a virtual "aperitivo chat" to get exclusive updates on my Italian progress, dual citizenship journey, plus food & wine adventures in the Bel Paese and beyond!

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LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia

Lovely chat, it’s so wonderful reading stories like this and seeing people take a passion and make it into a business – to be doing what you love and on your own terms!

Chris from Shabby Sheep Design

Thanks Lulu for the positivity. πŸ™‚ And thanks Kelly for doing such a great job and producing such a wonderfully polished article. xx

Un po' di pepe
7 months ago

Ciao Kelly
Your spritz fotos left me drooling! Grazie mille for being such a great linky host. We will miss it. Ciao, Cristina

april
7 months ago

such a lovely article, kelly, featuring my good friends, chris & eva! my husband and i are more recent immigrants to this same area, moving from the u.s. to italy in october 2016. we were fortunate to meet and get to know the locks about a year ago.

Jasmine Crystal Mah
Jasmine Crystal Mah
7 months ago

Kelly, I so enjoyed this interview. Sometimes with interviews that are transcribed, you kinda lose momentum reading it but this one I read top to bottom. It was so neat that you got to meet these two, they seem lovely!!!

Kristie Prada
7 months ago

As a fellow Brit I’m fascinated by Chris and Eva’s story. I love how they’ve made it work as a business in Italy, when many, even Italians can’t! Well done them!

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