It’s 1907 in Bonito, Italy. You’re nine years old. What do you with your free time? Most children, one would guess, would play street ball with their friends or perhaps tag along with their older brothers and chase girls.
Not Salvatore Ferragamo. At age 9, he made his first pair of shoes for his sisters to wear to their Christian confirmation ceremony. Most brothers wouldn’t want to be dragged to a ceremony, never mind make shoes for their sisters!
Bonito is a village about 100 kms from Naples. In 1998, Salvatore Ferragamo was born as the eleventh child among fourteen. And so, in the mind of a precocious 9 year-old boy, a passion for footwear was Ferragamo worked and learned everything from the ground up. Possessing the inherent knowledge that he must know everything that goes into footwear beyond purely the artistic elements, he studied shoemaking in Naples and eventually opened his first store based out of his parent’s home. From his early days he showed a great passion towards shoes and designs.
When he was 11, he was sent to a shoemaker to learn the art of making shoes. And at 13, he was able to open his own showroom in Bonito. He was sure of his path. He wanted to elevate the modest trade of shoe making and create a high sense of craftsmanship with artistic and utility based perfection.
Success came from a mix all of Ferragamo’s own. Basic repair matched with custom-measured shoes made the Ferragamo family designs an instant hit and at once they were on the Hollywood hot-list and in constant demand.
He was adventurous by nature. He joined one of his elder brothers working for a famous footwear company in Boston, at the age of fourteen. He was awe-struck by the modern machinery and techniques. But at the same time he was not happy with quality that resulted. He moved to Santa Barbara in California in his early twenties to meet and join another brother of his. There he was able to open a shoe repair shop.
Shoemaker by 13
California with its film industry was supposed to be the dreamland of all. Salvatore began to make cowboy boots for westerns. And also Roman and Egyptian sandals for epics by major producers and directors. The comfort of Salvatore’s shoes soon became talk of the town. Many film personalities came to know about it and began to order them and own a collection of their own. In the meantime, Salvatore studied chemical engineering, human anatomy and mathematics in Los Angeles to be able to produce shoes that fit perfectly.
In 1923 Salvatore moved on to Hollywood where he opened the ‘Hollywood Boot Shop’ that labeled him as the shoemaker of the stars. He had many devoted customers like Rudolf Valentino, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore Jr. and many others. He then opened a showroom with shoes exclusively for women.
Since he couldn’t keep up to the demands in the US, he returned to Florence, Italy in 1927. Florence was rich in traditionally skilled craftsmen. He began to produce shoes from here and also was able to export them to the US. Though there was an Italian crisis in 1929, by 1936 he was able to rent two shops in Palazzo Spini Feroni, in Via Tornabuoni. During this period he made his most celebrated designs like the ‘wedges’. He also used several innovative stuffs like wood, cork, metal wire, felt, raffia, and glass-like synthetic resins to make shoes.
In 1938, his success led him towards his company headquarters Palazzo Spini Feroni. This was followed by the purchase of ‘II Palagio’ a villa. He married Wanda Miletti in 1940. They have six children altogether.
In the period post war, Salvatore shoes were the symbol of Italy’s renovation. He made many inventions like the stiletto heels which were worn by Marlyn Monroe, the gold sandals etc. The ‘invisible sandals’ which won the ‘Neiman Marcus Award’ in 1947. His company employed about 700 craftsmen by 1950. Success came to him through his famous shop: the Via Tornabuoni which was visited by well known personalities like Sofia Loren Greta Garbo, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Anna Magnani and Audrey Hepburn.
In 1960, Italy lost the great designer.
His Daughter Fiamma
The precious legacy was carried onward by his wife and eldest daughter, Fiamma. She was only 16 when she started working for the company. Her first collection was launched in London in 1961. She was the head for the creative section for ladies until her death in 1998. She received many prestigious awards during her lifetime. They include the ‘Saks Fifth Avenue Award’, ‘Neiman Marcus Italian Fortnight’, ‘Designer of the Year’ etc. She was the creator of the ‘Vara’ shoes in 1978 that is still in production.
After Salvatore’s death, Wanda his wife found herself the head of the company. With her able leadership she was able to make the company into a luxury symbol. She too received many awards for her outstanding contributions in Italy and other countries. She was the ‘International Woman of the Year’ in 1982. She was the knight of the year in 1987; in 1991 she received the ‘Fashion Group Award’ and many more. She was declared the ‘2002 Entrepreneurial Champion’ and also nominated as the ‘Cavaliere di Gran Croce’ by the President of the Italian Republic. Today she chairs the meetings of the board of directors.
The Headquarters – Palazzo Spini Feroni
The Palazzo Spini Feroni has been the headquarters of Salvatore Ferragamo from 1938. The flagship store occupies the ground floor. There are also showrooms and offices of the members of the family. The Palazzo Spini Feroni also has the Museum of Salvatore Ferragamo since 1995 and displays some of the revolutionary collections and designs by Ferragamo.
Much More than a Shoemaker
The worthiness of the company was proved by creating the most perfect pair of Cindrella Shoes. These went into auction with an astounding price of 20,000 pounds. The shoes contained a diamond studded symbol ‘Gancino’ of the fashion house. These sandals were donated by Ferragamo and were laid for auction in aid of Elton John’s AIDS Foundation. Other than designer shoes he also produced stunning hand-made designs of luxury goods for women and men as well. They have stores in many other cities of the world.
His two sons, James and Salvatore run the Ferragamo Company today. From a mere 350 number, the company today produces about 10.000 pairs of shoes daily. Though industrialization has helped to cope to the demands, the company still maintains the basic principles held high by its founder. The name Ferragamo has since then been able to compete with any other kind of competitor in the same field. Italian and many other international markets still look out for the extremely popular Ferragamo products.