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Salvatore Ferragammo had Hollywood wooed and shoed with an artistry that keeps competitors hot on his heels...

Although Salvatore Ferragamo made literally thousands of pairs of shoes in his lifetime, his first two were perhaps the most significant. Barely nine years old, the eleventh child of a family of fourteen brothers and sisters, Salvatore was so taken by the plight of his mother in not being able to provide new shoes for his sister Giuseppina's First Communion, that he collected scraps of discarded white canvas, cardboard tacks, two small lasts and some glue from the local cobbler and made up two pairs of shoes overnight.

Hardly the most auspicious beginning for a man who would go on to shoe the feet of people of the calibre of Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, and the members of most of the Royal Households of Europe, but of sufficient impact to convince his parents Antonio and Mariantonia, to let him be apprenticed to be village cobbler, Luigi Festa.

In his autobiography aptly titled Shoemaker of Dreams, Salvatore Ferragamo attributes this episode in his early life to beginning his life-long search for the realisation of a personal dream.

"My father was a man of vision", says one of his three daughters Fulvia. "He knew from an early age that what he wanted from his life was to produce the very best shoes he could. But not just shoes; more works of art for feet. Even as a boy in his native town of Bonito my father had a passion for shoe-making. His earliest dreams were to make shoes that were the best fitting in the world".

In charge of the design, conceptualisation and marketing of all accessories for the Ferragamo label, Fulvia remembers her late father as a man driven by the need to revolutionise the world of footwear. It was not enough for her father to make shoes; he had to create shoes in keeping with the very personality of the person for whom they were intended. In his hands, a last became the basis for artistic expression of the highest order. Yet despite, or perhaps because of his best ideals, Salvatore Ferragamo was for a long time a prisoner of both his genius and his poverty.

"I was born to be a shoemaker. I know it; I have always known it", wrote Salvatore in his autobiography, yet he knew too that Bonito, a town outside of Naples in Southern Italy, was not the place for men of ambition. At the time of Ferragamo's birth in 1898, Bonito was much as it had been for centuries before; a sleepy, rural town populated by men and women for whom ambition was a matter of marriage, children and a life on the land.

"Life was hard for people in Italy, as in most of Europe at that time", continues his daughter. "Yet my father had a passion that would not be denied. He was only schooled to the age of nine, but by then he knew that what mattered for him was not formal education, but learning how to make shoes. I can't explain his passion any more than I think he could. It was like many things in life are - inexplicable".

The white shoes Salvatore Ferragamo made one night in 1907 for his sisters Giuseppina and Rosina are long since lost, but not the admiration for the tenacity that even then drove his enterprise and, led to the creation of a family business that today touches on most areas of fashion: from the lifeblood which are the shoes, to accessories and rugs. A recent retrospective held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London brought together much of the history of Ferragamo; both the man and the dream.

It was, in the words of one commentator, "like walking back through time to the very beginnings of the modern shoe industry". Handmade lasts belonging to the seemingly endless admirers of his art - a list which reads like a virtual Who's Who of the movie, stage, industrial and political arenas of the 30's and 40's and 50's. Alongside these were many of the originals of Ferragamo's earlier works, stored for decades in the company's headquarters in Florence's Palazzo Feroni on the advice of Salvatore himself.

But Ferragamo, it seems, was less interested in fame as he was in making sure that his product was the very best it could be. As far back as the period of his apprenticeship, Salvatore was intent on refining the existing methods of shoe production, and by age fourteen had exhausted every avenue open to a young shoe-maker in Italy. Having learned the art of making a pair of shoes from scratch, in between looking after Signor Festa's children when not sweeping out the maestro's tiny workshop or hammering bent nails straight again, Salvatore was running his own business from the kitchen of his parents tiny house at the age of fourteen, employing a team of six cobblers all older than he, to make shoes for all the leading ladies of the village; including the mother of his future bride. Frustrated with the lack of real opportunity in his home town, and disappointed by the less than enthusiastic reaction he received when trying to sell his talents to a cynical market in Naples, Salvatore finally decided to join his older brothers in the United States in 1916.

"His brothers Alfonso and Secondino had gone to the United States at roughly the same age", remembers Fulvia. "It was inevitable, given the poverty of the times, and the hope that was so much a part of America back then. But it would prove for my father a most decisive period, particularly as it put him in touch with the Hollywood of the Twenties; a time of growth and excitement for the movie industry".

On reflection, Salvatore Ferragamo can be excused for not placing too much hope in his American prospects, despite the fact that his brother Alfonso had brought to his attention, the new machinery at the then Queen Quality Shoe Company for whom he worked; machinery capable of mass producing shoes. It was in Salvatore's own words, a situation of many shoes but very little craftsmanship. And as for Hollywood, it was little more than "a village in the sun". Significantly enough though this little village in the sun would prove to be the catalyst for Ferragamo's insatiable curiosity in all things to do with shoes.

It was on the advice of his brother Alfonso that Salvatore approached a Prop Designer for the then American Film Studios - later to become Twentieth Century Fox, and offered his services to make boots and shoes for the Westerns then so much in vogue. The prop man had been so disgusted by the poor state of the look given to his actors feet in these movies that he took the young Ferragamo on, introducing him to the likes of directors David Wark Griffith, James Greuze and Cecil B. De Mille. It was Salvatore Ferragamo who in fact shod the feet of the actors in De Mille's legendary classic The Ten Commandments, and invented what was to become known as the Roman Sandal.

But if Salvatore was impressed by the opportunity of working with such illustrious men as these, he was bitterly disappointed with the quality of the shoes being produced en masse by the large American shoe manufacturers. "In my father's eyes these shoes lacked the grace and style that came with making shoes by hand. He found them heavy and not anywhere near the quality of handmade shoes", Fulvia explains.

Still, the exposure given the Ferragamo brothers through their contacts with the Hollywood movie studios gave them leeway for developing the unique Ferragamo style. From their workshop in Santa Barbara, the brothers began to get orders for Salvatore's shoes from the names of Hollywood; amongst them; Valentino, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Paulette Goddard and Jean Harlow the latter in fact, kicked a pair of Ferragamo's shoes out of her hotel window on the evening of the premier of her movie Hell's Angels, when they turned out not to be exactly what she had ordered. Moving their operations to Hollywood itself, the Ferragamo's were becoming unceasingly busy but in a continuous effort to evolve his own knowledge, Salvatore found the time during his stay in America to study chemistry and anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Los Angeles respectively.

"There was an ambition within my father to know everything he could about feet in order that he be able to then create shoes that would be as close as possible to perfection", recalls Fulvia. "Studying the anatomy of feet was no strange thing for him. It was simply part of his desire to be the best at what he did. What he discovered through his studies, was that the deformities of the feet so often attributed to hereditary factors were indeed attributable in a large part to poor shoe making. Usually shoes were constructed so that the weight of your body went either to the toe or the heel. What my father discovered was that if shoes were designed so that the weight was put on the arch of the foot, many, many problems associated with the feet could be reduced or even eliminated. This was my father's discovery and his concept; if the weight goes to the toes or the heel one can never be comfortable in shoes, no matter how impressive they look.

"The problem my father faced was that once this discovery was applied to his creations the demand for his shoes outstripped supply", continues Fulvia. "He had to meet this growing demand if he was to succeed, and yet because of what he had seen of the quality of the mass-produced shoes, he did not want to use machinery in the making of his shoes".

"I love feet", Salvatore was fond of saying, "They talk to me. As I take them in my hands I feel their strengths, their weaknesses, their vitality or their failings...What do I mean when I say that feet talk to me? Just that; they communicate the character of the person". What Salvatore wanted to achieve beyond all else was a matching of the individual's personality to the contours and dimensions of the shoe. In his educated opinion, the shape of a person's feet said much about the person. As an instance, he cited a meeting with Anita Loos to measure the then unknown writer for a pair of shoes, and commenting to her that her feet were those of someone destined for great things. As it turned out Loos went on to write countless screenplays and works, one of which is also one of cinema's most memorable Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Coincidence or not, the story is indicative of Salvatore Ferragamo's implicit belief in his innate understanding of the anatomy and psychology of feet; an understanding he spent an entire lifetime translating into shoes.

"My father was very successful in the United States", explains Fuliva. "But by 1927, he realised that he could not meet the growing demand for his shoes without adopting the technology that was then in use by the major shoes manufacturers. Yet rather than compromise the quality of his creations, my father made a bold move; he moved back to Italy and went in search of artisans he could train in the specific requirements of his dream. And that dream was to produce quality footwear for as many people as possible. In the process, he went on to become one of the very first Italian shoe designers of note".

The return to Italy marks the beginning of Salvatore Ferragamo's most creative and acclaimed period. Bolstered by the success of his American venture, and inspired by the abundance of creative output that everywhere surrounded him in Hollywood, Salvatore took back to Bonito a desire to set his shoes apart from all others then available. Unable to find the cooperation he desired from artisans in his hometown, Ferragamo finally found the craftsmen of Florence sharing both his enthusiasm and dedication to make shoes of distinction. Unfortunately for Salvatore however, the cohesion between craftsman and boss disintegrated when Ferragamo insisted they follow his directions to the letter, and by 1933 the Ferragamo enterprise was bankrupt as orders went unfilled, and creditors foreclosed on him.


It was a turning point in Salvatore's attitude toward his business. Never again would he ask for outside financing for his projects, nor would he employ anyone but previously untrained individuals as part of his team. So decided, Ferragamo dedicated himself to recruiting young men left unemployed due to a downturn in the Italian economy and set about training them to his exacting standards. It was a time too for moving; both physically and conceptually. The first step was achieved by shifting the entire Ferragamo operation to Palazzo Feroni built in 1288 by leading Florentine architect Lado Tedesco; the second was the influence of the Futuristic Movement then sweeping through Italy alongside the rise of Fascism.

Mussolini's protracted war in Ethiopia drew the lifeblood out of the Italian economy and created shortages in every facet of Italian life; including steel which until then had been an integral part of the Ferragamo design in producing reinforced arches for his innovative shoes. for Ferragamo the stringency of the shortages was a blessing in disguise, for it led to his most significant development; the wedgie.

"My father had begun to experiment with different materials around that period", explains Fulvia. "There was a very real shortage in the materials he had used up to that time, and out of necessity came perhaps his greatest invention to date, what the American's called the leftie, a shoe in which the space between the sole and the heel was filled with cork".

According to Salvatore's memoirs the Cork Shoe was inspired by a box of chocolates and a wedge of Sardinian cork. the transparent cellophane wrapping around the individual chocolates gave Ferragamo an idea for a replacement for the materials he couldn't get to give support and strength to the tope of his shoes. by twisting strands of cellophane together, Ferragamo achieved a multitude of visual effects for his innovative designs, whilst the cork was more than suitable for replacing the steel which until then had been used to carry the body's weight on the arches.

The result was instant recognition, and more importantly at that stage in his career, instant cash flow as Americans in particular bought up big whatever quantities and style of wedgie Ferragamo and his small but dedicated team could produce. Ironically, workmen excavating the ruins of the home of Italian literary figure Boccaccio near Florence, found shoes worn by women of the 1300's very similar in design to Salvatore Ferragamo's inspired creations. "Perhaps in a previous existence", Ferragamo said at the time, "I designed them and in my new life remembered them".

Whatever the explanation for the inspiration, the fact remains that the wedgie went on to establish the Ferragamo name world-wide, establishing Salvatore as the undisputed leader in the Italian shoe industry. By 1939, only six years after being declared bankrupt, Salvatore Ferragamo's shoes were selling in Britain, Holland, Switzerland, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Canada, and Australia as well as America. The Italians too, had begun to accept Ferragamo shoes as their own, and this interest in turn put Ferragamo at the forefront of the push for the recognition of Italian goods world-wide known as the Made in Italy campaign, a campaign spearheaded by many involved in the Futuristic Movement of which Salvatore Ferragamo had become such an integral part with his reworking of classic styles.

"It was a very important period for our company", continues Fulvia. "My father now had people from all over the world coming to him for their shoes. One day in particular, that he often spoke to us about was the day in the Rome salon when there were four Queens all in the room at the same time; the Queens of Yugoslavia, Greece, Spain and the Belgians. In his autobiography Salvatore Ferragamo writes of Mussolini losing his corns and bad toe-nails after he wore my boots", and Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, coming into his salon accompanied by Nazi guards.

A period of great prosperity for Ferragamo it too, like his Hollywood period was short lived, for as the man himself writes, "within weeks [of Mussolini striking France] I was virtually unemployed...Supplies of my materials first dwindled and then ceased". Ferragamo was 42 years old, on the crest of a wave of popularity and suddenly unemployed.

"In order to survive the way, my father made a point of adapting whatever materials were available so that his name could continue to be in the public eye", reflects Fulvia. "He married our mother Wanda in 1940, and she really became a great positive influence on his creativity. In fact she was from his home town, and he had made shoes for her mother as a young man". The German High Command had taken over his villa, materials were again in short supply, and yet the tenacity that had motivated Salvatore Ferragamo to produce that first pair of white shoes all those years before, now reasserted itself and drove him to new heights of creativity.

Hesian, cork, felt and pressed silk became Ferragamo trademarks; as did his use of mirror glass, rope and cellophane. The early Forties became a time of vigorous experimentation, and by the end of the war, Ferragamo had made such an inroad into the general fashion consciousness that he was awarded the highly prestigious Neiman Marcus Award for contributions to the world of fashion - the first time a shoemaker had been so honoured. The award was made even more important and significant because it was shared in that same year - 1947, with Christian Dior, Irene of Hollywood, and Norman Hartnell couturier to Her Majesty the Queen of England. In accepting his award in the United States, Ferragamo returned to a country in the grips of an insatiable appetite for his shoes.

Almost singlehandedly, Ferragamo had revived Italian classicism, harmonizing the glorious tradition of artisan craftsmanship with inventiveness. He led the move back to high heeled shoes for women; impregnating heels with pearls and precious stones in an effort to modernise classic lines, and adopting exotic materials such as sea-leopard, snakeskin and of course his signature material, cork. His clients again included the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. As in the case of the latter two screen icons, Ferragamo often created shoes that became as much a part of their image as was their on-screen persona; flat-heeled brogues for Garbo, slinky, sensual stiletto heels for Monroe.

As though by design, Dior fashions and Ferragamo shoes became complimentary, despite the fact that the two men had never met before the Neiman Marcus Award. It became the height of fashion chic to be seen in to-to-toe creations by these two Goliath figures of the fashion world. In the words of Vogue founder/editor Madge Garland, "Ferragamo shoes had become undeniably chic...and as soft and easy to wear as a pair of gloves". Not a bad effort for a poor boy from Bonito whose parents had held greater aspirations for their son than making shoes for a living.

"The most celebrated shoe of that era was undoubtedly what became known as the Invisible Shoe", points out Fulvia. Designed so that the top of the shoe was transparent, this conceptualisation of a shoe of the future confirmed Ferragamo's reputation as the undisputed leader in the area of shoe design and innovation. He was to follow this radical design with others which were just as conceptually arresting; an instance of which is the Kimo; a shoe in two parts comprising of a sandal bottom and a sock upper in coloured leather. Then there were the shoes with transparent mica soles, shoes embroidered with microscopic beads and even shoes in ostrich and kangaroo skins.

If the late Forties had afforded Salvatore Ferragamo enormous satisfaction for the creativity of his genius, the Fifties saw him recognised as a fashion institution to be admired in the same awe-inspiring manner as a Dior or an Elsa Schiaparelli. Yet success extracted its own price; for Ferragamo it was that demand soon outstripped supply, and the dedication for making every pair of Ferragamo shoes totally by hand was costing him money and perhaps more importantly, a larger slice of the market. With potential customers impatient to wait long periods for a tailor made pair of shoes in a world becoming increasingly more fast-paced, Ferragamo was faced for the second time in his career with the decision to either meet the increased demand for his product by incorporating technology into his operations, or losing sales. After rejecting an offer by an American company to sell his name for the then kingly sum of $50,000, Salvatore Ferragamo finally found a solution to suit his particular demands and expectations.

"My father was a man of great dedication", explains Fuliva. "He knew the reputation that went with every pair of shoes to carry his family name. Therefore it was not easy for him to give liberty to just anyone to manufacture shoes as they saw fit; he wanted to be sure that shoes produced under his name were indeed shoes of distinction". With this in mind, and faced with having to meet ever-increasing demand Salvatore Ferragamo finally relented on the idea of introducing machinery to take on part of the work until then done only by trained artisans.

The contract for this last phase of Ferragamo shoes to take place under Salvatore's direct control before his untimely death from cancer in 1960, went to an English firm. The compromise achieved was that while 40% of the shoe would be made by machines, 60% would always still be undertaken by craftsmen. It was a compromise that suited Ferragamo's sense of history and tradition, and while meeting the ever increasing demand for his creations, was the genesis for what today is a flourishing and diverse fashion industry of which shoes are but one part.

"Those early years after my father's death were hard on my mother", says Fulvia. "All of we six children felt our father's absence. And yet we had a sense that we had to keep his dream of clothing women top to toe alive. Over the years of course, we have expanded this dream to include men more and more. One of my areas of responsibility for example includes men's ties, so we have aimed at maintaining the high standard for quality that our father set, while at the same time expanding the product range. One of the problems we face is not all that different from the one my father faced many times; the lack of trained artisans to carry on the craft.

"Shoes are such that their fashion can be dictated or translated by things as simple as the length of a skirt, or the cut of a suit", continues Fulvia. "As fashion dictates within the clothing industry change so too do we. But fortunately because we tend to deal with classic styles we are not as restricted in what we do as are those whose primary concern is fashion.

We involve ourselves in a quality, classic product. In this way our products are universal, and we can sell the same product all over the world". Indeed Salvatore Ferragamo - whose eldest daughter Fiamma coincidently was also awarded the famed Neiman Marcus Plaque for contributions to fashion exactly twenty years after her father, commented on the impact of fashion trends upon his work by stating that, [whilst] I change the style just sufficiently to capture the new fashion consciousness as it arises in women, [it] nonetheless happens that [occasionally] I leap ahead".

"Shoes", says Fulvia with a final smile of approval, "should represent the character of the designer as much as they do the character of the wearer. You must feel happy with what you are wearing because people often respond to you according to the manner in which you are dressed, and the shoes you have elected to wear. In the end however, it is as my father had always stressed, that fit and comfort are the basis upon which great shoes will ultimately be judged".

 

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