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