The story of Salvatore Ferragamo and the eponymous fashion empire this son of Italy’s south built in the first decades of the 20th century shows you where sheer will can take you. In Salvatore’s case, and that of the close-knit clan that has since followed in his footsteps, talent and vision, energy and hard work, and a relentless drive for excellence and elegance have also been part of the secret sauce. But the spark was Salvatore, a creative force who succeeded against the odds to rise to prominence and never looked back. The Ferragamo brand Salvatore formally established in 1927 in Florence, is today a 1.3 billion-euro enterprise with 4,000 employees and a presence in 90 countries.
The Ferragamo story is fascinating on so many levels, not the least of which is the backstory of Salvatore’s journey as an immigrant. It is an important and timely aspect of the narrative at a moment in history when a harsh light is being cast on immigration.
Young Salvatore emigrated to the U.S. in 1914, one of the 4 million Italians who left Italy between 1880 and 1924. Unlike the multitudes, he returned 13 years later, in 1927, as the legendary “shoemaker to the stars” of Hollywood. It was an unlikely rise for a man with humble roots and what some might consider a humble craft. No matter, because Salvatore had elevated it to artistry.
He was born in 1898, the 11th of 14 children. He had begun seeking out a better life even before he left Italy, traveling to Naples, about 60 miles west of his native Campanian village of Bonito, to serve as a master shoemaker’s apprentice at the age of 11. He had a natural talent for the craft and put it to the test as soon as he was able. At 13, he had his own shop in his parents’ home, eventually employing six workers.
When a brother who had already emigrated to the U.S. wrote home about his job in a Boston shoe factory and the good life he had found in America, Salvatore, now 16, left to join him. Salvatore quickly found that industrial shoe manufacturing was not for him. He packed his bags for California, going first to Santa Barbara to join another brother who had also emigrated and worked as a “suit presser” at the Flying A Studio. More than 1,000 silent films were made here between 1912 and 1921. Actors need shoes and boots as well as repairs, so the Ferragamo brothers opened a shop, primarily to cater to the studio. When another brother arrived from Italy, he, too, worked at the shop. But when the studio closed, the custom shoe design and production business dried up. Salvatore defined himself by the quality of his custom work, (not repairs!), so he packed up once again, this time for Hollywood, where his Hollywood Boot Shop, became the shoe provider of choice for the stars of the silver screen. He worked with the directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and artists ranging from Mary Pickford, Pola Negri and Charlie Chaplin to Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Valentino. All were regular customers.
Return to Italy
Salvatore couldn’t keep up with demand. He next took his well-earned reputation and himself back to Italy in 1927, in search of master craftsmen who could fulfill orders for his star-studded client list. He found the talent he needed in Florence and settled there.
Once again, his business thrived. Ever the innovator, Salvatore applied assembly line concepts to the manual production of custom-made shoes, so his craftsmen could produce a sufficient supply for the U.S. export market. Two years later, when the Great Depression brought his business to a halt, he shifted gears and concentrated on the domestic market. By 1936, his business rebounded. He rented two workshops and a nearby retail shop in Palazzo Spini Feroni, which had been built in 1289 by a financial backer to Pope Boniface VIII. (A small historical note: It was Boniface VIII who had banished Dante to exile for supporting papal limitations; Dante responded by placing Boniface in his Divine Comedy’s Eighth Circle of Hell). The building had most recently served as an office for the municipality of Florence.
Salvatore turned out spellbinding creations in the ‘30s, including the gold strapped, rainbow corked wedge he designed for Judy Garland. His reputation continued to build as did his business, so much so that in 1938 he managed to buy the Palazzo Spini Feroni, paying for it in installments. The building on Via dei Tornbuoni has been Ferragamo’s headquarters and flagship store ever since. It is also the site of the Ferragamo Museum and the new exhibit, "Italy in Hollywood," which runs through March 2019.
In 1940, at the age of 42, he married 18-year old Wanda Miletti, the daughter of the local doctor in Bonito. Six children were born -- three sons and three daughters -- all of whom would eventually hold management roles in the family firm.
In the years after WWII, Ferragamo had expanded his workforce to 700 craftsmen who produced 350 pairs of hand-made shoes a day. More Ferragamo inventions ensued: there were the famous ballerina flats, the four-inch, metal-reinforced stiletto heels that Marilyn Monroe famously wore as she stood over the subway grate in her billowing, white halter dress in The Seven Year Itch, and the award-winning “invisible” sandals with nylon thread uppers. Ferragamo’s shoes were architectural masterpieces, at once sexy, inspiring and comfortable because of how they were structured: He had had studied human anatomy in California and discovered that the body distributes its weight over a 5cm area in the foot's arch and so he invented and patented a 12cm steel shank, inserting it into flat of women's heels to support the arch. The celebrities kept coming. Greta Garbo, Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and Katherine Hepburn all considered Ferragamo their go-to designer.
Ferragamo was at the top of his career: 20,000 original shoe models created with 350 types under patent. Wanda and Salvatore were raising their children in a charming palazzo in Fiesole. Life was good, but then came misfortune: Salvatore was diagnosed with liver cancer and passed away in 1960, aged 62. Wanda, then 38, not only had the children to raise (the eldest was 19 and the youngest was two) but a business to run.
Before he died, Salvatore expressed his desire that their children work for the company and extend the Ferragamo name beyond shoes. Now in her late nineties, Wanda is credited with leading the diversification into handbags and leather goods, men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, silks and accessories, and fragrances, all of which are still completely made in Italy. Later would come licensing for eyeglasses and watches.
Fast forward to 2018
Ferragamo is now a global lifestyle brand that extends to hospitality and leisure. Ferragamo family members run the sumptuous Il Borro and Castiglion del Bosco, Tuscan estates painstakingly renovated to retain their original soul and spirit, replete with rental villas, vineyards, olive groves, and golf courses. There are five-star hotels in Florence and Rome under the Lungarno brand, and even a sailboat building company.
Ferragamo was was listed on the Milan Stock Exchange in 2011 and remains majority (70%) owned by the family. Ferruccio, eldest son the founder, is Executive Chairman; Ferruccio’s son, 46-year old son James, New York University-educated, is vice chairman. Micaela Le Divelec Lemmi, who spent 20 years working for Kering, became CEO this July. There’s work to be done to improve sales and financial performance after recent designer and external management churn. Ferragamo, like other family-owned Italian luxury firms, has struggled to grow in a crowded, mercurial, e-commerce crazed fashion market dominated by conglomerates such as French-owned Kering and LVMH, and Swiss-owned Richemont.
Ferragamo may be rooted in a storied past, but the company’s collective eye is very much focused on the future. In a 2013 interview, James Ferragamo said: "So many times people talk about Ferragamo and how their mother wears it.” That’s fine, he said, “but we want the younger customer. People need to see Ferragamo as an innovator." Founder Salvatore had that gene in abundance, so the family is in good shape.
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