The Originality and Obsession of Salvatore Ferragamo
Fashion historians and fans alike often contextualize the brilliant, groundbreaking career of Salvatore Ferragamo in relationship to the myth of Cinderella, but Ferragamo’s impact on the footwear industry has less to do with a fairytale and more to do with the obsession that characterizes many great artists. “But his life cannot be explained only in terms of his talent and his creativity,” Ferragamo’s wife, Wanda, writes in Walking Dreams: Salvatore Ferragamo, 1898-1960: “…many were the forces that spurred him on: the perfectionism of the artisan, who refuses to accept less than a job well done; the passion for his trade, a dedication that transformed a craft into an art, however humble the work; and his foresight.”
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Salvatore Ferragamo was born in 1898 in the small town of Bonito, Italy—the 11th of what would eventually be 14 children. Despite the discouraging reality that the townspeople of Bonito had been farmers for generations and that his parents looked down on the shoemaking trade, Ferragamo decided to dedicate himself to crafting footwear at the tender age of 11: “I had been born to become a shoemaker, I know and have always known it. When I look back…I realize what a constant and unredeemable passion impelled me forward to follow a path sown with difficulties…but could never leave that predestined path. I would have been struggling against Nature and God,” he recounted of his early years.
After apprenticing with local shoemakers and luxury stores in Naples, Ferragamo followed in the footsteps of some of his brothers and moved to the United States in 1914 at just 16. He settled in Boston, where he started to work with his brother-in-law, Joseph Covelli, at the Queen Quality Shoe Manufacturing Company, one of the most respected U.S. footwear manufactures in what was still a nascent industry. Yet, the quality of Queen’s footwear was not good enough for the exacting taste of Ferragamo, who felt the company’s shoes “seemed heavy, gross, awkward, not to be compared with those I had seen in Naples, and far, far below the level of excellences I had set myself.” So, in the early 1920s, Ferragamo picked up and moved again—this time to Santa Barbara, California—persuading his brothers to accompany him. Once there, he opened a small shoemaking and repair shop and studied mathematics, anatomy and chemical engineering at the University of Southern California Los Angeles in the evenings with the hopes of creating shoes with the perfect fit.
Almost immediately, Ferragamo’s big break came when one of his brothers, who worked as a prop man at the American Film Company, managed to get Salvatore an order for a batch of cowboy boots. The boots must have made quite an impression because Ferragamo’s little shop was soon crafting footwear for silent film actors and directors such as Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Mae West. In 1923, Ferragamo followed the film industry to Hollywood where he opened the Hollywood Boot Shop on Hollywood Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Ferragamo has often been called a “shoemaker to the stars,” and this is not, by any means, hyperbole: the designer was commissioned to make shoes for films such as The Ten Commandments, The Covered Wagon, The White Rose and The Thief of Bagdad—and those are just a handful from early in his career.
Still, in his ten years in the U.S., Ferragamo never felt satisfied with American workmanship, so, in 1927, he moved back to Italy—this time to Florence—where he adapted the assembly line process to fit the skills of highly specialized craftspeople. Utilizing the contacts and reputation he made during his decade in the U.S., Ferragamo did great business exporting shoes across the Atlantic, but then the Great Depression struck in 1929 and, suddenly, the shoemaker was out of business. Despite the economic crisis, the designer didn’t give up hope and, instead, turned his focus toward Italy’s domestic market. With his 1931 patent of the metal shank—a light and effective support for the arch of the foot—among other inventions, Ferragamo was able to expand his business rapidly enough to rent two workshops and a store space in Florence by 1936.
Despite the rise of Mussolini—who, unfortunately, Ferragamo made corrective shoes for—and resulting international sanctions, the mid-to-late 1930s were arguably the designer’s most creative. During this time, Ferragamo was forced to work with almost exclusively Italian materials, but instead of hindering his imagination, the limitations resulted in his most ingenious work: “He designed heels made by sewing together wine bottle corks, which he then covered with leather, and patented special processes for making leather substitutes. He invented transparent bakelite heels, articulated wooden soles, and soles made of Erinoid or glass,” wrote Wanda Miletti Ferragamo in Walking Dreams: Salvatore Ferragamo, 1898-1960. Ferragamo patented the aforementioned cork wedge heels—which raised the wearer’s heels and supported the arch of the foot—in 1937, a shrewd decision considering the design exploded on the international market only two years later. This brilliant design, along with many others, allowed Ferragamo to pay the first installment for the Palazzo Spini Feroni in 1938, which has been the headquarters for the brand ever since.
In 1940, Ferragamo married Wanda Miletti, the daughter of his hometown’s doctor, with whom he had six children, including their daughter Fiamma, who eventually succeeded her father as Head Designer of Ferragamo at the age of 19. The 1940s saw Ferragamo’s ascent continue even as he settled into family life; in 1947, he designed a pair of “invisible sandals”—that featured a vamp, or upper, created from a single nylon thread repeatedly passed between each side of the insole—for which he won the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, the fashion industry’s equivalent of the Oscar.
During the 1950s, Ferragamo focused even further on the relationship between form and function, while simultaneously gaining some of his most famous clients. In 1952, he created a pair of “gloved arch” heels, which featured an arch made from the same leather as the upper, which created a firm yet flexible fit. In 1954, the designer crafted a shell-shaped sole inspired by Native American moccasins, which he used on numerous shoes, but which gained fame through a court shoe constructed for Audrey Hepburn. Ferragamo made custom shoes for many other famous actresses during this time, including Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe, for whom he created 11cm pointed-toe stilettos meant to accentuate the star’s sensuality by increasing the sway of her hips.
By the late 1950s, Ferragamo finally gave in to machine production, introducing diffusion lines, such as “Ferragamo Debs” and “Ferrina Shoes” that were made sixty percent by hand and forty percent by machine. A philosophical compromise on some level, due to Ferragamo’s distaste for machine production, the aforementioned lines increased sales and recognition of the brand, thereby solidifying its place within the designer shoe market shortly before the Ferragamo’s death in 1960.
Although it’s been nearly sixty years since Ferragamo’s death, the company he founded has managed to keep much of its luster. Salvatore’s daughter, Fiamma, oversaw the company for nearly forty years, winning the Neiman Marcus Prize along with praise for her designs, including the Vara—which is still a subdued staple for many business women—along the way. And, while Ferragamo’s newest team of designers—Paul Andrew, shoes; Fulvio Rigoni, womenswear; and Guillaume Meilland, menswear—work to inject their own perspectives while maintaining the brand’s prestige, Salvatore’s genius lives on in more relevant ways than we may often realize. Just look at the pointy boots Rei Kawakubo designed for her SS15 Comme de Garçons collection; inspired by the DIY footwear of Mexican guarachero dancers, the boots look eerily similar to the ones Ferragamo created nearly a hundred years ago for Raoul Walsh’s 1924 film The Thief of Baghdad.