The founder and his legend
alvatore Ferragamo was born, the eleventh of fourteen children, in 1898 in Bonito, a village about 100 kilometres from Naples. Even before he reached adolescence, he revealed a great passion for shoes; at the age of 11 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Naples and at 13 he opened his own shop in Bonito.
At the age of 14 he went to America to join one of his brothers who was working in a large footwear company in Boston. Salvatore was fascinated by the modern machinery and working procedures but at the same time saw its quality limitations. In the early Twenties he moved to Santa Barbara, California, to join another brother and here he opened a shoe-repair shop.
California was a dreamland in those years and so was its film industry. Salvatore began to design and make shoes for cinema. Meanwhile Salvatore himself, in his constant search for ‘shoes which fit perfectly’ studied human anatomy, chemical engineering and mathematics at university in Los Angeles.
When the movie industry moved to Hollywood, Salvatore Ferragamo followed. In 1923 he opened the ‘Hollywood Boot Shop’, which marked the start of his career as ‘shoemaker to the stars’, as he was defined by the local press. His success was such that he couldn’t keep pace with the orders, but American labour wasn’t capable of making the shoes Ferragamo wanted and in 1927 he decided to return to Italy, to Florence, a city traditionally rich in skilled craftsmanship.
From his Florentine workshop – in which he adapted production line techniques to the specialised and strictly manual operations of his own workers – he launched a constant stream of exports to the States.
Then came the great crisis of 1929, which brusquely interrupted relations with the American market, and the firm had to close. Ferragamo didn’t not lose heart however, turning his energies instead to the national market. By 1936 business was going so well he started renting two workshops and a shop in Palazzo Spini Feroni, in via Tornabuoni. These were years of economic sanctions against Mussolini’s Italy and it was in this period that Ferragamo turned out some of his most popular and widely-imitated creations, such as the strong but light cork ‘wedges’. Cork, wood, metal wire, raffia, felt, and glass-like synthetic resins were among the innovative materials that Ferragamo used to creatively replace the leather and steel which trade restrictions prevented him from using.
On the strength of his success, in 1938 Ferragamo was in a position to pay the first instalment for the purchase of the entire Palazzo Spini Feroni, which has been Company headquarters ever since. In 1940 he married Wanda Miletti, the young daughter of the local doctor in Bonito, who had followed him to Florence and who was to bear him six children, three sons (Ferruccio, Leonardo and Massimo) and three daughters (Fiamma, Giovanna and Fulvia).
In the post-war period, all over the world the shoes of Salvatore Ferragamo became a symbol of Italy’s reconstruction, through design and production. These were years of memorable inventions: the metal-reinforced stiletto heels made famous by Marilyn Monroe, gold sandals, and the invisible sandals with uppers made from nylon thread (which in 1947 were to win Ferragamo the prestigious ‘Neiman Marcus Award’, the Oscar of the fashion world, awarded for the first time to a footwear designer).
When Salvatore Ferragamo died in 1960 he had realised the great dream of his life: to create and produce the most beautiful shoes in the world. His family was left the task of carrying on and fulfilling the plan that Salvatore had nurtured in his final years: transforming Ferragamo into a great fashion house.