MADE FOR WALKING
AN EXHIBITION AT THE MUSEO FERRAGAMO PLUNGES YOU INTO THE ITALY OF THE 1920S – A TIME OF UPHEAVAL, TRANSITION AND EMANCIPATION, AND THE BACKDROP TO THE AMBITIOUS SALVATORE FERRAGAMO’S RETURN HOME FROM AMERICA.
James Ferragamo’s grandfather went to America to establish his name, but it was his return to Italy 90 years ago that made the brand.
It’s mid-June and Florence is melting. “Hot enough for you?” asks James Ferragamo, apologising for the “ridiculous” summer heat and lack of airconditioning in the Palazzo Spini-Feroni. The palazzo, which overlooks the Santa Trìnita Bridge and River Arno, was built in the very pre-AC year of 1289, and has been the brand headquarters of Salvatore Ferragamo since 1938. James, head of Ferragamo’s shoes and leather goods, wears an earnest grey suit and well-worn brown leather loafers. It’s a solid, dependable look, typical of the pragmatic 45-year-old, and sympathetic to the surrounds, which include stylised 16th-century frescoes of Bernardino Poccetti in the chapel down the hall. Downstairs in the basement is the well where Dante Alighieri is said to have first laid eyes on his great love, Beatrice.
James’ grandfather, Salvatore Ferragamo, had had his eyes on this building since he arrived in Florence exactly 90 years ago. The brand has marked the milestone with a superb exhibition, 1927: The Return to Italy, now on at the Museo Ferragamo at Spini-Feroni. The exhibition explores the artistic, cultural and social landscape of Italy in the 1920s – the rise of futurism, women’s emancipation and Mussolini’s Fascism – that provides context to Salvatore Ferragamo’s arrival in Florence.
Following 12 successful years in America, the shoemaker arrived here during the summer of 1927 in search of craftspeople and a workshop to realise his empire-building ambitions. Florence hadn’t originally been on his list of destinations. Beginning in Naples, followed by Rome, Milan, Turin, Verona, Padua and Venice, Ferragamo had met with “blank refusals” from artisans with whom he wished to collaborate. In Florence, though, Ferragamo’s instincts told him he was in the right place. “I knew no one and none knew me,” he wrote in his 1957 autobiography, Shoemaker of Dreams, “but as I strolled through the soft summer night and felt the impact of its great beauty I thought that perhaps in Florence I might realise my dream.”
Salvatore was a man to pursue his dreams “at all costs”, James Ferragamo tells WISH. “Florence is a place where he was able to find those artisans that would embrace his objective.”
We foreigners flock here in droves each year to feel the same cultural “impact” that Salvatore Ferragamo felt: the centuries-old collective weight of the city’s artistic and architectural achievements. According to James, however, it was another aspect of local culture that attracted his grandfather: Florence’s appreciation for risk takers and innovators.
“I think if you come to a place like Florence for the first time, it kind of hits you,” he says. “You’re walking down a street and you see a glimpse of the Duomo or you see a piece of the Palazzo Vecchio and you really understand that period of the Renaissance: the concept of not being scared of losing anything, being able to put everything at risk and to change everything. The Renaissance did exactly that. They came through a horrible epidemic [the plague of 1348] and had a much smaller population. Somebody that was a painter also had to be a sculptor and also had to be an inventor. So, that willingness to try and risk is something that resonates with the city. I think Salvatore chose the city because of those characteristics, which were so much him. He had nothing to lose. I mean, he was one out of 14 kids.”
Salvatore had wanted to be a shoemaker ever since he could walk. He was a self-taught genius able to fuse inventive design and skilled handwork with flawless anatomical understanding. A child prodigy, by the age of 11 Salvatore had already established his own workshop in the down-at-heel village of Bonito, east of Naples, with a staff roster of six (all older boys). By 1915 the 17-year-old had outgrown his humble surrounds, so he emigrated to America, lured by his older brothers and the promise of acquiring new skills in the “world of miracles”.
But Salvatore was dismayed by what he saw at a Boston shoemaking firm – considered the finest in America – which produced thousands of “heavy, clumsy and brutal” pairs of shoes a day. “No, no, no!” he wailed at his brother. “I can’t work here! I won’t work here! This is not shoemaking! This is not craftsmanship!”
He hot-footed it to Santa Barbara, where his three other older brothers were labouring for a film studio. On a tour of the wardrobe department Salvatore picked up a pair of cowboy boots and offered to improve them. The director accepted and Salvatore gained work crafting handmade shoes for the Hollywood costume dramas, followed by custom-order pairs for the actors in satin, python, kidskin, suede, ostrich and snake skin.
Obsessed with the concept of the perfect fitting shoe, he studied anatomy after work at USC in Los Angeles. Discovering that the weight of the body taken from the shoulder goes vertically over the arch of the foot, he patented a 12-cm long steel shank – a “gloved arch” – that he inserted into each shoe. Women, such as movie stars like Mary Pickford, found they could walk properly in heels for the first time in their life. High society patronised Ferragamo’s new shop in Hollywood, and his fame was assured. Motivated by a desire to increase the volume of his production without sacrificing quality, he booked a first-class ticket on the trans-Atlantic Roma cruise ship
As the 1927 exhibition shows, Salvatore found the Italy of the late 20s to be a country in transition from rustic to modern. Peasants were migrating to industrialised
“I strolled through the soft summer night and I thought that perhaps in Florence I might realise my dream.”
Salvatore and Wanda Ferragamo, Salvatore with Joan Crawford in his Hollywood store, and the Ferragamo shoe factory in Via Manelli