Shoe­maker’s widow turned busi­ness into ma­jor fash­ion house

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - Wanda Miletti Fer­rag­amo

Born: De­cem­ber 18th, 1921 Died: Oc­to­ber 19th, 2018

This is a Cin­derella story, with a twist. In 1940 the great shoe­maker Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo, 42 years old and at last suc­cess­ful, combed Italy for a suit­able wife.

He was no prince – he had slogged his way out of deep­est ru­ral poverty and sur­vived re­ver­sals of for­tune. What he knew about was feet, and how they should be shod.

On a visit to his home town of Bonito, in south­ern Italy, to dis­burse char­ity funds, he met the mayor’s teenage daugh­ter, Wanda, 23 years his ju­nior, and in­stantly de­ter­mined to marry her. He asked if she would take off her shoes so he could demon­strate a po­di­atric point to her fa­ther, who was also the lo­cal doc­tor.

Sal­va­tore was charmed by the toe that peeped through a tiny hole in Wanda’s stock­ings and sent or­ders to his cob­blers to make her not glass slip­pers but su­per-light black suede brogues – an in­spired gift in wartime Italy, short on shoe ma­te­ri­als and trans­port. The cou­ple were mar­ried three months later.

When Sal­va­tore died in 1960 she took im­me­di­ate com­mand of his en­ter­prise and evolved it from a mod­est craft busi­ness into a se­ri­ous lux­ury brand.

Wanda Fer­rag­amo, who has died aged 96, was the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive for more than 20 years, pres­i­dent and chair­woman for decades, and worked daily in her of­fice al­most to her end, briskly de­cid­ing pol­icy and per­son­nel: “It takes me five min­utes to see if some­thing is wrong.”

Wanda, daugh­ter of Ful­vio Miletti, had no train­ing for the work, hav­ing been ed­u­cated, like her mother (who died when she was 16), to be a cul­tured wife.

That was her role from 1940 to 1960: she bore Sal­va­tore six chil­dren and es­tab­lished the fam­ily at a Re­nais­sance villa near Fiesole, out­side Florence, where they were pros­per­ing when Sal­va­tore died, aged 62, from can­cer.

His firm was the per­fect Ital­ian model of a de­signer-craftsman em­ploy­ing spe­cial­ists, hand­mak­ing goods for fa­mous cus­tomers. Sal­va­tore had earned his rep­u­ta­tion for imag­i­na­tive yet com­fort­able footwear in the 1920s and 1930s in Los An­ge­les, where his cus­tomers were movie stars who stayed faith­ful when, af­ter 13 years in the US, he re­turned to live and work in Florence.

At his fu­neral, the work­ers promised Wanda they would help sus­tain the firm, so she fol­lowed the old craft guilds tra­di­tion of the boss’s widow tak­ing over man­age­ment of the busi­ness.

At home Sal­va­tore had al­ways dis­cussed with her his plans, clients and am­bi­tions, right down to the de­tails of ex­per­i­men­tal soles and heels. No­body else knew as much about the busi­ness as Wanda had learned by watch­ing and lis­ten­ing.

She ar­rived as La Sig­nora, ul­ti­mate power at the firm’s Floren­tine head­quar­ters in the an­tique Palazzo Spini Feroni, just as fash­ion be­came a ma­jor Ital­ian ex­port.

Her first de­ci­sion was to ap­point her daugh­ter Fi­amma, who was then 19, head de­signer. Fi­amma had in­her­ited Sal­va­tore’s de­light in shoes, and he had en­cour­aged her ta­lent. Wanda saw that craft supremacy in shoes would no longer be enough: there had to be hand­bags, silk scarves and even­tu­ally gar­ments.

Fam­ily fidelity

The firm’s per­sonal ser­vice and its con­tracts with grand in­ter­na­tional stores were sup­ple­mented by new Fer­rag­amo bou­tiques in the smartest shop­ping venues. Within 20 years, shoe pro­duc­tion had in­creased ten­fold, yet the firm coolly ig­nored the in­dus­try’s ef­forts from the 1980s to move fac­tory pro­duc­tion off­shore, and con­tin­ued to make its wares in Italy. The fam­ily fidelity paid off, as new cus­tomers for lux­ury wanted, as near as could be found, Sal­va­tore’s orig­i­nal ma­te­ri­als and tech­ni­cal skills.

Their chil­dren, Fer­ruc­cio, Gio­vanna, Leonardo and Mas­simo, joined the man­age­ment, all earn­ing the same in­come. Only three grand­chil­dren were ad­mit­ted to the firm, although Wanda kept her more than 70 de­scen­dants in­formed about the busi­ness. Those strict lim­its, and tough choices in hir­ing, pro­tected the com­pany from the curse of “clogs to clogs in three gen­er­a­tions”, and she rejected buy­out of­fers for decades.

She stood down from the chair in 2006, but su­per­vised the first pub­lic stock of­fer­ing in 2011, and af­ter­wards headed a foun­da­tion to fund and train ar­ti­sans, re­mem­ber­ing Sal­va­tore’s ear­li­est strug­gles.

Fer­rag­amo was au­thor­i­ta­tive with­out grandeur, acute, per­pet­u­ally up to date, and she re­tained the el­e­gance Sal­va­tore had ad­mired on their first en­counter. (She al­ways wore the 7cm heels he had de­cided, on sight, were right for her stance.)

Of her many awards, she was proud­est of be­ing made hon­orary OBE and Cava­liere di Gran Croce.

Fi­amma and Ful­via died be­fore Wanda; her other chil­dren sur­vive her.

Fer­rag­amo was au­thor­i­ta­tive with­out grandeur, acute, per­pet­u­ally up to date

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