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

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