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September 24, 2023

Salvatore Ferragamo, From Humble Beginnings to the Shoemaker to the Stars

Salvatore Ferragamo (June 5, 1898 – August 7, 1960) was an Italian shoe designer and the founder of luxury goods high-end retailer Salvatore Ferragamo S.p.A. An innovative shoe designer, he established a reputation in the 1930s. In addition to experimenting with materials including kangaroo, crocodile, and fish skin, Ferragamo drew on historic inspiration for his shoes.

Salvatore Ferragamo made his first two pairs of shoes when he was nine. Two of his sisters didn’t have proper shoes to wear to their first communions; he saved the day. At 10, he battled his humble family’s objections to go and work for the local shoemaker, a job considered too lowly even for them. A year later he went to work in a Naples fashion store to learn the business. By the age of 13, he was running a company making handmade shoes, employing workers many years older than he was.

In 1914, 16-year-old Salvatore undertook the long journey to the United States to live with one of his brothers who worked at a cowboy boot factory in Boston. The eager young Ferragamo went to the factory to learn more about the art of making footwear. The modern techniques and machinery used in the production of the cowboy boots impressed the aspiring shoemaker. However, he was less than impressed with the quality of the final product. Even at such a young age, Ferragamo knew that fine quality was a top priority.

From Boston, Salvatore made his way to California, where he ultimately landed in Hollywood via Santa Barbara. While in Santa Barbara, Ferragamo began making shoes and boots for the film industry using the traditional techniques he had learned as an apprentice in Naples. The movie stars were so wowed by the quality of his shoes that they began ordering their own custom footwear directly from the designer. Thus began Ferragamo’s reign as “The Shoemaker to the Stars.” Celebrity business was so strong that in 1923, Ferragamo relocated to Hollywood to be closer to his client base. His store, the Hollywood Boot Shop, was frequented by the biggest names of the day and later by other stars of the silver screen. Loyal Ferragamo clients included Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe, just to name a few.

As Hollywood’s most famous shoe designer, Salvatore Ferragamo created some of the most legendary shoes ever featured in film. He made sandals for the Cecil B. DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments. Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz were made by none other than Ferragamo. Marilyn Monroe’s sexy stilettos in The Seven Year Itch—Ferragamo again. Other film credits include Some Like It Hot, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

What made Ferragamo shoes such a hot item was his innovation, creativity, and dedication to quality. There were other classically trained Italian shoemakers in the world and other fashion designers, but it was rare for both to come together so perfectly in the work of one man. Something else which was unique about Salvatore was his belief that fashion did not have to be painful. Why couldn’t one design shoes which were as comfortable to wear as they were beautiful to behold? To solve the mystery, Ferragamo enrolled in anatomy courses at The University of Southern California to learn all about the twenty-six bones which make up the human foot.

With this knowledge in his arsenal, the Shoemaker to the Stars was able to create some of the best-fitting shoes of any designer. He created custom wooden lasts (models) in the shape of the foot of many of his regular clients. A handmade custom shoe made by Ferragamo could involve as many as five fittings to achieve the perfect fit for the individual foot. It is no wonder that once an actor or actress wore a pair of Ferragamos in a movie, they ran to the shoemaker for many more pairs for their personal wardrobes!

In 1938, Salvatore Ferragamo invested some of his considerable earnings into purchasing a new headquarters, workshop, and store in Florence, Italy. The Palazzo Spini Feroni is a Medieval palace that was built in 1289 (as any visitor to Florence can attest, the city is full of historic palazzos). The building is still in the company today, and it functions as not only the prestigious flagship retail location but, since 1995, has been home to a public museum, the Museo della Calzatura Salvatore Ferragamo (the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum). Tours of the museum are available by appointment and showcase a rotating collection of some of the thousands of shoes held by the Ferragamo family. In addition to Salvatore’s iconic designs, visitors will see photos, patents, and wooden lasts of famous feet, all artfully displayed in homage to the important historic role which Ferragamo held in the realm of international fashion and shoe design.

Business continued to thrive in the post-WWII era, and Ferragamo’s staff was expanded to include 700 of Italy’s most talented craftsmen. The company was capable of producing up to 350 pairs of handmade shoes per day. Salvatore Ferragamo had married in 1940, and he and wife Wanda had six children. As the Ferragamo children grew up, they were introduced to the art of shoemaking at an early age, just as Salvatore had found his calling when just a boy. It was a shrewd move, and when Salvatore Ferragamo died in 1960, his luxury empire passed into the very capable hands of his wife and children. Subsequent awards bestowed upon members of the Ferragamo clan after Salvatore’s passing included a Saks Fifth Avenue award, the Neiman Marcus Italian Fortnight, Designer of the Year, and a Fashion Group Award. Wanda Ferragamo was even named International Woman of the Year in 1982.


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