Salvatore Ferragamo was born on 1898 in Bonito, about one hundred kilometres from Naples. He was the eleventh of 14 children. Since he was a little child, Salvatore dreamed of being a shoemaker. He would spend hours watching the local cobbler at work, although his father did not approve as shoemaking was considered the humblest of trades. When it came time for Salvatore’s sister Giuseppina to have her First Communion, the Ferragamo family did not have the money to buy her a pair of white shoes to wear in keeping with tradition. It was a disgrace. Salvatore borrowed nails, thread, white canvas and the tools he needed from the shoemaker in Bonito. That night, in secret, he began making his first pair of shoes. They were ready in the morning, and his sister went to church with white shoes on her feet, to the astonishment of all. Salvatore was nine years old at the time. His fate was sealed. He would be a shoemaker.

At the age of sixteen he decided to leave Bonito and join his siblings who had emigrated to America.For two weeks Ferragamo worked at the Plant Shoe Factory in Boston, one of the top shoe companies on the East Coast. Salvatore was fascinated by the modernity of machinery and working processes but at the same time saw lots of limits: machine-made shoes did not have the same quality as those that he and most Italian artisans could make by hand.

In 1915, Salvatore Ferragamo moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he opened a shoe-repair workshop. He was struck by the beautiful landscape, which reminded him of Italy, and the city, which was already a tourist destination and where the first movie studios would soon be built. Salvatore began to design and produce shoes for the cinema. The great Divas of the time became his loyal customers.

In 1916 he enrolled in evening classes at the Extension Division of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to study anatomy in order to gain an understanding of the structure of the foot, on which the well-being of the entire skeleton rested. He had discovered that the weight of the body falls on the arch of the foot and uncovered the secret to the perfect fit. Inside his shoes, Salvatore inserted a steel shank to support the arch, allowing the foot to feel comfortable.

Later, Salvatore Ferragamo followed the Studios to Hollywood. In 1923 opened the Hollywood Boot Shop and the press started to call him the “shoemaker to the stars”. In his 1957 autobiography, Salvatore Ferragamo recalls the unlikely orders he received from stars like Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo. Many of these models are now preserved in the Salvatore Ferragamo Archive.

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Salvatore with a young apprentice shoemaker

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Salvatore Ferragamo with Emilio Schuberth presenting the Kimo sandal, Florence, 1951

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Wanda and Salvatore Ferragamo in 1940

In 1927 Ferragamo decided to return to Italy and settled in Florence, city of art, culture and craftsmen. However, Ferragamo’s meetings with master shoemakers left him disappointed. Many were sceptical about his new techniques for crafting shoes and measuring feet. Only younger artisans showed curiosity and interest in his plan. So Salvatore opened a factory that would serve as a training ground for 75 apprentices under his supervision. He salvaged the city’s artisanal heritage and melded it with the production system of American factories, breaking down the process into steps. From his Florentine laboratory, shoes were constantly exported to America.

The stock market crash of 1929 did not leave Ferragamo unscathed since the company’s business was deeply intertwined with the United States. The negative effects of the crash, the economic instability in the US and around the world, exacerbated the difficulties leading him to file for bankruptcy with the Florence Court in August 1933. Once again, the production model had to be redesigned, but Ferragamo did not lose heart. He saw the importance of having local customers and a factory in the heart of Florence. In 1936, through his sister, as he was barred from trade because of his bankruptcy, Ferragamo rented a few rooms in the historic Palazzo Spini Feroni, a medieval palace and symbol of Florence, where he started his business up again.

Salvatore Ferragamo’s creativity soared in the thirties and during the war, as the obstacles seemed to stimulate him. In March 1936, Benito Mussolini imposed a widespread nationalisation and protectionist program on the country, which was summed up as autarky. It was his response to the trade sanctions that the League of Nations had taken against Italy in October 1935 for its military aggression in Ethiopia. The best steel was requisitioned for arms and also other materials begin to be insufficient. Salvatore resolved the issue by creating the first cork wedge (patented in 1937) and came up with ideas for uppers in hemp, felt and fish skin. He also used cellophane, after having observed how chocolate wrappers were shiny and flexible.

In 1938 Salvatore’s success was restored and he established the company Salvatore Ferragamo S.p.A. He was then able to begin progressively buying up shares of the palazzo from the company that owned it. Palazzo Spini Feroni has been the company’s headquarters ever since. In 1940 Salvatore Ferragamo married Wanda Miletti, the daughter of the doctor and chief magistrate of Bonito. They had six children: Fiamma, Giovanna, Ferruccio, Fulvia, Leonardo e Massimo.

In the summer of 1947, the major American department store Neiman Marcus invited Salvatore Ferragamo to Dallas to receive the Neiman Marcus fashion award for having brought Italian classicism and artisanal tradition together with modern ingenuity. Established in 1938, the prestigious award had only been given to American designers until 1947. The shoes that Salvatore Ferragamo had brought with him to Dallas in 1947 included the “invisible” sandals with a wood wedge heel in the shape of an “F”, for Ferragamo. The wedge was covered in leather and the upper was made out of transparent nylon fishing line. Ferragamo got the idea from a worker who, after fishing in the Arno, had returned with a big fish that he had caught using a new type of nylon fishing line. “The fish can’t see it” he explained to Salvatore. The invisible sandal was a smash hit. The price of a pair was $29.75, equal to the cost of four tonnes of coal.

During the economic boom, Salvatore Ferragamo reached the pinnacle of his success, counting among his customers the most famous Italian and international movie stars, in addition to members of high society. Salvatore divided the women who ordered his shoes into three categories depending on the size of their feet. Cinderellas wore shoes smaller than a six. According to Ferragamo, they were feminine and lovers of fashion. To be truly happy, he said, they must be in love. He listed Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, as well as the Queen of Greece, the Duchess of Windsor and the Maharani of Cooch Behar, as Cinderallas. Venuses wore a size six. They were usually very beautiful but under their glittering exterior they loved the simple things of life and were often misunderstood because of these two traits. Ferragamo considered Marilyn Monroe a Venus. His Aristocrats took a size seven and up, like Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. He described them as sensitive with a great depth of understanding, but noted that they could be moody.

On 12 February 1951, Salvatore Ferragamo participated in the first truly Italian fashion show organised by the buyer Giovanni Battista Giorgini in the ballroom of his home, Villa Torrigiani in Florence, with the international press and American buyers. Ferragamo participated in the fashion show with the Kimo sandal created for the dresses designed by Roman tailor Emilio Schuberth. Inspired by the Japanese tabi shoe, it was worn with a leather or satin sock to match the colour of each dress.

Salvatore had an optimistic outlook, but his health conditions deteriorated to death in the summer of 1960. The great dream of his life is fulfilled: to design and produce the most beautiful shoes in the world. But a new idea had begun to emerge in recent years: to transform Ferragamo into a great fashion house. Wanda, who until then had been a housewife and mother to six children, took over the company, becoming a shrewd and capable businesswoman. By her side were her eldest daughters, Fiamma and Giovanna, Salvatore’s employees and his master shoemakers.