Charting A Family Empire

He was no doubt a man one would have been richer for knowing: Salvatore Ferragamo, master shoemaker, founder of a world-wide empire that, despite its size, clings fast to his principle of never sacrificing quality to expediency.

He was one of those rare spirits who managed to wed his fantasies of footwear to the sanity that all of us must walk. In his mind, no matter how frivolous the garb of the feet, comfort – the result of proper fitting – was paramount.

In his book, Shoemaker of Dreams, he explains how, at 9, still a child himself, he sat up all night making shoes so his tiny sisters would be properly shod for their first communions. The family was poor, the cost of the shoes was beyond their means, but anything less than white kid would have been a disgrace intolerable to Italians.

Salvatore Ferragamo believed that he was born to his calling, he explains an almost mystical connection with his craft which he believed came to him full-blown from some previous existence. Maybe he was right because, though he trained with shoemakers of merit, his shoes were always beyond their skills.

He was born in 1898, at 16 he left for the United States and within a few years was producingfootwear for the likes of Lillian Gish, Mae West, Greta Garbo and Eva Peron. He opened operations in Italy in 1926 believing that it was only in his native land that the skills existed to produce quality shoes in quantity.

Every pair had to incorporate his principles of last design and arch support – those are still part of every Ferregamo shoe – because he firmly believed “If you have a headache, your shoes don’t fit properly.” He pioneered the idea of making shoes of various widths but once the practical criteria were met, there was no limit to his imagination. He invented the wedgie, the “invisible” shoe of clear plastic, shoes of snail shells and silk, kangaroo and seaweed, even the pleated paper used to wrap candies.

A retrospective of his creations, dating from 1929 to 1960 when he died, opened April 4 in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Plans are to move it later to Milan and New York.

He was nearly ruined when the world economy crashed in the great depression but, charactaristically, he started all over again. “He was a man of great gentleness and great strength,” his widow, Wanda, can now say calmly. She’s no slouch herself. Married at 18 to a man more than twice her age, she bore him six children, lived a full life as wife and mother till his death, then – as if nothing could be more natural – took over as president of his empire.

The children are all part of it now: Fiamma in charge of the design and creation of women’s shoes, handbags, small leather goods and luggage; Giovanna who organizes of women’s ready-to-wear; Ferruccio, general manager; Fulvia, who oversees accessories; Leonardo, who runs the men’s division; Massimo, U.S. marketing.

Each month, the company produces some 70,000 pairs of shoes, 7,000 to 8,000 outfits for men and women and about 4,000 handbags which are sold throughout the world.

Creeds has placed a substantial order for this fall’s ready-to-wear which, along with shoes, is also carried at Via Condotti in Toronto. The clothes were on the runway in Milan but everything is masterminded out of the thirteenth century Palazzo Feroni-Spini in Florence where Fiamma tries to explain the extraordinary man who, 25 years after his death, still dominates his family. “I had a sudden friendship with my father when I was about 15 years old. He was severe, very good, I was a little afraid of him. But we had the same personality, the same mentality and way of working, kind of an affinity of temperament. “I was 16 1/2 when I started working with him, doing a little of everything. He believed in responsibility, that people needed to have faith in what they were doing. Even if I did something wrong he would say: ‘That’s fantastic but remember the next time …’ and then you’d want to do better.” There are already 15 grandchildren and she can see at least some of them entering the company; a few are already putting in a week or two each summer in the factories, checking for scratches, introducing shoes to boxes, “so they get the idea of what work is. It is the base of everything, in a good culture.” She’s the Marchesa Fiamma di San Giuliano-Ferragamo and – like most of the other family members – lives in a palace. But she will have no truck with the idea that her father was lowly born. “They were simple people but having no money doesn’t mean that you’re not a gentleman or a lady. You have that inside yourself. “Florence is a lady town; the refinement of the arts, the culture, they help you form yourself. My father was a great innovator in look and technique. We continue his principles: never sacrificing, never compromising. That is the heart of what he found. We are the protectors of his tradition.”

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