As Museo Salvatore Ferragamo launches a retrospective to mark 100 years since the opening of Ferragamo's first store on Hollywood Boulevard, Francesca Simpson examines the life, legacy and creative genius of the Italian-born designer, fondly known by his moniker, 'Shoemaker to the Stars'.



Salvatore Ferragamo with a client © Museo Salvatore Ferragamo 


It is, perhaps, fitting that Salvatore Ferragamo opened his first store in Hollywood, exactly 100 years ago, aged just 25. After all, the great shoemaker's life story - from his humble origins in Italy (born into relative poverty, the eleventh of 14 children), to his exuberant successes on the world stage - resembles a film script, a blockbuster in every sense. While his life began, and ended, in Italy, it was in Hollywood that his star was really born, along with his legendary moniker, 'Shoemaker to the Stars'.

Throughout his illustrious career, the Italian immigrant - who began designing shoes in Bonito, southern Italy, at the age of nine - dressed the feet of Hollywood's leading ladies, and crafted shoes - sometimes thousands of them - for the silver screen.

From Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren, to Judy Garland, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn, the most celebrated feet of Hollywood's Golden Age were wearing Ferragamo, who was by then one of the film industry's premier shoe suppliers. Not bad for a boy who arrived in America aged just 16 to work in a Boston shoe factory. 

The story behind his success is perhaps less well known, rooted not in the glitz and glamour of his adopted town, but in the genius and innovation that characterised many of his groundbreaking, visionary designs. A gifted student, Ferragamo's nascent talent was, from the outset, underwritten by an extraordinary work ethic. During his apprenticeship in Naples, and factory days in Boston, the young Ferragamo displayed his burning desire to learn and improve, and honed both his capacity for gruellingly hard work and commitment to ergonomic, and beautiful, design.

“Elegance and comfort are not incompatible, and whoever maintains the contrary simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about," he famously said. This oft-quoted maxim encapsulates his design philosophy and architectural approach: form and function were of equal importance. Indeed, he was so committed to comfort that, early on in his career, he enrolled in anatomy classes to better understand the physiognomy of the foot. This led to many of the innovations in his designs.


Salvatore Ferragamo with Sophia Loren © Museo Salvatore Ferragamo 


Ferragamo's belief in “walking well” was undoubtedly welcomed by the legions of beautiful women who wore his creations, safe in the knowledge that, by the end of any event or occasion, their feet would depart as comfortably as they had arrived: well-dressed and pain-free. This was no mean feat, if you will excuse the pun, for an image-obsessed industry notorious for valuing aesthetics above all else.

On his return to Italy in 1927, Ferragamo's incessant innovation, and reverence for craftsmanship and the avant garde, developed further. Settling in Florence, he embarked on a truly ambitious project: to produce handmade shoes in mass production. Employing some 700 artisans, and creating some 350 pairs of shoes a day, his star was truly in the ascent. In the decades, that followed Ferragamo would consistently anticipate and inspire trends, but not without challenge; his business survived two world wars and the potential threat of bankruptcy. The shoemaker's never-ending creativity was equally matched by tenacity and adaptability.


Rainbow shoe, designed for Judy Garland © Museo Salvatore Ferragamo 


Legends are born in such circumstances, and the Rainbow shoe he designed for Judy Garland (pictured above) is a case in point. When introducing the platform shoe, Ferragamo had little choice but to innovate using only the most prosaic of materials, such as cork, to circumvent the strict rationing of the post-war period. The wedge, introduced in 1937 and again made out of cork, also bears witness to his innovative mind and noble motivation: rooted in a strict functionality, the wedge was designed to elevate the heel while providing the wearer with sufficient support, and hence comfort.

While it's hard to credit one individual with such an abundance of iconic styles, Ferragamo truly did revolutionize shoe design. Take the stiletto, which he is often considered to have invented (introducing the four-inch steel-reinforced heel for Marilyn Monroe no less); the caged heel and even the 'invisible' sandal.


Lasts for Hollywood's leading ladies © Museo Salvatore Ferragamo 


Steeped in history, yet in many senses contemporary with an enduring reverence for beauty, craftsmanship and culture, Ferragamo’s creations embodied and reflected the very essence of his surroundings in Florence. He was, in many senses, the shoemakers’ shoemaker. Eschewing the academic accolades he could have claimed (in addition to anatomy he latterly studied both maths and chemical engineering), he referred to himself, with endearing simplicity, as 'just' a shoemaker.

Passionate about the melding of beautiful materials, age-old artisanship and the cultural and artistic heritage that surrounded him, he combined entrepreneurial traits, hard work and innovation with a flair for marketing and seemingly endless creativity. Although he died in 1960, at just 62, his fire burns bright and his legacy lives on in the thriving global business, which continues to showcase Ferragamo's inimitable combination of artisanship and innovation. Worldwide devotees - movie stars, royalty, the beau monde - flocked to his ateliers and never stopped.


Ferragamo shoe with cork heel © Museo Salvatore Ferragamo 


In 1985, the first retrospective on Ferragamo's oeuvre led to the establishment of the Ferragamo Archive, followed, in 1995, by Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, a permanent museum in Florence, which holds his personal records and archives. The first retrospective presented Ferragamo's many shoes as artworks, while the second - which runs until 4 November 2024 - provides social and historical context, highlighting Ferragamo’s skill, innovation and entrepreneurship, along with his unique understanding of color, fine craftsmanship and human anatomy.

Famously classifying his clientele according to their shoe size - 'Cinderellas', smaller than size 6, included such icons as Joan Crawford and the Duchess of Windsor, 'Venuses', at size 6, included Marilyn Monroe, while 'Aristocrats', above a size 7, included Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn - Ferragamo was as enamoured by his clients' elegance and style as they were by his skill and vision.


Early designs © Museo Salvatore Ferragamo 


All too often fashion is transitory, driven by trends and passing fads. Not so with the greats. The not-to-be-missed new retrospective at Museo Ferragamo pays fitting tribute to this masterful fashion pioneer, celebrating his spirit and iconic designs. It is testament to the passion and genius of Salvatore Ferragamo - who so gloriously realised his childhood dream of producing the most beautiful shoes in the world - that, 100 years after his first store opened on Hollywood Boulevard, today's fashion cognoscenti are as captivated by his designs as those early devotees.

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 Salvatore Ferragamo 1898-1960 is now showing at Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence, running until 4 November 2024.

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