I feel a friend of ours was slightly unfair when he described Ferragamo as “just another shoe-maker.” That Ferragamo certainly was but he was also rather more than that.
Ferragamo got involved in shoemaking at a very early age when he designed and made some shoes for his sisters. He learnt his trade from a cobbler in Torre del Greco and subsequently opened up a small shop. In 1914 he left for the USA reaching one of his brothers in Boston who was working in a shoe factory. Ferragamo then moved to California where he obtained contracts from the American Film Company to design and make shoes for their studios. Ferragamo also studied anatomy, particularly that of the foot, at the university of southern California.
In 1923, Ferragamo moved to Hollywood, where he opened the Hollywood Boot Shop and soon earned the name of “Shoemaker to the stars.” It is said that the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy, in “The Wizard of Oz” were designed by him. He indeed made them but the original design was by Gilbert Adrian, a Hollywood costume couturier.
Ferragamo returned to Italy in 1927, settling Florence, and opened his first shop in Via Manelli. In 1928 he formed his first company “Salvatore Ferragamo”. After some hard times, exacerbated by WWII, Ferragamo returned to increasing fame in the 1950’s. His new home was now the lovely mediaeval palace of Spini Ferroni which dates back to the 13th century. This became a destination of film stars, royalty, aristocracy, the rich and the demi-monde. His designs now showed even more originality and style.
But what makes Ferragamo an artist rather than just another shoemaker? It was his visionary approach which combined his intimate knowledge of foot anatomy with the finest materials and the most desirable designs. If it’s possible for a piece of jewellery to be a work of art then it’s certainly possible for a pair of shoes to be one as well.
(The evolution of a Ferragamo shoe design)
Ferragamo died in 1960 but the business has flourished and grown into mythical fame as a result of the efforts of his wife Wanda and their six children: Fiamma, Giovanna, Ferruccio, Fulvia, Leonardo and Massimo, who continue the creativeness of Ferragamo original concept.
If all this sounds a little beyond those who just seek to buy a pair of comfortable sneakers then, like so many other Italian (and international) firms, Ferragamo has given a lot back to the society which has enabled it to flourish. There is a foundation which has set up a museum, holding fascinating exhibitions, in the palazzo Spini Ferroni in piazza Santa Trinita, Florence.
The most recent exhibition we visited (lasting until 23rd April) was, not inappropriately, on bipedalism and titled “Equilibrium”. Together with ducks and other avians, we humans indulge, uniquely among mamals, in bipedal locomotion or in, more common terms, we walk on two feet, creating a uniquely studied balance (quite apart from suffering from back-ache more than other animals). The theme of walking was exemplified through the exhibition in various ways – from philosopher-walkers to those who walk from one end of the Great Wall of China to the other.
Salvatore Ferragamo’s shoes have served as a stimulus for this topic. Features from mountaineer Reinhold Messner, tightrope walker Philippe Petit, Will Self, architect, engineer and artist, Cecil Balmond, dancer Eleonora Duncan, developed this focus on equilibrium.
There are also art works by Canova, Degas, Rodin, Bourdelle, Matisse, Picasso, Lipchitz, Severini, Klee and Calder. Viola and Marina Abramović, Kandinsky, Melotti, Albrecht Dürer, Giulio Paolini, Nijinsky, sketches of Isadora Duncan dancing, Martha Graham and Trisha Brown are also represented.
It’s remarkable how so many of Italy’s great manufacturing names, especially those in the engineering; fashion and culinary fields, have contributed so significantly, both economically and inspirationally, to Italy’s cultural funding and its artistic milieu. I’m thinking just of the Piaggio museum at Pontedera, the Monte dei Paschi di Lucca and the Ferrari and Ducati museums as starters.
England did kick off the trend with the Courtauld Institute and the Tate Gallery but Italy seems to have taken it to admirable heights. It’s largely because Italy is that country in the world which most successfully combines superb design with superb craftsmanship and engineering – so immaculately seen in its cars, motorcycles and, of course, its fashion.
(Ferragamo’s shop in the palazzo Spini Ferroni)
Sorry if you’ve missed the Ferragamo exhibition. There will be a new fascinating exhibition to follow, no doubt. Just keep your eyes peeled on the Ferragamo web site at http://www.ferragamo.com/shop/it/ita?gclid=CjwKEAjwjd2pBRDB4o_ymcieoAQSJABm4egojVFo5QZMHGk9esWtRygza4XloWbvYnNZr22WXjd8bxoCQWnw_wcB