I knew very little about Salvatore Ferragamo (the shoemaker) apart from it being a brand as it is today.
Ferragamo’s story itself reads like a fairytale. He was born in 1898 into a poor family in Naples, Italy, number 11 of 14 children. When he was just nine, he made his first pair of white shoes for his sister’s communion, and knew that we wanted to make shoes for a living.
At the age of 13, he was in charge of a shop with six workers. But, four of his brothers were already in America, and Salvatore headed for Boston where one of his brothers worked in a shoe factory.
But the factory’s production line did not suit his belief that every individual pair of shoes should be studied and researched, and he convinced his brothers to move to California. First, Santa Barbara, then Hollywood where they established a shop for repairs and made-to-measure shoes which soon became famous.
And so he began to design footwear for the cinema.
His life in Hollywood during the years fell into three sections: his hand-made shoes, his flirtation with machine-made shoes and his experiences with the people for whom he worked for.
By 1939, Ferragamo had moved back from California to Florence where despite the troubled times, he managed to own the Piazza Spini-Feroni building, the spectacularly frescoed medieval house which is still the home to Ferragamo today.
This is the first time I was captivated by the story behind the product. In a visit to a perfume shop in Siena, the owner shared similar history in which he described the origin of the bespoke perfume and the company. Pointing to the print on the box, he said, “The story is always there, you just have to look for it.” And he was right. From perfumes to Florence and now to shoes, there is always a person and his or her ideas behind the products that we buy.
Thinking about 13 year old Ferragamo pounding out shoes in Hollywood, I started to wonder about the lives of the other founder of companies whose names we treat as brands rather than as titles corresponding to people. Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga were children once too. What were they like?
Did they sketch in the margins of their textbooks?
The least important part of his biography is the life-story of an Italian shoemaker. Therefore his biography is mostly about feet.
“We can all write the stories of our lives, and it I go into the details of my career it is only that I may be best able to tell you about the mission to which I was called, the work I could not prevent doing myself.”
“If your feet are good it will teach you how to preserve them. If your feet are bad it will tell you why they are bad and help to save you from further agonies. Your feet look like the shoes you wear, and if the shoes are wrongly designed your feet will be twisted, crushed and pinched. Yet it is no necessary – not even for the sake of vanity – so to torture yourself.
That has been his life’s work – striving to learn to make shoes that always fit and the refusal to put his name to any that do not fit.
“I shall go on forever. I have only just begun to work. I am still perfecting myself for the work I have to do in the future, the work to which I have been called. I have a plenty of time. I know I am going to do it. If it is not done with this body it will be done in another. We are all flowing with the eternal tide, and of the eternal tide only is there no end.”