Salvatore Ferragamo: How to Build a Footwear Empire

Bonito, Italia, 1907. A simple and poor family is about to celebrate the confirmation of one of the daughters. It is a big household of fourteen and everyone tries to help out as they can. A little boy that just turned 9 offers to help his sister creating a pair of shoes for this important occasion. At that age little he knew that he was already paving the path of what now is an international fashion company known for its creative and innovative high-quality footwear. This can be considered a romantic beginning in the career of the shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. 

The business beginnings were for sure harder and required strength and courage. His passion for shoes pushed him first to move a few kilometers from his little village to a bigger town close to Naples in order to learn all the secrets from the best shoemakers of the region. In 1915, right before Italy entered the first world war and after getting a lot of experience, he decided to risk everything joining his brothers in the United States. There, they started working in Boston for a cowboy boot manufacturer until they relocated again to California opening up the Hollywood Boot Shop. 

California opened up the eyes of Salvatore, he knew he could express himself in a bigger and better way. Over the following years, he started taking human anatomy classes to learn about the anatomy of the foot.  He then used this new knowledge to develop technical solutions to transform his shoes in a way that would give better physical support for the feet. On top of that, his great taste and style allowed him to draw beautiful décolleté and sandals with simple yet elegant lines. Ferragamo went on to invent the famous Cambrione – among the 400 patents he held for shoes related inventions – the invisible steel structure that sustains the foot allowing all his creations to be extremely comfortable. 

Salvatore Ferragamo. Source: Ferragamo.com

The comfort and the style of Salvatore Ferragamo were incomparable with any other product in Hollywood at the time and by word-of-mouth, his business began to develop fast, with all the biggest stars of the time wearing a pair of Ferragamo’s. Marilyn Monroe – who was known for buying 40 pairs every time, often of the same model but in different colors – Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Sofia Loren just to mention a few. Audrey Hepburn was the woman who inspired Salvatore to step down from his heels and create his own version of the ballerinas. 

Marilyn Monroe, one of
Ferragamo’s most famous clients. Photo: Ferragamo.com

After gaining fame and fortune as the “shoemaker of the stars”, Ferragamo felt the need to move to a place in which art and culture were the main focus, without the fuss of the show-business. In 1927, Salvatore leaves the States to go back to Italy, the last big travel of his life, this time moving him and his company to Florence.

Ferragamo surrounded by the footwear moulds of countless starts, Source: Ferragamo,com

In Tuscany, Salvatore Ferragamo starts evolving into a more structured and complex company. However, even when the size was growing, the founder always meant to preserve quality above everything, assuring that the whole process of shoe production would never suffer from interferences of large types of machinery so that even today craftsmanship is still extremely important within the company. 

Source: Ferragamo

The raw materials and the amazing artisans he was able to find in Florence, combined with his innovative designs and out-of-the-box approach to footwear have made Salvatore Ferragamo into one of the world’s greatest shoe brands, so that even before his death in 1960, the company was holding around 20,000 shoe patterns, according to Vogue Magazine. In the sixties, Salvatore’s wife, Wanda took on the responsibility of managing the company turning it into an international empire that we all came to know. His family is still very much involved in the business today, even if the production of shoes has grown from 6,500 pairs a year to more than 10,000 pairs a day, and their clothing line is now in the best shop windows all over the globe.

The company now generates more than one billion in revenues every year, so it is normal to wonder if some values and traditions dear to the founder are still preserved within the DNA of the business. I believe that the best answer is that after all Salvatore’s traveling, the company as alongside his family have acquired very strong Tuscan roots that are still present today. The love for arts and beauty that guided the choice of the founder to move to Florence are still represented today, with the company financing the restoration of the first public fountain of the city – a masterpiece from the times of the De’ Medici – or covering the cost of maintenance for the Uffizi museum in Florence. 

Salvatore Ferragamo’s Creations. Source: Ferragamo.com

The history of Salvatore Ferragamo reminds us of one of those happy ending Hollywood movies, with the Ferragamo group building on traditions and preserving its roots with new fashion and art in its own museum. What will be the next big move for one of the key players on the international luxury market?

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