One cannot come to Florence and not be intrigued by one of its more recent artists. Salvatore Ferragamo. For indeed to many women around the world to walk in one of his creations is divine. Perhaps I will purchase my first ever Ferragamo’s at his flagship store here at the Palazzo Spini Feroni. I have visited this beautiful store several times and participated in the purchase of a pair of beautiful oxblood red heels by a friend who came to visit. The Ferragamo family purchased the palazzo in the 1930’s and a museum to Ferragamo is housed below the store.
Salvatore Ferragamo was born in 1898 in Bonito Italy ( near Naples). He made his first pair of shoes for his sister’s confirmation at the age of nine. Clearly he found his calling early. He studied shoe making in Naples, opened his first store in his parents basement, then emigrated to Boston where he initially worked in a cowboy boot factory. He moved to Santa Barbara in California and became known to celebrities as he opened a repair and made to measure shoe store. His reputation grew as he became ‘the shoemaker to the stars”.
My visit to his museum in Florence can attest to his reputation. The pictures enclosed show the many wooden shoe lasts of the ‘stars’ for whom he created shoes Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Mary Pickford ( who seems to have had tiny, tiny feet).
Farragamo was however not simply happy with creating shoes. He wanted to develop a shoe that was both beautiful and comfortable to wear. Consequently he undertook the study of anatomy at the University of Southern California.
Each foot has 26 bones and each has 2 sesamoid for a total of 56 joints and hinges. The foot is an ensemble of arches in tension and compression—it is the most complex dynamic in the whole body–a remarkable example of equilibrium in nature.
As he studied the foot, Ferragamo began to test his theories about weight distribution and the human skeleton. He discovered that by measuring feet while flat, shoes were being designed that supported the heel and ball only. But human feet when wearing heels, need arch support. Ferragamo began building steel arch support into his shoes and his customers were soon telling him not only did he create beautiful shoes, but also the most comfortable they had ever worn.
He also moved from custom made to developing factory made models aligned with his designs and arch support. The beginnings of a shoe empire!! His writings indicate that he explored the importance of balance.
This is the subject of the current exhibit “Equilibrium” at the Ferragamo museum. The exhibit,like Ferragamo, explores the importance of equilibrium/balance. It covers different perspectives on the idea of balance with contributions from historians and experts from the world of art, film, dance, paleontology and philosophy. It is a fascinating exhibition!!! I loved the divers artworks from painting, sculpture, photograhpy, video and film, from classic to current. The notion of ‘balance’ is explored in videos of a tightrope walker , Philippe Petit, a mountain climber, Reinhold Messner, and depicted in film in the evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s famous walk.
While small and concise the exhibit gave me several hours of delight….and probably a most memorable moment in Florence. I was in the small theatre listening to Philippe Petitte, the tight rope walker, when I heard dutch being spoken. Hearing my mother tongue always pulls me and i glanced out the theatre door to see the fellow dutch museum goers. I looked initially in disbelief but soon realized that the woman, I was by now staring at, was the former queen of Holland Princess Beatrix. For those of you whom may wonder, that is how she is now known in Holland, Queen Mother is not how they address her. The same beautiful woman I had watched just over a year ago when she handed her crown to her son King Willem-Alexander while i was living in Amsterdam. Princess Beatrix was touring the exhibit with two women friends. She was clearly quite familiar with the exhibit as she explained several features to her friends. Yes of course , I exited the theatre and discreetly stood in the vicinity of her and her guests. There were very few people in the exhibit so it was not difficult to do. While I would have loved to say hello, it was clear she was there in no formal capacity and I did not want to intrude on her as private person and also refrained from taking any pictures.. I saw no form of security at all, simply Princess Beatrix and her friends taking in an afternoon in a museum. Perhaps she had just purchased her next pair of shoes in the store above—clearly Ferragamo still fits royalty. It was quite the thrill i can tell you!!!
Now back to Ferragamo….
After spending 13 years in California he returned to Italy–to Florence and began to fashion his shoes for the most powerful and wealthiest women who flocked to his store–and clearly given Princess Beatrix’s presence, they still do. He became intimate with the feet of his clients. The museum has many pictures and films showing him holding his clients feet, examining them and understanding their uniqueness. He experimented with various shoe designs and is known for his shoe patents (ornamental and utility)Ferragamo died at the age of 62 in 1960. His wife Wanda,barely 40 and with no prior business experience, and later their six children ran the company. Ferragamo met Wanda who was 22 years his junior on his return to Italy. During his time in America, Ferragamo had sent money back to his home town of Bonito. A doctor from his home town suggested he visit and see all the good his donations had done. He did and met the doctors 19 year old daughter and as the story goes immediately knew he would marry her which he did 3 months later.
Even today Ferragamo is recognized as the visionary and his work and designs continue to inspire current Ferragamo footwear as well as other shoe designers. He is known for the introduction of the wedge heel and his most famous invention the ‘cage’ heel. His daughter Fiamma inherited her father’s shoe design imagination and inventiveness and she is known for having created one of the brands most iconic products the Vara Pump–the fabulous square toed chunky 3 inch heel with the grosgrain bow. The museum detailed the creation of the Vara Model, and the pictures here shows the various models developed in evolution to the final ‘vara’ model. It is probably the Ferragamo i most covet!!!
Today Salvatore’s children and their families still own the company and are credited with the expansion beyond luxury shoes to bags, silk accessories, watches, perfumes and clothing.