November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Once upon a shoe

By |2023-01-19T05:07:50+01:00January 6th, 2023|L'Americana|
When the shoe fits... and it's a fancy shoe... and you didn't have to pay an arm and a leg for it.

hen I lived in Rome, I occasionally strolled through the fancy shopping streets near Piazza di Spagna. Mostly, I window shopped — at Gucci, Max Mara, and Ferragamo, telling myself that one day, say mid-life, I would be ready for that fancy attire. Of course, now that I am at my aspirational fashion age, these clothes still cost too much. Plus, I have a split personality when it comes to fashion: I love the simple elegance of high-end Italian brands, but I am also a bit Boho at heart. Half my wardrobe is classic, half vintage.

I was recently reminded of my Italian fashionista side when I saw the documentary on Salvatore Ferragamo, called “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams.” The title actually caught me off guard. Shoemaker? I had thought that Ferragamo was mostly an accessories brand. At least, when I had wandered into the Ferragamo store years ago near Piazza di Spagna, I bought ties for my dad and brother, and scarves for my mother. (Unlike full-blown clothing, accessories were within my budget back then.)

Turns out, Ferragamo started out as a shoemaker. Born in 1898, in the town of Bonito, an hour South of Naples, he was the eleventh child (in a total of 14) in a family of farmers. From an early age, Ferragamo loved shoes — and watching the local shoemaker at work. His parents discouraged his interest, since shoemaking was considered a humble trade. But Salvatore finally convinced them of his path when as a nine year old, he made his sister’s First Communion shoes overnight. He then apprenticed in Naples, and later returned to Bonito, where he opened his first store.

From an early age, Ferragamo loved shoes — and watching the local shoemaker at work. His parents discouraged his interest, since shoemaking was considered a humble trade.

But America called him; it had already taken a few of his siblings, so 16-year-old Ferragamo decided to immigrate — to advance his shoemaking skills. Initially landing in the shoe factories of New York, Ferragamo was unimpressed by the machine-made shoes. He quickly decided to do his own thing, and in keeping with the American Dream, he headed West — to California. He eventually ended up in Hollywood, as shoemaker for the most famous stars of the day, including Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman. What his shoes had over others was not only style, but comfort. Ferragamo actually studied the anatomy of the foot at the University of Southern California, coming up with designs that were not only classy, but comfortable.

After several years, in 1927, he went back to Italy to regain his footing (no pun intended). This time, he set up shop in Florence. Over the next decade, when Italy entered the war years, Ferragamo improvised with inexpensive materials, like using wine corks for heels — a practice that has endured. Also during these years, Ferragamo met the woman who was to be his wife, Wanda, the daughter of the mayor of Bonito. They had a happy life, in a villa outside of Florence. They also had six children, some of whom were interviewed for the documentary. A couple of grandchildren were also interviewed, along with contemporary shoemaking giants Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik. Everyone echoed the same message — that Ferragamo’s genius, intuition, and gumption helped him overcome formidable obstacles. Simply put, he had an unwavering belief in himself — and his products.

Ferragamo died in 1960, at age 62, when his fame was already widely established in Italy and abroad. The film unfortunately ends abruptly, like Ferragamo’s life, and there’s little explanation of how the Ferragamo brand has endured over the past two decades — although his wife and two eldest daughters, Fiamma and Giovanna, were largely responsible for its initial continuity. Ferragamo shoes, accessories, and clothes are still sold (at prohibitive prices) widely throughout the world.

Salvatore Ferragamo and Audrey Hepburn.

Even at a consignment shop where I live in Gainesville, Florida, I found, two days after seeing the movie, two pairs of Ferragamo shoes — in my size! The first pair, black heels with a tall, circular heel, did not, alas, feel comfortable. But the second pair — gold-colored summer sandals — were comfortable. And, they had a four-inch wedge heel made out of cork! Certainly, the most elevating pair of shoes I own. And the most elegant. There’s gold ribbing all around the perimeter of the shoes, like a railroad track, each one emblazoned with the signature Ferragamo name.

I couldn’t not buy these shoes, which were in great shape for second-hand. Kismet, said a friend who follows my fashion sensibilities. Plus, they cost about 90 percent less than brand-new Ferragamos, and they were in excellent condition. Leaving the store, I felt content; while I hadn’t gotten my purchase at Rome’s flagship store, no one but me would ever know the difference.

And for balance, the next day I went to my favorite vintage store and found a paisley 1970s skirt — made by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The skirt, of course, looked great with the shoes. A perfect match — like the two distinct halves of this fashionista’s heart.

Kristine Crane is Associate Editor of The American and the author of the "L'Americana" column. She lives and writes in North Central Florida. She was formerly a Fulbright scholar and journalist in Rome, where she helped found "The American." She is originally from Iowa City.