Salvatore Ferragamo: Shoemaker to the Stars

Updated on November 21, 2019
1938 Maharani wedge sandal made for Indira Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar.
1938 Maharani wedge sandal made for Indira Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar.

Where Salvatore Ferragamo Came From

How many people can say that they found their professional calling at the age of 9? We hear of musical or math prodigies, but who knew that a young boy could be a prodigy of footwear? Fortunately for all those with an appreciation of high style, innovation, and exquisite quality, at the tender age of nine years old, Salvatore Ferragamo decided to make shoes for his sisters to wear to their Confirmation, thus launching a career and eventually a luxury empire. Take a peek into the fascinating story of Salvatore Ferragamo, shoemaker to the stars.

Born in Bonito, Italy in 1898, Salvatore Ferragamo was the 11th of 14 children. Thank goodness for sisters, because it was the occasion of the First Communion of a sister that inspired young Salvatore to try his hand at the craft of shoemaking, according to a Time magazine article. When he learned that his parents could not afford to purchase a traditional white pair of shoes for his sister, Salvatore made them himself. The young lad quickly realized that he had found his path in life, and went to Naples, Italy to study shoemaking. He was only thirteen years old when he returned to Bonito and opened his first business, run from his parents' home. From these humble beginnings would one day grow a worldwide luxury brand.

Salvatore with famous customer Joan Crawford, 1928.
Salvatore with famous customer Joan Crawford, 1928.

From Humble Beginnings to Shoemaker to the Stars

In 1914, sixteen year old Salvatore undertook the long journey to the United States to live with one of his brothers who worked at a cowboy boot factory in Boston (a cowboy boot factory in Boston?!). The eager young Ferragamo went to the factory to learn more about the art of making footwear. The modern techniques and machinery used in the production of the cowboy boots impressed the aspiring shoemaker. However, he was less than impressed with the quality of the final product. Even at such a young age, Ferragamo knew that fine quality was a top priority.

From Boston, Salvatore made his way to California, where he ultimately landed in Hollywood via Santa Barbara. While in Santa Barbara, Ferragamo began making shoes and boots for the film industry using the traditional techniques he had learned as an apprentice in Naples. The movie stars were so wowed by the quality of his shoes that they began ordering their own custom footwear directly from the designer. Thus began Ferragamo's reign as “The Shoemaker to the Stars”. Celebrity business was so strong that in 1923, Ferragamo relocated to Hollywood to be closer to his client base. His store, the Hollywood Boot Shop, was frequented by the biggest names of the day and later by other stars of the silver screen. Loyal Ferragamo clients included Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe, just to name a few.

Ferragamo invented the stiletto heel, such as this pair of crocodile stilettos designed for Marilyn Monroe.
Ferragamo invented the stiletto heel, such as this pair of crocodile stilettos designed for Marilyn Monroe.
Rainbow suede platform sandals designed for Judy Garland, 1938.
Rainbow suede platform sandals designed for Judy Garland, 1938.

Ferragamo's Ruby Slippers and Sexy Stilettos

As Hollywood's most famous shoe designer, Salvatore Ferragamo created some of the most legendary shoes ever featured in film. He made sandals for the Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments. Dorothy's ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz were made by none other than Ferragamo. Marilyn Monroe's sexy stilettos in The Seven Year Itch – Ferragamo again. Other film credits include Some Like It Hot, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

What made Ferragamo shoes such a hot item was his innovation, creativity, and dedication to quality. There were other classically trained Italian shoemakers in the world, and other fashion designers, but it was rare for both to come together so perfectly in the work of one man. Something else which was unique about Salvatore was his belief that fashion did not have to be painful. Why couldn't one design shoes which were as comfortable to wear as they were beautiful to behold? To solve the mystery, Ferragamo enrolled in anatomy courses at The University of Southern California to learn all about the twenty six bones which make up the human foot.

With this knowledge in his arsenal, the Shoemaker to the Stars was able to create some of the best fitting shoes of any designer. He created custom wooden lasts (models) in the shape of the foot of many of his regular clients. A handmade custom shoe made by Ferragamo could involve as many as five fittings to achieve the perfect fit for the individual foot. It is no wonder that once an actor or actress wore a pair of Ferragamos in a movie that they ran to the shoemaker for many more pairs for their personal wardrobes!

1938 shoe designed for Carmen Miranda made from gilded glass mosaic cork heel with gold kid and black silk upper.
1938 shoe designed for Carmen Miranda made from gilded glass mosaic cork heel with gold kid and black silk upper.
Ferragamo was the first shoemaker to use cork for heels.
Ferragamo was the first shoemaker to use cork for heels.
18kt gold sandals!
18kt gold sandals!

Innovation, Creativity, And Fit Were Ferragamo's Passions

By the second half of the 1920s, business was booming at the Hollywood Boot Shop. In fact, it was so good that Ferragamo's production was not able to keep up with demand. For that reason, in 1927, Salvatore moved his business to Florence, Italy, a city which had the traditionally trained artisans he needed to make his couture shoes. The wealthiest women around the world still flocked to Ferragamo for his one-of-a-kind creations. His nimble mind gave truth to the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. When supplies of leather and other shoemaking materials became tight in the 1930s, Ferragamo found innovative new ways in which to use non-traditional materials. One of his best known inventions is the cork sole wedge shoe, the first of which was actually made using corks from wine bottles. Ferragamo's wedge design became an instant success.

Ferragamo's experiments with unique materials continued throughout his career. In 1938, he created a spectacular pair of cork heel shoes for Carmen Miranda which featured a gilded glass mosaic over the cork. The uppers were equally magnificent, and were crafted from gold kidskin and black silk. It was Ferragamo, not incidentally, who designed the first sandals for women. Before him, ladies's shoes always featured closed toes. Some of Ferragamo's other unique materials included wood, metal wire, felt, raffia, and even 18kt gold for a private client who apparently wanted shoes as exquisite as jewelry.

Many of the most creative designs in the fashion industry came from the mind of Salvatore Ferragamo. In fact, he held over 300 patents at the time of his death in 1960. Ferragamo was responsible for important structural innovations, such as the steel arch support system he designed to give proper support to not only the foot but the entire body. Another technical breakthrough – a metal interior heel – allowed the master to create the stiletto heel in the 1950s. The sexy design was popularized by Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe, and quickly became beloved for the way in which it made the legs look impossibly long and seductive.

The award winning "invisible sandal" debuted in 1947.
The award winning "invisible sandal" debuted in 1947.
The remarkable "cage heel" created by Salvatore Ferragamo.
The remarkable "cage heel" created by Salvatore Ferragamo.

Iconic Ferragamo Designs

Taking his inspiration from art, architecture, and the world around him, Ferragamo introduced the world to many other fashionable designs. It was his belief that the designer had a responsibility to create new fashions and trends, to which the client would be led. In other words, he started trends, he did not follow them. Some of his other groundbreaking creations included the shell shaped sole, the cage heel, sculptural heels, and the “invisible” sandal. In honor of the invisible sandal, Neiman Marcus bestowed its prestigious award on Ferragamo in 1947, making him the first ever shoe designer to be honored with the prize.

Ferragamo was just as bold with his color choices as he was fashion-forward in his designs. The history of his shoes is filled with sun-drenched yellows, regal reds, emerald greens, and cobalt blues...sometimes all in the same shoe! He was known for mixing textures, colors, and materials freely, which resulted in designs which were well ahead of their time. Some of Ferragamo's most outlandish creations look more like museum pieces than actual footwear, but the majority of his unique shoes were designed for actual customers. The fascinating dichotomy of the Shoemaker to the Stars is that as well as one-of-a-kind shoes with fanciful forms and wild colors, he was equally well known for his tasteful, elegant, and timeless shoes made from luxurious materials like crocodile and fine kidskin. That reputation for traditional elegance resonates just as much as Ferragamo's visionary side does.

Ferragamo with wooden lasts for his famous clientele.
Ferragamo with wooden lasts for his famous clientele.

The Salvatore Ferragamo Museum

In 1938, Salvatore Ferragamo invested some of his considerable earnings into purchasing a new headquarters, workshop, and store in Florence, Italy. The Palazzo Spini Feroni is a Medieval palace which was built in 1289 (as any visitor to Florence can attest, the city is full of historic palazzos). The building is still in the company today, and it functions as not only the prestigious flagship retail location, but since 1995 has been home to a public museum, the Museo della Calzatura Salvatore Ferragamo (the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum). Tours of the museum are available by appointment and showcase a rotating collection of some of the thousands of shoes held by the Ferragamo family. As well as Salvatore's iconic designs, visitors will see photos, patents, wooden lasts of famous feet, all artfully displayed in homage to the important historic role which Ferragamo held in the realm of international fashion and shoe design.

The "Vara" remains a staple of the Ferragamo collection.
The "Vara" remains a staple of the Ferragamo collection.

The Passing of the Torch

Business continued to thrive in the post-WW II era, and Ferragamo's staff was expanded to include 700 of Italy's most talented craftsmen. The company was capable of producing up to 350 pairs of its handmade shoes per day. Salvatore Ferragamo had married in 1940, and he and wife Wanda had six children. As the Ferragamo children grew up, they were introduced to the art of shoemaking at an early age, just as Salvatore had found his calling when just a boy. It was a shrewd move, and when Salvatore Ferragamo died in 1960, his luxury empire passed into the very capable hands of his wife and children. Subsequent awards bestowed upon members of the Ferragamo clan after Salvatore's passing included a Saks Fifth Avenue award, the Neiman Marcus Italian Fortnight, Designer of the Year, and a Fashion Group Award. Wanda Ferragamo was even named International Woman of the Year in 1982.

The Ferragamos continued to build upon what Salvatore had begun. Over the decades, the label was expanded to include luxury items such as eyewear, perfume, scarves, belts, handbags, watches, and clothing. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known to be particularly fond of Ferragamo bags, and their clientele has always included the bluebloods and celebrities of every decade. One of the most classic Ferragamo shoe styles, the Vara ballet pump, was designed by Salvatore's daughter Fiamma in 1978, and has been in continuous production ever since. The classic elegance of the patent leather or calfskin round toe shoe with a grosgrain bow and gold logo plate has not lost one ounce of its appeal in the 30+ years since it was debuted.

2010 Ferragamo ad campaign featuring Claudia Schiffer.
2010 Ferragamo ad campaign featuring Claudia Schiffer.

How Ferragamo Became a Worldwide Luxury Brand

Since the control passed to Salvatore's family, production at Ferragamo has been automated and mechanized. The peak capacity of 350 pairs of shoes per day handmade by master craftsman jumped to a capacity of 11,000 pairs a day when modern technology was introduced. Just as Salvatore himself relaunched his business on Italian soil when his production capacity in Hollywood could not keep up with demand, his successors made the leap to meet global demand for their luxurious shoes. Mindful of Salvatore's passion for fit and comfort, when mechanized production was introduced, shoes were engineered to come in a vast range of sizes and up to six widths per style. That allowed clients to get as close to a custom fit as possible in a readymade shoe. Quality control remains a cornerstone of the Ferragamo label as well, with many hours put into the production of each pair of shoes.

Today, Ferragamo remains one of the world's premier luxury brands. With both free-standing shops and merchandise featured in upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue, well heeled men and women still flock to the brand for the quality and innovative design, and creative use of materials for which the label has always been known. While popular around the globe, it is now the Asian market which accounts for the lion's share of the company's business. From the charming beginnings as a young boy's effort to make something special for his sister to a worldwide leader in luxury and quality, Ferragamo has come a long way, and has sure looked good while doing it!

Questions & Answers


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      • GmaGoldie profile image

        Kelly Kline Burnett 

        9 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

        Love Ferragamo flats - can only buy from eBay - my checkbook won't allow.

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