All roads lead to Florence when following in the footsteps of Salvatore Ferragamo but, before we arrive, we must start at the very beginning, with a reason for why we are here in the first place. I had heard about a concept called ‘Ferragamo's Creations’ belonging to the house of Salvatore Ferragamo; a collection inspired by the recreation of key pieces from their extensive archives, offered in limited numbers at exclusive locations such as Capri, Portofino and their flagship store of Florence. Shoes and bags made for Audrey Hepburn, invented for Marilyn Monroe and inspired by Princess Diana were among the many iconic pieces held in the archives and now brought back to life. I do feel, at some stage, in some world, my heart belonged to another time when fashion was still to be invented and true icons of style and screen cemented ageless elegance. I had heard the stories of Mr. Ferragamo’s great achievements in the hall of fashion fame but I wanted more. I wanted to see these iconic moments for myself and hear them talk of times gone by. I wanted to walk in the hallowed halls of the Ferragamo palace, The Palazzo Spini Feroni, where the great archives were held and where many moons ago a relatively unknown shoemaker would dream of - and hand-make shoes that would change the feet of fashion.
CAPRI IS CAPRI
Our first stop was the island of Capri. I had never been before, only heard of it’s legend. And as much as I wanted to see the famous faraglioni (sea stacks) and swim in the azure waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea it was those iconic moments of summers past from the 60’s and 70’s that held my heart. A notion of what Capri would be like through the images and tales of bygone celebrities who strolled the winding streets in their Ferragamo’s. Icons such as Jacqueline Onassis, , Audrey Hepburn and Joan Crawford, all clients of Mr Ferragamo and all devotees of the famous island.
Even though the tourist crowd has made the tiny isle the ultimate day trip destination from across the bay of Naples, do not be disenchanted by the thousands of sightseers pouring into the the port, Marina Grande. As the sun sets, the crowds diminish and then once again the 'other' Capri can be found. A quieter Capri, a private retreat to those in the know where locals live and generations of Italia’s fashion royalty retire to their Summer villas of which the Ferragamo family often did. Many times I would ask people who lived on the island, “do you know where the Ferragamo Villa is?” and often they would reply yes but keep the details vague, as if there is an unspoken code to protect those who have made the island their own. So, instead, I drink in the nostalgia of icons past and live 'Capri' amongst the bougainvillea covered arches and lemon groves. Drinking caffè in the Piazzetta and dining on lobster spaghetti and the obligatory Aperol Spritz down on the rocks of La Fontelina, surrounded by their their trademark blue and white ombrellonis.
Here you can feel the history always present, vibrating beneath the surface, a world away from the super yachts and celebrities of today. Which is why a visit to Capri’s 'Ferragamo’s Creations' boutique is an important ode to a time that will never be again, a recreation of iconic archival moments that celebrate the style and mystery of fame from the silver screen to the aristocrats of Europes jetset.
Ferragamo 'CREATIONS' boutique, Capri, Italy
Audrey Hepburn in Capri | Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis outside the Canfora Capri Sandals store
LA DOLCE VITA
As we make our way to Florence there is a Ferragamo sandal calling my name or should I say it’s name sake, the Amalfi (made for Greta Garbo in 1952). Across the water (you can see it from Capri on a clear day) rests another Italian legend, the Amalfi Coast, home to our next stop, an iconic hotel carved into the cliff, a jewel set amongst this jaw dropping coastline. Il San Pietro di Positano is our destination but first we must get there. Into Amalfi we sail, where, again, day trippers have descended upon this idyllic location and for good reason. There is nothing like sailing into the bustling port dwarfed by the jagged cliffs and winding sky high roads. Even the throngs of people disembarking cannot diminish its majestic beauty and again I am left wondering about a time when there were less ferries and more fishing boats.
The full Amalfi experience comes with a car ride (Mercedes darling, loads of them) that dips and turns, hugging the cliffs within an inch of our lives and yet our driver doesn’t break a sweat, music blaring, talking in rapid Italian and gesturing with both hands about how annoying the traffic is today. I am thinking that it might be annoying every day but I really don’t care because I am here, on the Amalfi coast hunting historic Ferragamo moments and to be honest I am quite enjoying this enthusiastic signore’s complaints despite the quease that is starting to grow deep inside my stomach. And then we stop unexpectedly on the very top of a cliff. At what is probably the most understated entrance to one of the worlds most exclusive hotels. Yet I can see why. There is no need to compete with the view before you. On one side is Positano, the picture-perfect postcard image of my dreams is in fact real and for a short while I am stunned by the sight. The beauty of the seaside town in all it’s pastel-coloured glory, tumbles down the cliff to the pebbled waters, a cluttered chaos of arches, balconies and boats set amidst lemon trees, lido’s and lounges. On the other is the tempting Tyrrhenian Sea, a forever blue haze broken only by the odd wooden super yacht or Rivera boat.
1955 Greta Garbo & Christina Onassis, 1955 | Sophia Loren in 'Scandal in Sorrento' Italy, 1955
Il San Pietro di Positano, like the Ferragamo brand, is still owned and run by family. The story of Carlino Cinque is local folklore, a true Positanian who loved his town which, back then, was nothing more than a fishing village. In 1962 he literally started the hotel industry in Positano by turning a modest family home that faced the sea into a small stay which would grow and grow to become one of the worlds most respected and sophisticated resorts famous for it’s old world charm, privacy and history. It is the thing I love about the most about Il San Pietro di Positano. You feel as if time has stood still. That at any moment Carlino might walk across the famed terrace in his signature 70’s style straw hat with his shirt unbuttoned just so and gold chain glinting in the sun (his portrait hangs in the foyer alongside the life-size bronze nude sculptures), an eclectic figure who threw renowned parties for his VIP guests who included the likes of Richard Burton, Gregory Peck, Liza Minnelli, Laurence Olivier, Brooke Shields, Barbara Streisand, the King of Jordan and Federici Fellini - who I might add we stayed in his suite aptly titled '8'.
I wondered if Ferragamo clad feet had danced these floors perhaps as the shoes of Elizabeth Taylor, Sophie Loren and Greta Garbo who all claimed the Amalfi to be the backdrop to their biggest love affairs. I can imagine there must have been many Ferragamo moments in a place like this in a time like that. As I read more about the Cinque family I am struck by the similarities between the two families . Both Italian royalty in their respective industries who have maintained family and loyalty as the cornerstones of their empires. Both leaders in the modern world without sacrificing their heritage or history, known for their commitment to quality and hand crafted luxury. Both companies prospered under the pioneering leadership of their families matriarch’s, Wanda Ferragamo and Virginia Cinque. Virginia still today arranges the flowers at reception and makes the limoncello and marmalade. She once famously said, “It's easier being faithful to Positano than to your spouse.”and I somehow think she might be right.
This style was designed for Audrey Hepburn in 1954 and recreated in 1999 for the exhibition on the actress organized by Museo Salvatore Ferragamo .
“I love feet. They talk to me. As I take them in my hands I feel their strengths, their weaknesses, there vitality or their feelings, it’s arch strong, is a delight to touch, a masterpiece of divine workmanship. A bad foot-crooked toes, ugly joints, loose ligaments moving under the skin-is an agony. As I take these feet in my hands I am consumed with anger and compassion : anger that I cannot shoe all the feet in the world, compassion for all those who walk in torment." - Salvatore Ferragamo
The high heel pump was initially created for Marilyn Monroe's personal wardrobe. She loved it so much she order it in bulk and in a variety of colors. It soon became a signature shoe for the House.
Salvatore Ferragamo, Anita Loos and Audrey Hepburn at Palazzo Spini Feroni, in Florence, Italy, 1954
The famous "Rainbow" wedge designed for Judy Garland in 1938 now part of the Ferragamo Creations collection.
A NOBLE PALACE
Palazzo Spini Feroni
Finally I was here. We had retraced ‘CREATIONS’ to the mother ship. The Palazzo Spini Feroni. I know nothing of what it must feel like to be born to a culture of great history and art but I can understand why Salvatore chose this medieval palace in this city to be his home. The 13th Century fortress has been home to the Ferragamo family and empire for over 80 years. Rarely opened to outsiders, the private rooms often referred to as the 'noble floors’ are where Salvatore himself would meet with famed customers such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Anna Magnani, Paulette Goddard, The Duke and the Duchess of Windsor, Alicia Markova and many others to examine their feet and discuss their shoe desires. It was here in the Sala Alcova room where he and other artisans would work from sunrise to sunset, hand-making shoes in what was then a workshop. And it’s within these walls where the brand’s matriarch Salvatore’s wife, [Wanda Ferragamo] held office before passing away in 2018. To be in these rooms feels like a direct connection to Salvatore himself, an anchor to the families place in Florentine history. I had come prepared only to take a tour of the ‘Sustainable Thinking’ exhibition at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo located in the basement of the palace so when we were quietly ushered through glass doors and up an elegant staircase I knew I was getting closer to my archival dream.
I wasn’t sure if I was meant to take pictures, sit still or talk so I just stood still, very still, and let the beauty and history of centuries gone by wash over me. Above me, frescos covered the arched ceiling, a representation of the four continents (not Australia I was told, still not discovered), below me the chestnut floor was mostly covered in a hand loomed carpet belonging to Salvatore himself and to each of my sides, museum-worthy art hung dramatically in enormous gilded frames. I don’t have long to take it all in before I hear the sound of footsteps and the envious tones of fluent Italian. Do I stand, do I sit, do I run? For a minute, I panic, forgetting I am supposed to be here and then I hear “buona sera!” just as two very chic Italian signora enter the room with warm eyes and welcoming smiles, and again I am reminded of why I love this country.
Both women have worked for the Ferragamo family for some time and it’s clear that loyalty and family play a key role to the success and longevity of the house. They invite me to sit and have a coffee, so we can talk. They tell me that this building I am fortunate to be in is a very important building in the city of Florence. The Spini family, who lived there for three generations, built it in 1289; Geri Spini was banker to the Pope and the palace was built as a symbol to show the power of the family within the church. I am told that the noble floor is a very important historical path as it holds manifestos and paintings of the masters (Ranieri del Pace), and important documentation of the renaissance and baroque periods.
The palace has five floors; the basement holds the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, the ground floor houses the brands most important flagship store, the Noble floor (which we were on) and remaining two are similar and used as showrooms for clients to come and view collections, just as Ferragamo would have done himself. It’s a reminder to modern collections of the brands history and heritage. Yet prior to this, these rooms also once served as a ‘strange’ hotel hosted by a French madam. No one is entirely sure how she became the landlord; however, once poor she became rich hosting the likes of Hemingway and Wilde amongst other intellectuals who visited the city seeking an Italian and Florentine experience.
Throughout all of history the building has mostly been private except for a short period when Florence was the capital of Italy. The room we are in is referred to as the ‘Council Room’, a reference to its day as council of the municipality of Florence; this brief window of public access ended upon the return of Salvatore from his American experience. My host explains that upon his return he did not actually intend to stay in Italy. “He probably felt that America was too much modern but without tradition. And he came back here in order to find both of them,” she says.
His goal was to establish a supply chain that continued his dedication to craftsmanship allowing him to grow his export business and meet the high demands of department stores in the US. He would not compromise his reputation or the feet of women worldwide by resorting to an inferior machine made version. He needed artisans and skilled shoemakers and back then it was either Florence or Rome. Rome - heavy in politics - did not attract Salvatore but Florence, a city of great art, beauty, food and culture was where he would start his next chapter.
For him, the right shoe was the way to make a normal lady into a princess and a princess, into a queen.
“Let’s take a walk,” says one of the signora. And with that I know my time is coming to a close. As we stand to leave I am distracted by family memorabilia; a brick from the white house, the famous wedge shoe made for an Indian Princess and a photo of Salvatore and his wife Wanda in younger times. Books, so many beautiful books line the shelf and I wish I could take the time to see what’s in them. We walk down a corridor lit by the glow of chandeliers and more alfrescos line the curved ceiling. As we walk, we discuss the importance of the wedge, which Salvatore invented in 1938. Historically, it was known as the ‘rainbow’ wedge made for Judy Garland but it was really the Italian law that gave Salvatore the idea to invent the platform. During the war it was not possible to import the German iron pieces that had been invented to save the body weight on the arch of the foot. Somewhat afraid that it wouldn’t be possible to create the same result, he had the idea to invent the wedge to manage the sole of the foot. I am told that this was, “a very important principle because creativity, beauty and comfort are absolutely in synergy for Salvatore Ferragamo. They were at this time, and they are at present.”
We discuss how Salvatore knew his inventions were, in many cases, not ready for society and he would use them in movies instead of normal life. Ferragamo created some of the most legendary shoes ever featured in film such as the gladiator sandal for the Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments and the stiletto for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot.
Ferragamo was different; he was a real genius who really did everything that was possible in shoes at that time. Certainly a shoemaker that enrolls themselves in an English speaking university (The University of Southern California) to study anatomy to truly understand all 26 bones of the human foot was not a normal event of the time, not then and not even now.
Salvatore Ferragamo managed to patent nearly all his designs and currently there are 400 archived here at Palazzo Spini Feroni. It is safe to say Ferragamo is responsible for most of the creative designs we now have in the fashion industry but it was the structural innovations he was responsible for that revolutionised the way we wear shoes.
THE FLORENCE GUIDE TO VINTAGE FERRAGAMO
My dream to stand amongst the archives of Salvatore Ferragamo came close, but not quite as close as I’d hoped. I had come this far and would not quit so I recreated my own archival story on the streets of Florence, retracing his steps one vintage piece after another, like a breadcrumb trail across the city discovering hidden gems. This is my treasured gift to share with you; the Ferragamo vintage guide to Florence.
Via dei Serragli, 7r, 50124 Firenze FI, Italy
Piazza San Felice, 1r, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
GIRATEMPO VINTAGE STORE FIRENZE
Piazzetta Piero Calamandrei, 2, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli, 22/red, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
RECOLLECTION BY ALBRICI
Via dei Serragli, 22, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
Learn more about the current exhibition 'Sustainable Thinking' at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo here
Quotes and Stories throughout from Shoemaker of Dreams: the Autobiography of Salvatore Ferragamo
Thank you to the Ferragamo family for allowing me the great privilege of visiting their historical home, the Palazzo Spini Feroni.
Photography by Sheree Commerford