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Ferragamo and Screen Goddesses: a Perfect Fit – Australian Financial Review

Shodding Venus

When it comes to celebrity endorsement, you can’t top Marilyn Monroe. The story behind master shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo, his muses and the legacy. 

The Australian Financial Review Magazine | August 2012 

by Marion Hume

Today, brands bleat and tweet of free product worn by stars who are often paid handsomely for the exposure. Yet Salvatore Ferragamo, headquartered in Florence, is in possession of rare relics: a pair of receipts, dated March 11, 1961, which record a salesman called George at the Park Avenue, New York shoe salon, taking orders for 16 pairs of shoes and a white calfskin bag. In return, the most famous woman in the world wrote cheques totalling $US563.30.

These were far from Marilyn’s first Ferragamos. In the 1950s, Salvatore pushed his heel height up to 11 centimetres specifically to add more wiggle to the bombshell’s walk, although she was hardly his only star client. A glittering role call flocked to be shod by this messiah of the metatarsal who was utterly obsessed by their feet. “They [these feet] talk to me. As I take them in my hands, I feel their strengths, their weaknesses, their vitality or their failings,” he wrote in his autobiography, Shoemaker of Dreams, published in 1957.

This rags­-to-­riches-­to-­rags-­to-­riches life story features (literally) walk­-on parts from such silver screen icons as Lillian Gish, Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson – although the shoemaker was far less intrigued by them from the ankle up. Then later, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, showed up, flanked by goose-­stepping Nazi guards. (“Good, normal feet and anything would fit her,” he noted). Predictably, he praised by podiatry, so tiny-­toed Vivien Leigh was a ‘Cinderella’, long­limbed Greta Garbo was an ‘aristocrat’ and Marilyn, possessed of perfectly proportioned size 37 feet, was ‘Venus’.

It is 50 years since the avatar of the American dream died. Yet a master craftsman called Stefano Frasconi is holding a pump in soft white lambskin, a near replica of the one Marilyn ordered many times – in white, nude, black, gold. As Frasconi holds a shoe that is yet to meet its heel, he is struggling to explain – through a translator and a mouthful of nails – what makes it special. But just like the company founder, any celebrity connection seems to be a sideline to him. Instead, Frasconi repeats “calzata perfectamente” (perfect fit), emphasising with sharp taps of  a little hammer. He keeps pulling at the leather, pre-soaked for days to provide flexibility, then jumps up and puts the shoe in a customised oven, before stretching its leather upper again and banging it with the hammer.

In close-up, this scene, playing out at the Ferragamo atelier on the outskirts of Florence, may seem somewhat anachronistic: the shoemaker hunched over a low bench spread with tools not dissimilar to those Salvatore himself might have used when he started making shoes commercially in 1906, aged 13. (He had made his first shoes, for his sisters, when he was only nine). But luddite practices, however charming, don’t account for a company that is listed on the Milan stock exchange and has 593 stores worldwide. The organisation posted total revenues for the first quarter of 2012 of €259.6 million ($305.5 million). WHile skills of human eye and hand helped, state-of-the-art machines aided the production of hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, as well as clothing, luggage, small leather goods, eyewear, scarves, ties, timepieces, fragrance and handbags, made elsewhere in Italy.

Widening the focus reveals our location to be a vast, slick, industrial set-up known as Manovia, after the Italian word for circular ‘rail’ system, which here moves shoes from one production process to the next. Yet this, too, traces directly back to the founder, whose experiment with a mechanised production line that would still preserve the exacting standards of custom-made shoes was so ahead of its time, it lead to his 1933 bankruptcy.

Salvatore certainly bounded back. By the 1940s, the peasant boy from a family that had struggles for survival on a small holding was the proud owner both if Il Palagio, a sumptuous hillside villa outside FLorence that is still a family home, and a castle, complete with ramparts, right in the heart of the renaissance city. Palazzo Feroni remains the company’s headquarters. When Salvatore died suddenly in 1960, he left a much younger wife, Wanda, six children and a truly international business. Since then, it is the 90-year-old matriarch, ‘Mrs Wanada’, who still turns up for work every morning and who has preserved his legacy.

To avoid confusion, it is Ferragamo company policy to call family members by their first name, preceded by ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. Hence the 67-year-old Ferruccio, who is chairman of the company, is dubbed Mr Ferruccio. His siblings – Mrs Giovanna, Mrs Fulvia, Mr Leonardo and Mr Massimo – all have key roles. (The eldest daughter, Fiamma, who designed the best-selling flat Vara pump with its gold plaque and grosgrain ribbon, dies in 1998).

Given there are 60 direct heirs, not only is there no room at the family firm for them all but a wise and stringent charter decrees that only the top three from each subsequent generation are welcome. The most visible of the third generation,in part because of his matinee idol looks, is 40-year-old Mr James, who is women’s leather product director. The first of the fourth generation to hit 21,  Lorenza Gentile, has not yet fulfilled the minimum requirements even to apply: an MBA and several years experience work elsewhere.

When Mr Ferruccio sits down to chat over a rocket-fuel espresso at the palazzo, he says that what locks everything together is “quality products that are good value for what they are; with innovation, long-lasting”. This sounds much like many other brands, but he adds that the difference is: “We don’t want to ever overcome the personality of the customer.” Evidence can be found directly below us, in the mirrored shoe salon at street level. The Viatica is a timeless two-tone stiletto of white suede and black calf. That Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Sugar’ Kane Kowalczyk wore this exact style to woo her Shell Oil millionaire in Some Like it Hot starts to matter note more but, strangely, less, once these lovely shoes are beckoning one’s own feet. Which is to say, you yearn for them to be yours, not hers.

What lies beneath remains the same, then and now. The soul of Ferragamo – pun intended- is the sole. The founder- who lied in Italy, then America, then returned to Italy – was studying anatomy at night school in Los Angeles just as architects on Americana’s east coast were realising that they could build skyscrapers taller with less load-bearing structure at the base. Similarly, Salvatore surmised that, as the weight of the erect human body is borne not by toes or heels but drops straight down on the arch, a revolutionary steel arch support would act with the equilibrium of the body in motion instead of fighting against it. This slim plate remains central to comfort. No wonder that (whisper it) both the queen of the red carpet, Angelina Jolie, and the queen of all she surveys, HRH Elizabeth II, are believed to be loyal, paying customers.

That Ferragamo also offers a wide range of fittings (A to D, others on special order) has helped gather fans in the brand’s most robust market, China. There widths C and D are hte most common, which has ripped up other luxury shoemakers offering styles of a narrow French foot and who may also have faced an additional anatomical barrier: purveyors of very high-heeled ‘limo shoes’ find these cannot adapt to the average length of the chinese foot without the wearer being en point like a ballerina. That said, Chinese movie star, Fan Bingbing does favour towering Ferragamos. THese are custom-made, their height achieved with extraordinary platforms. As for Australian feet, Salvatore has this to say about them when he visited Sydney in 1958: “Nature has been generous in length though they, too, are narrow.”

The Asia Pacific region is the group’s top market in terms of revenue, up 27.3 per cent with a turnover of 96.4million for the first quarter of 2012. A further reason is menswear, attractive to a market where men tend to embrace luxury goods before they treat their wives. For Salvatore Ferragamo himself it was making books for men that led to his breakthrough American success. Salvatore made his mark in the American motion picture industry, before i relocated from Santa Barbara to Hollywood, with cowboy boots for early Westerns. From then on, he always shod male feet. (“Mussolini lost his corns and bad toenails after he wore my boots,” is just one comment n the subject).

The founder’s sons, Mr Ferruccio and Mr Leonardo, first stood on the Bund in Shanghao when they past was mud their feet. The brand debuted with a store in the city in 1994 (with local partner, Imaginex). Hermès, Chanel, Prada, Gucci are between two and six times bigger than Ferragamo, yet in China this pioneer consistently marches ahead and is present in 34 cities. Company CEO Michele Norsa has no fears of brand saturation in China. “Not at all, we worked with McKinsey on a five­year plan,” he says. “We imagine in the next three to five years, we can cover another 10 to 20 cities probably. The potential of new destinations in China connected by trains, flights, infrastructure development is becoming very substantial.”

Norsa – known by his surname because he is an outsider, the first non-family member to hold a keymanagerial position – was hired in 2007, primarily to put in place the organisation and governance to gear up the company for an IPO, which was delayed by the 2008 crash and accomplished successfully last year. He says that Chinese customers in Beijing and Shanghaimay travel to avoid high duties and taxes,which has helped make Australia “one of the best markets in the world this year for us”.

The shoesmust bemade in Italy, “one of our pluses”, insists Mr Ferruccio, “for the name, the best quality and also, as commitment to those who have worked at Ferragamo for many years.” As to his nation’s economic woes, the company chairman adds: “I am sorry because there are many elements which are uncertain. We are fortunate because we produce 100 per cent in Italy, butwe sell, I think, 9 per cent in Italy.”

The founder’s three sons and the next generation have significant other interests. Mr Ferruccio’s son Salvatore Ferragamo II, twin of Mr James, helms their father’s parallel hotel and wine business, based in a medieval hamlet about 45 minutes’ drive from Florence. Closer to Siena is an 800year old winery and hotel, Castiglion del Bosco, owned by Mr Massimo and family. The most ambitious other business is surely Mr Leonardo’s.He is chairman and owner of Lungarno Collection, a luxury hotel group, with seven of the swankiest places to stay around Florence and another in Rome. He also owns the majority of Nautor’s Swan, the largest global producer of luxury yachts.

Today, the core business is ring-fenced against hostile threats like those endured by the part family-owned Hermès. Salvatore Ferragamo SpA is ripe for further growth (Norsa cites Jakarta and Berlin as examples) and a dynasty’s long view means thatMr James has been able to continue the inventiveness of a grandfather who tried sweet wrappers, fishing wire and tree bark as shoe uppers. He innovates in a sustainable context, while admitting that a 100 per cent biodegradable handbag (nometal parts) has yet to find broad appeal.

“In my father’s autobiography, in a way you can tell he felt his life was going to be short,” says Mr Ferruccio. “Perhaps we have tried to accomplish what he wanted to do”. But let’s not forget Mrs Wanda, born just four years before Marilyn Monroe and still standing ramrod straight in her Ferragamo heels. It is the matriarch who greets guests for cocktails after they have visited Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, housed within the cavernous palazzo for an exhibition dedicated to the icon (Marilyn runs to January 28, 2013).

“When Daddy passed away, [my mother] knew how to make children but not shoes,”Mr Ferruccio says. “Yet she has lived her life with the desire of continuing the business”.

Indeed, Mrs Wanda, long ago a teenage bride, deserves much of the credit for a sometimes glamorous, sometimes gruelling journey of this brand born of a fascination with feet.

Roger Vivier, Ahead of the Curve


ST MAGAZINE | September 2010

by Marion Hume

I’m looking at a design drawing of some distinctly racy strappy sandals, fashioned of arabesques of golden kidskin leather and with high heels inlaid with rubies. But the shoes look surprisingly sturdy, built up to support the instep and with the strong straps required by showgirls like Kylie or Lady Gaga.

In fact, the drawing dates back half a century and was done for a rather different kind of performer. In 1953, when the-then Princess Elizabeth needed glamourous, comfortable footwear in which to stand in Westminster Abbey without so much as a wobble, she turned to the French shoemaker, Roger Vivier. The result was the most famous shoes hardly ever seen, given they were invisible under the Queen’s Hartnell gown on the day of the coronation and have been hidden away in some palace archive ever since. The shock is, in the drawing, they look astonishingly contemporary.

You’ll doubtless be familiar with the name Roger Vivier, given the brand has been dazzlingly revived since 2003 when Diego Della Valle – he of the Tod’s empire  – took it over. Della Valle installed Bruno Frisoni, a Frenchman of Italian heritage who had been making his mark creating accessories for Christian Lacroix, as artistic director. Since then, Frisoni has proved adept at mixing wit and elegance, especially in the recent, “A princess to be a queen” collection, including a platform “Balmoral” so sky-high HRH certainly did not command him to send a pair over.

Roger Vivier is also well known because its brand ambassador is the chicest woman in France. (Official; she won a nationwide poll ahead of Carla Bruni Sarkozy). Ines de la Fressange, once Karl Lagerfeld’s muse at Chanel and still as slim as a reed well into her 50s, now acts as a kind of North Star of taste. She describes her own somewhat nebulous role as being able to tell Della Valle to his face that he is “too old and too rich” to tolerate ugliness and thus to constantly remind him of the importance of beauty. This seems to be working. This shoe and bag brand now has nine stores around the world, including rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris; Sloane Street, London and just opened, Plaza 66 in Shanghai, a first foray into mainland China. A little nosegay of Vivier scents launches this autumn too.

But what of the man behind the name? Roger Vivier was the most famous shoe designer in the world – really; his shoes were desired from America to Australia, from his native France to Egypt, South Africa and beyond. Yet while he had the good fortune to live until the age of 90, by doing so, he had so far outlived both close friends and glittering clients such as Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly,  that when he died in 1998, he was largely forgotten. Indeed, when Diego Della Valle  decided to revive the brand, the main question of people’s lips was “Who?”

Back in the 90s, you could sometimes find fabulous satin stilettos labelled “Christian Dior cree par Roger Vivier”. (These days, if you do, it will be in a posh vintage store and the price will be high). Dior and Vivier were personal friends and professional collaborators, to the point that Dior would make a point of publicly acknowledging that, “my friend Roger Vivier, (by) making shoes for the most elegant feet in the world, helped make my dream come true.” Yet the pair hadn’t even met when Dior re-established French fashion supremacy in February 1947 with “The New Look” (accessorised with shoes by Ferragamo). They didn’t meet until 1949.

So who was Roger Vivier? Born into the Parisian bourgeoisie, his young life changed radically when his father and mother died in quick succession leaving him an orphan. At the end of his teens, he dropped out of the Ecole des Beaux-Art to make shoes, thus forever linking a love of sculptural form with the ability to make money. When he first travelled to New York in 1935,  he was as awed by those cathedrals of commerce, Saks 5th Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman as he was by the Statue of Liberty. Soon he was designing shoes for Delman, a mighty American firm but when, in 1937, a proposal for a new shoe provoked a transatlantic telegram reading “Are You Crazy?” he took his innovation for platforms made of cork to the surrealist, Elsa Schiaparelli instead.

During the Nazi Occupation, Vivier, like many creative Parisians, headed to the South of France. He then travelled to Lisbon from whence he secured a passage on one of the last passenger liners to cross the Atlantic. Partly due to the scarcity of leather, he made hats during the war years which he saw out in Manhattan. When he finally came home and was introduced to Dior, it was hats that he offered him. Instead, a deal was struck for decorative, jewel-encrusted shoes that, after a while, were labelled “Christian Dior by Roger Vivier”, the first time a shoe maker got equal billing with a couturier.

While the Vivier creations displayed at the Dior boutique were often of a Marie-Antoinette level of opulence, encrusted in shimmering jewels or the feathers of a kingfisher, the creator of them was fascinated by structure as much as surface decoration. In 1954, he realised that architectural breakthroughs concerning weight-bearing steel could be applied to making pin-thin heels possible for the first time. Voila! The stiletto, which would prove so ruinous to wooden floors that by 1965, the wearing of stiletto heels was banned from official buildings in France.

Yet while Vivier was the king of heels – the inward curving Choc heel which appears to follow and extend the leg was also his invention –  he was equally the master of the flat. Diana Vreeland, the legendary US Vogue editrix who was known for sacking Voguettes if they didn’t polish the soles of their shoes with the same rigour as the uppers, wrote in her autobiography, DV, “no one ever got a sole as flat – as flat as tongues – as old Roger Vivier.” Not that Vreeland was averse to heels, posing outside her Vogue office in 1964 in a pair of jaunty fire-engine red python stack heeled boots. “My darling Roger Vivier,” she wrote, “the shoes he made… are the most beautiful shoes I’ve ever known…. shoes of hummingbird feathers, shoes embroidered with tiny black pearls and coral, all with exquisite heels of lacquer.” She described her own extensive collection, some of which she wore for over 20 years and all of which she had her housemaid polish with a rhinoceros horn as, “a lesson in perfection”.

No wonder then that a young Yves Saint Laurent came to Vivier when he sought to encapsulate the groovy Paris of his friends, Françoise Hardy and Zizi Jeanmaire. By 1965, Vivier, by now independent from Dior, conceived a seemingly-puritan yet somewhat transgressive flat pump with a buckle on its upper. It became the sexiest flat shoe ever when Catherine Deneuve wore a pair in Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour”. Today, flats are equal to heels.  “A woman who understands she won’t be better or sexier with 12-centimetres more is smart! Sensuality doesn’t come from centimetres!” says Ines de la Fressange, who then adds,  “but of course I love heels too.”

Only the most extraordinary creative people don’t find their taste gets stuck. (Most designers find their style, then keep repeating it. Rare are those , such as Karl Lagerfeld, who keep moving on). Yet Vivier was still at the cutting edge aged 54. One of Rudolf Nureyev’s first acts after he defected to the West was to shop as a free man. His purchase, a pair of boots by Roger Vivier. Vivier was 61 when Brigitte Bardot wore his over-the-knee black boots as she crooned Serge Gainsbourg’s “Harley Davison”, the same year Jane Fonda wore a Vivier version of what were then called kinky boots, in silver and vinyl,in “Barbarella.” Officially Vivier retired in 1971, but he never stopped designing, to the end of his life preferring to talk of his “stamina” rather than his talent.

To revive a historic brand, it helps to have strong signatures to revisit. For Bruno Frisoni, there’s the heel shapes; the comma, the choc, the stiletto; there’s the jewelled flat, the snub square toe that was another Vivier creation. Frisoni is certainly having fun with that pilgrim buckle, these days seen on slightly naughty handbags that hint at a First Lady primness (no surprise then that slightly naughty Carla Bruni Sarkozy is often seen with hers) while the toes of Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Katie Holmes are often covered in Vivier flats. As for the heels, the role call of those attracted to witty yet always elegant heights includes Kate Winslet and Tilda Swinton as well as Hollywood swan, Cate Blanchett, so often a repeat customer that she and Frisoni have become firm friends.

If Frisoni finds himself stuck for ideas, the Vivier oeuvre is a vast source of inspiration. If he feels like getting away from it all, his favourite place on earth is Conca dei Marini, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where Jackie O used to holiday wearing Vivier flats. But sometimes, he says, he just sits in his office at 29 rue Faubourg Saint Honore and channels the master. “I talk to God,” he laughs. “Or in this case, to Roger”