Ferragamo in Hollywood

by Michele Fossi

The same year that the famous Hollywood sign was built, 1923, a young Italian immigrant named Salvatore Ferragamo opened an establishment called the Hollywood Boot Shop. Ferragamo would go on to forge the first-ever relationship between the American movie industry and Italian fashion. This is the story of a pioneer.

First screened at the 77th Venice Film Festival in 2020, Luca Guadagnino’s feature-length documentary Salvatore – Shoemaker of Dreams is finally in cinemas. Scripted by fashion journalist Dana Thomas, the film provides a captivating overview of Salvatore Ferragamo’s life – from his childhood in the Southern Italian town of Bonito, where he made his first pair of shoes, to his emigration to the United States; from his rise to success in Hollywood, to his return to Italy; from his near bankruptcy during the Great Depression to his definitive acclaim after the war.

The film began to take shape in 2017, when the director of Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria, inspired by the Italian shoemaker’s 1957 autobiography Shoemaker of Dreams, reached out to the Ferragamo family in Florence. Seduced by the idea of a Salvatore Ferragamo biopic rendered through Guadagnino’s poetic lens, the Ferragamos granted him exclusive access to interviews and archival material, including Salvatore’s own film recordings and radio interviews. “Forget the glamour and celebratory tone of past documentaries about fashion icons. Guadagnino’s documentary is primarily the story of a man of humble origins, his extraordinary talent and ambition,” says Stefania Ricci, director of the Salvatore

Ferragamo Museum in Florence. “ It not only outlines Ferragamo’s artistic itinerary but also his human journey, between two distant cities that were forever intertwined in his life: Florence and Los Angeles.” Film lovers will be fascinated with the section about the shoemaker’s early years in Hollywood between 1923 and 1928, which takes viewers on a trip back in time to the golden age of cinema.

Salvatore began his American adventure in 1915, at the age of 16, in the same Boston shoe factory where one of his older brothers worked. “He soon realised that automated shoe production wasn’t for him. He was a craftsman with a special talent for making shoes by hand,” says Ricci. “After a couple of weeks at the factory, he convinced his brother to move with him to Santa Barbara. There, two years later, he opened his first shoe repair shop, where he also sold his handmade designs.” Salvatore Ferragamo was obsessed with figuring out the secret to comfortable shoes. “He decided to study foot anatomy at university, which was a bold move considering he had only received a very modest education in Italy. He realised that the foot is ultimately a complex system of weight distribution that balances and sustains the body. Nature had designed human feet with an arch shape, which in architecture represents one of the most elegant and efficient solutions to the problem of weight distribution. He eventually had the eureka moment that set the course of his entire career: by adding a vertical metal bar under the shoe, similar to a pylon supporting an arch, he could make lighter, more comfortable and more durable footwear.” Now that he held the secret to creating his extraordinary shoes, all he had to do was find extraordinary feet to wear them. But how would a lower-class shoemaker like him ever attract an elite clientele in an anonymous shoe repair shop in Santa Barbara?

It wasn’t long before the answer dawned on him.

The nearby LA neighbourhood of Hollywood – in 1923 little more than “a village in the sun”, as Salvatore described it in his autobiography – was on the cusp of a major boom. If he could move there and work for the growing cinema industry, he felt sure his exceptionally comfortable shoes would bring him success. His older brothers, however, did not share his vision, which they dismissed as a young man’s fantasy. “I suggested to [them] that we should all move to Hollywood and that in the film city we should abandon the repair shop and concentrate entirely on shoemaking,”

he wrote. “Their answer was an uncompromising opposition. […] they said that Hollywood was too small to support a business of the size we had built up in Santa Barbara. They urged me, again and again: ‘Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow.’” But Salvatore had made up his mind. “Hollywood was calling. The future was calling. I felt none of my brothers’ fears of that future. In Hollywood there was not one studio but many. In Hollywood there would be expansion, improvement, unlimited scope.”

“The timing was perfect for Salvatore to move to Hollywood in 1923,” says Ricci. “Around this time, at the end of the silent era, film production companies began handling their wardrobes in-house, whereas previously actors and actresses typically brought their own clothes and shoes. Salvatore started working with the film industry as a shoe supplier. Soon after, his intuition was proved right: having worn his shoes on set, Hollywood divas like Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri started ordering more pairs as private clients.”

To gain further recognition, in 1926 Salvatore worked with the film director David W. Griffith to launch a beauty contest for the city’s best-looking feet, ankles and legs. Salvatore wrote: “He would offer the first prize – a six months film contract – and I could give second and third prizes of shoes. It might be a good stunt, he thought. So did I and the event was organised. […] My own choice was a girl with beautiful legs who was trying hard to break into films. Her name was Joan Crawford. I forget whether she won the second or third prize; but I know that those were the first shoes of mine she ever wore, and she is my customer still.” “Salvatore Ferragamo was a marketing genius who sparked the allure around Made in Italy,” explains Ricci. “At the time, this notion as a synonym of excellence and good taste simply didn’t exist. Early 20th-century Italian immigrants were often viewed as brutish, ignorant and violent due to their hot-blooded nature. However, Californians appreciated Italy as the country of opera and Renaissance art. Hollywood stars’ houses were built in Tuscan style and filled with Tuscan furniture.” To build a myth around his brand, Ferragamo capitalised on American admiration for the Medici legacy. “His first shop in Hollywood resembled a Florentine Renaissance palazzo, with columns, fake tapestries and Renaissance – style furnishings. The choice of Florence – the cradle of the Renaissance – as his new Italian residence and the location of his new factory of handmade luxury shoes, in 1928, wasn’t accidental either. It was a calculated entrepreneurial move to continue selling his shoes, and the myth surrounding them, to a select American clientele, not an Italian one.”

In Ricci’s view, Salvatore Ferragamo was in some ways a product of Hollywood. “He found fertile ground there to build a legend around his name. Hollywood gave him a platform for international networking he wouldn’t have had otherwise. It also constantly pushed him to be creative and inventive, with some movies set in contemporary times, and others in ancient Egypt or the Civil War.” His biggest creative stimulus, however, was his demanding and glamorous clientele and their extravagant wishes. Like the Indian princess who requested shoes “not made from leather or other known materials”, and for whom he fashioned an exclusive pair made from hummingbird feathers. As he writes, they were “perhaps the most exquisite and certainly the most rare pair of shoes of my career”.

The futurist artist and designer Thayaht, aka Ernesto Michahelles, best-known for his revolutionary TuTa jumpsuit, wrote in his diary: “The shoes of this American,” as he ironically referred to his fellow Italian, “are futuristic shoes.” For Thayaht, Ferragamo’s creations shared a similar intent to futurist fashion, which aspired to spawn a radically new style by experimenting with shapes, colours and techniques. Ferragamo’s design audacity – think of the corkscrew heels studded with imitation pearls he made for Gloria Swanson; the multicoloured satin slippers for Lillian Gish; or the “rainbow” and “Serpent” shoes he created for Dolores del Río and Esther Ralston – perfectly embodied that ideal.

Soon after, the answer to this question loomed in his mind: the nearby city of Hollywood —in 1923 little more than “a village in the sun”, as Salvatore calls it in his autobiography — is on the cusp of a major boom; if he only could move there and work for the growing cinema industry, his exceptionally comfortable shoes would make him rich a famous. His older brothers, however, did not share his vision, which they dismissed as a young man’s daydreaming, and tried to discourage him from moving there. “I suggested to [ them ] that we should all move to Hollywood and that in the film city we should abandon the repair shop and concentrate entirely on shoemaking”, he writes. “Their answer was an uncompromising opposition. (…) They said that Hollywood was too small to support the business of the size we had built up in Santa Barbara. The urge to me, and again and again: “Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow.  [ But ] My mind was made up. Hollywood was a calling; the future was calling. I felt no one of my brothers’ fears for their future. In Hollywood, there was not one studio but many. In Hollywood that would be expansion, improvement, unlimited scope”. “Timing could not have been better for Salvatore to move to Hollywood in 1923”, says Ricci. “Around this time, at the end of the silent era, film production companies began for the first time handling their actors’ wardrobes in-house; before, actors would typically bring their own clothes and shoes from home. Salvatore started collaborating with the film industry as a shoe supplier. Soon after, his intuition soon proved to be right: after wearing his shoes on set, Hollywood divas like Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri, would start ordering more pairs as private clients”.

To gain further recognition, Salvatore, in 1926, launched together with film director David W. Griffith a beauty contest for the city’s best-looking feet, ankles, and legs. Salvatore writes: “He would offer the first prize —A  six months’ film contract — And I could give second and third prizes of shoes. He might be a good start, he thought. So did I. The event was organized,  (…) and my own choice was a girl with beautiful legs who was trying hard to break into films. Her name was John Crawford. I forget whether she won the second or third prize, but I know that those were the first shoes of mine she ever wore, and she is my customer still.

 “A true marketing genius, Salvatore Ferragamo is the founding father of the myth surrounding Made in Italy”, explains Ricci. “At the time, this notion as synonymous with excellence and good taste simply didn’t exist. Early 20th-century Italian immigrants to California were often viewed as brutish, ignorant and violent due to their hot-blooded nature. However, Californians had a strong appreciation for Italy as the country of Opera and Renaissance art; Hollywood actors’ houses were built in Tuscan style and furnished with Tuscan furniture”. To build a myth around his brand, Ferragamo cleverly capitalized on American admiration for the Medici legacy. His first shop in Hollywood looked like a Florentine Renaissance palazzo, with columns, fake tapestries and renaissance-style furniture. The decision to choose Florence — the cradle of the Renaissance —as his new Italian residence and the location of his new factory of handmade luxury shoes, in 1928, wasn’t accidental either. It was the calculated move of an entrepreneur planning to continue selling his shoes, and the myth around them, to a selected American clientele, not an Italian one”. 

“In a way, Salvatore Ferragamo is a product of Hollywood”, Ricci goes on. “Not only did he find there a fertile soil to build a legend around his name; Hollywood provided him with a platform for international networking he otherwise wouldn’t have had. Last but not least, by constantly exposing him to fresh challenges as a shoe designer – one movie was set in contemporary times, while others were set in Ancient Egypt or during the Civil War – Hollywood constantly pushed Ferragamo to be creative and inventive. His most vital stimulus for creativity, however, was his exigent and glamorous clientele, whose extravagant wishes seemed to know no bounds. Like the Indian princess who asked for “completely different” shoes, “not made from leather or other known materials”, for whom he fashioned an exclusive pair made from almost impossible-to-find hummingbird feathers. “Perhaps”, he writes, “the most exquisite and certainly the rarest pair of shoes in my career”.

Futurist artist Thayaht, pseudonym of artist and designer Ernesto Michahelles, best known for his revolutionary design of the TuTa jumpsuit, wrote in his diary:  “The shoes of this American”, so he ironically referred to his fellow countryman, “are Futuristic shoes”. Thayaht saw in Ferragamo’s creations a closeness of intent with Futurist Fashion: a project that never really took off –  Futurists were ultimately artists, not fashion designers – whose ambition was to create a radically new dressing style by experimenting with shapes, colours, and techniques. Ferragamo’s design audacity – think of the corkscrew heels, studded with imitation pearls, he made for Gloria Swanson; the multi-coloured satin slippers for Lillian Gish; or the “rainbow” and “Serpent” shoes he created for Dolores del Rio and Esther Ralston – perfectly embodied that ideal. 

Published in L’Uomo Vogue, November 2021

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