According to cultural archetypes, no one personifies boisterous family values quite like the Italians. The nonna is as integral a part of Italian heritage as Neapolitan pizza. As are, of course, the family-run luxury fashion houses—Fendi comes to mind, as does Missoni—that make it their mission to bring that idiosyncratic allure to the world, where artistry and ancestry are constantly combined. There is no label, however, quite so entrenched in the tight-knit charisma of the famiglia italiana as Salvatore Ferragamo.
Founder Salvatore started a footwear business in 1919, and his comfortably elegant shoes became the mainstay of Hollywood royalty and actual queens and princesses. But when he died in 1960, his widow, Wanda, took Ferragamo from a purveyor of shoes to a luxury house, making handbags, accessories and, starting in 1965, ready-to-wear. Along with her six children, who continue to hold a majority stake at Ferragamo and hold positions such as director of women’s leather products (grandson James) and president of the company (son Ferruccio), she shaped the company into what it is today: 606 stores. But every smart matriarch realizes she has to delegate some power to an outside vision if she doesn’t want to stagnate. And so, three years ago, she promoted menswear designer Massimiliano Giornetti to creative director and tasked him with helping the company shed its reputation as a reassuringly fusty maker of shoes and bags for old ladies and a few young women who got the ironic appeal of a grosgrain-bowed, low-heeled pump.
And suddenly, names like Sofia (as seen on Jennifer Aniston’s arm in The Bounty Hunter) and Vara are rolling off fashion hounds’ tongues as easily as Kelly and Manolo BB; new boutiques are popping up around the globe (a second Canadian location in Yorkdale just opened); and rule breakers such as Lady Gaga (in head-to-toe houndstooth) and Zoe Saldana (in a rosy, fringed mini-dress, to pick but one) regularly turn heads while wearing Ferragamo.
For the man with the keys to the castle, however, the Ferragamo family represents the very DNA of the company and remains the chief source of inspiration. “I feel very comfortable sharing the Ferragamo family values,” Giornetti tells me warmly over the phone from his studio in Florence. “I’m Italian—we’re attached to the family, especially the mother. Mrs. Ferragamo is still in the company and an everyday presence in the office. This is not a company just about numbers. Everyone is of value. Mrs. Ferragamo takes notes and sends us emails because she really understands the work of every single person.”
Giornetti’s comfort comes from his own Italian background, which is also intimately linked with fashion and family. In true Italian style, his love affair with clothes began with his mother. “I was fascinated by [her]: the figure, the style,” he says of his six-year-old self. “It was the late ’70s—there was Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Giorgio Armani—that kind of beauty, and having the right kind of shoes, the bag, the jewellery. My dad is a goldsmith—I was always attracted to using my hands,” he adds.
Giornetti graduated from Polimoda, a Florentine fashion school housed in an original Medici villa, then spent some time in a small Roman couture house. From there, he moved to Ferragamo’s menswear department in 2004; the fall 2011 collection was his first as creative director of both womens- and menswear. Since then, his collections have quietly become one of Milan’s hottest tickets, especially for buyers: If there’s anyone Giornetti is always thinking about—other than the Ferragamos themselves—it’s the Ferragamo customer.
“It’s important to understand how the consumer is changing,” the designer says. “I love the idea of the street, of a lifestyle. I don’t think a designer should live inside an ivory tower; fashion is a democracy now. The way we develop the collection is changing a lot. In the past we just had a moment: the fashion show. Now we have the pre-collection and special capsule collections developed as a wardrobe for the consumer.”
One thing they understood right away was that the aforementioned young women who’d rediscovered the classic Ferragamos were not just quirky independents, but trend drivers not to be ignored. So while Giornetti is bringing a fierce contemporaneity to the runway, the company is simultaneously nurturing its heritage, with such moves as reintroducing a customizable Vara, the round-toed, low-heeled patent pump beloved by Margaret Thatcher, in honour of the shoe’s 35th birthday. They cannily invited a bevy of style-world movers and shakers (director Lake Bell, blogger Susie Bubble) to customize their own and take their portraits wearing them. It’s web-surf catnip for the customer Giornetti has distilled—the woman who would rather combine labels than wear a complete designer look, “mixing new with old, a vintage [piece] with a hot piece from the current season,” as he says.
Louise Cooper, owner of The Cat’s Meow, a Toronto vintage boutique that deals with luxury designer fashion, says she’s noticed a resurgence in demand for Ferragamo in the past few years. “It was because of the ballet flat,” she explains (a.k.a. the Varina). “Everybody wanted them. It was a twist on the classic with the little bow or the little buckle on the front.”
Cooper owns two pairs of vintage Ferragamo shoes herself. “The way they feel on your foot is incredible,” she says. “I heard that [Salvatore] was so obsessed with having beautiful shoes fit that he studied anatomy to try to get the perfect balance between fashion and function.”
Born outside Naples, Italy, Salvatore began his career in 1919 as an immigrant in Hollywood, where he became known as the “Shoemaker to the Stars,” going from making footwear for westerns to opening his own made-to-measure shop. His clients included Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth. In 1927, he moved to Florence to have access to its thriving leather industry. Giornetti’s ultimate goal is to extend this heritage of impeccable quality and Old Hollywood grandeur. He describes Salvatore’s journey from Southern Italy to California to Florence as “a fairy tale, in a way. A man who was very poor and very young from the south of Italy becoming the King of Shoes.” While Giornetti’s fall 2013 collection is strict and minimal, inspired by the hyper-modern skylines of Shanghai, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, there is a sumptuousness to the plush leathers and smooth silks. Giornetti had initially thought he might become an architect, and is fascinated by basic construction and deconstruction of garments. “The most important [thing I’ve] learned is connecting the idea of functionality with beauty,” he says, echoing Cooper’s compliment of the label’s vintage. “Salvatore Ferragamo was a genius: a man who was extremely creative and interested in developing new shapes and looking for unusual materials.”
He wants Ferragamo to be luxury one can wear. “In industrial design and architecture, everything is being connected to the idea of [being] ‘user-friendly,’” he says. It’s an idea he considers even more pertinent to fashion, which, he says, “is not something you leave behind glass in a museum. [It should] transport you,” literally and figuratively. Like the perfect shoe.