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“My father was the genius, but my mother was the one that kept the dream alive.”
That is what I recall Salvatore Ferragamo — yes, of those Ferragamos — mentioning to me at a thing he was hosting in Toronto, many years ago now, at the now-shuttered Grano, a one-time Yonge & Eglinton bolt-hole of Italian culture and food. A grandson of the storied shoemaker, he had arrived bearing a perfectly calibrated smile and an easy sincerity — as if he had just floated out of a Henry James novel or was just back from a glamorous jewelry heist.
His brogues: not so bad either, of course.
Bearing wine, too. Lots of it. That I remember as well, in that the express purpose for this gathering was because this namesake descendant had traded in tootsies for grapes (in the meandering ways so many third-generation dynastic types go about forging their own paths!) Charged with running Il Borro Toscana estate — purchased by The Family in 1993, and at the foot of the Pratomagno mountains in Tuscany.
“Making wine to me sounds more difficult than making shoes,” I smart-alecked then to the blue-eyed heir. To which he nodded, and grasped for the right answer: true, yes. “Because,” as Salvatore puts it, “you have to deal with nature.”
A memory that floated up for me when screening the all-new documentary about his grandfather “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” (hitting select theatres in Toronto and Vancouver this week, with more Canadian cities to follow). Courtesy of Luca Guadagnino — the “Call Me By Your Name” auteur, among his many other oozy films — it makes the point, if nothing else, that the original Ferragamo (who created 14,000 types of shoes in his lifetime!) was a force of nature unto himself. Less a fashion film than a movie about a man navigating purpose.
A craftsman. A genius. A student of feet. That is the deal. Stitching together old photography, new animation, expert commentary (everyone from Martin Scorsese to Grace Coddington), and vintage film (the rise of Salvatore coincided with the rise of Hollywood itself as an industry, and the earliest movie stars), it also makes formidable use of the shoe maestro’s own words, with Michael Stuhlbarg — a Guadagnino fave — giving life to them through narration.
Dickensian: how the saga sorta begins, as the movie retells how Salvatore — the 11th of 14 children, given the name of a brother who had died — escaped his humble roots in Bonito, Italy. Attracted to shoes early on, he lands in Naples where he undertakes an apprenticeship, returns briefly to Bonito where he opens a shop, but soon enough sets forth to the New World by sail. Disembarking at Staten Island, and briefly working at the Plant Shoe Factory in Boston, we see him pick up again and head west. The lure of California: that age-old trope. The six-day, seven-night trip across the country — depicted via a long, imaginative sequence in the film — is but a prelude to life in Santa Barbara where he starts creating shoes for film (in the early 20th Century, Santa Barbara was home to Flying A Studios, one of the bigger studios at the time).
Later, then: Los Angeles, where his star shoots higher when he starts collaborating with legendary directors including Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, and helping to create the personas of silent film stars including Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino. Likewise, as time goes on, everyone from Gloria Swanson to Judy Garland. Their story is his story.
No mere dilettante was Ferragamo. So enchanted was he with feet — the philosophy of arches, the science of toe — he takes anatomy classes in L.A. Though, his anatomical knowledge intensifies even further when he is in a terrible car crash (it takes the life of one of his brothers) and he finds himself on his back for an extended period. Telling the doctors more about orthopedics than even they seem to know, the experience eventually leads to Ferragamo patenting a traction system for bones in the foot and leg. (Just one of the many patents he would eventually file over his lifetime — including one for the wedge heel!)
The documentary treks on. In 1923, he opens the famous Hollywood Boot Shop. There is later a return to Italy, and a new life in Florence — but not before the spectre of fascism in his home country is on the rise and his business is facing bankruptcy. There is a second act. More shoes. More soles. Marilyn. Audrey. That whole gang.
Six children, too, with his eventual wife Wanda who would take over his company when he died suddenly in 1960. Though the movie only briefly touches on this, it was she — considerably younger than him — who kept it all going, despite never having worked before. Left with the business, Wanda — together with her eldest daughter, Fiamma, who had already been working with her father and learned shoemaking from him — turned Ferragamo into the brand that the world knows today, even helping to usher in the fabulous Ferragamo Museum in Florence. She lived until 2018, and had been in the office just two days before her death at age 96. Fiamma had predeceased Wanda in 1998.
Salvatore famously called his shoes his “creatures,” notes the doc. But as is the case with so many great men, there was a woman behind some of his greatest triumphs.
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