Shoemaker, Salvatore Ferragamo

The remarkable story of shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo, from a young boy’s creative ingenuity to a global luxury empire

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

Synonymous with style, innovation and artisanal craftsmanship, the Ferragamo luxury goods empire dates back to 1927 and is one of the few major fashion houses that has retained its independent ownership. But the story began when nine-year-old Salvatore Ferragamo learned that his family could not afford a pair of white shoes for his sister’s first communion. With some white canvas and tools borrowed from a local shoemaker, Salvatore produced his first pair of handcrafted shoes. The rest is history. 

Early life

One of fourteen children, Salvatore was born in 1898 in the small town of Bonito, in the Campania region of Italy. His father died when he was ten, so the family was largely dependent on money sent home by his older brothers and sisters who had all emigrated to the United States. Wanting to contribute to the family’s upkeep, eleven-year-old Salvatore started an apprenticeship as a shoemaker and moved to Naples to further learn his trade. There he survived on menial wages and often went hungry. At the age of fourteen, he opened his first shop in his home town with a small loan from his uncle.

Portrait of a young Salvatore Ferragamo dressed elegantly
Salvatore Ferragamo in 1929

Move to the United States

In 1915, his brothers persuaded him to move to the United States, and after a short time, he set up a shoemaking and repair shop with his brothers in Santa Barbara, at that time a thriving hub for the film industry. He was contracted to make shoes and boots for the American Film Company, which later became 20th Century Fox. 

During this time, he took a course in anatomy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, travelling the two hundred-mile round trip to attend night classes. He studied the distribution of the weight on the joints of the foot and discovered that the weight of the body, while standing erect, drops straight onto the arch of the foot, a small area of between one- and-a-half to two inches. This gave him the information he needed to make shoes that supported this pressure on the arches.

When the film business relocated to Hollywood, Los Angeles, he moved too and his success continued. He built up a private clientele in addition to the work he was commissioned to do for the film studios. Among the movie stars that he made shoes for were Gloria Swanson, Jean Harlow, Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo.

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