Long before becoming synonymous as one of the world’s top designers of haute couture footwear, Salvatore Ferragamo gained fame as shoe designer to Hollywood stars. Creating gorgeous and unique designs that also comfortably fit the wearer’s foot, Ferragamo put Hollywood on the map as a design capital for couture in the 1920s.
Born June 5, 1898, in the tiny town of Bonito, Italy as the eleventh of fourteen children to a poor farming family, young Ferragamo left school at 9 to begin working to help support them. Though he worked for short times for a tailor, barber, and carpenter, the inquisitive, observant youngster found himself drawn to shoemaking, realizing immediately that he “was born to be a shoemaker.” When his sister needed a pair of white shoes for confirmation, the 9-year-old purchased materials, secretly stayed up all night, and created an elegant pair that impressed everyone.
Joan Crawford and Salvatore Ferragamo, courtesy of the Ferragamo Museum.
Ferragamo apprenticed under a local shoemaker and then a more upscale retailer in Naples, doing as much office work/errands as anything else, but quickly picking up the trade and outshining the regular employees. The young man absorbed everything around him, learning as if by osmosis. After being robbed of his wages there, he returned home to open a small shoe shop of his own, repairing the work of others and conceiving the idea of designing and assembling his own shoes.
At 16, Ferragamo immigrated to America to join some of his brothers in Massachusetts, where for a very short time he worked at the Queen Quality Shoe Manufacturing Company. Recognizing the lower quality and design of mass-produced shoes, Ferragamo decided to create beautiful, handcrafted, artisanal goods for his customers. Very quickly, the teenager joined three of his brothers in Santa Barbara, where they pooled their money to open a shoe repair shop first in Mission Canyon and then at 1033 State St.
Thanks to his brother Alfonso ironing costumes at the American Film Manufacturing Company, better known as the Flying A, Ferragamo first connected with the motion picture world. Quickly repairing and correcting problems with a pair of the company’s cowboy boots, Ferragamo soon found himself employed by the Flying A producing high-quality, comfortable boots for their western films and later special shoes for costume pictures. Legend has it that Cecil B. DeMille later declared, “The West would have been conquered earlier if they had had boots like these.”
Thanks to his cousin Jerry, Ferragamo also gained his first personal Hollywood customer, Lottie Pickford, appearing in the studio’s successful serial “A Diamond in the Sky.” Quickly thereafter, Lottie’s sister Mary Pickford approached him about designing special shoes for her, establishing his credentials as a top-class couturier.
Always working to improve, the young Ferragamo enrolled in evening classes to study anatomy at University of Southern California. The astute craftsman recognized the importance of comfortable shoes specially made for each individual wearer, focusing especially on the arch, where the weight of the body falls. Inserting a steel shank in his shoes to support the arch, the foot acted like a pendulum, rising and falling naturally without causing damage. As Ferragamo stated in his autobiography, “I love feet. They talk to me. As I take them in my hands I feel their strengths, their weaknesses, their vitality or their failures. A good foot , its muscles firm, its arch strong, is a delight to touch, a masterpiece of divine workmanship.”
Customers began commenting on how comfortable their feet were in his shoes, something none had ever felt before. Ferragamo had achieved his dream,creating designs that benefited the customer both physically as well as stylistically, revealing in his biography that he could never go back to his old shoes. As he also stated later, he recognized a “parallel between the film industry and my own.”
In 1918, Flying A saw its top distributor, Mutual, go bankrupt, and soon their business imploded. As their output decreased over the next few years, so did Ferragamo’s orders and clients. The shoemaker decided to establish his own upscale boutique in Hollywood, where his most successful clients lived. Before he could move, however, Ferragamo suffered a serious leg injury in a Ventura car accident which killed his brother. During the six months he was in the hospital, the industrial designer devised an ingenious splint and apparatus to support injured limbs, which he patented.
The motion picture industry hired the rising star to fashion footwear for major motion pictures over the next few years. Ferragamo designed shoes for D. W. Griffith films Way Down East in 1920 and The White Rose in 1923. He devised special slippers for Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad as well as platforms for film co-star Sojin. DeMille employed the young designer to craft Roman and Egyptian sandals for his 1923 epic The Ten Commandments and Paramount hired him to design boots and western footwear for their epic The Covered Wagon. Ferragamo later fashioned footwear for Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson and DeMille’s The Volga Boatmen in 1926 and King of Kings the next year.
In 1923, Ferragamo finally established his “shoe shop to the stars” when he acquired a ten-year lease on a small, discreet shop at 6687 Hollywood Blvd, along with its $40,000 inventory. Formally established in 1913 as the Hollywood Boot Shop by Morgan and Stoll, the current owners George H. and J.M. Bohannon recognized Ferragamo’s passion and drive. Local newspapers trumpeted that the renowned Santa Barbara designer had opened his Hollywood boutique, remodeling the former business into “one of the most attractive high class shops in the Southland.” Store ads remarked on its “discriminating shoes of unusual value.”
Ferragamo astutely promoted the store to potential clients, noting that it was located across the street from Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, where he designed footwear for stage shows, and displaying his handiwork at the Hollywood Exposition in October. The shoemaker served on the executive board of the Hollywood Retail Merchants’ Bureau.
More stars sought out his glamorous work. Veterans like Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert, Barbara LaMarr, and Fairbanks requested specially made shoes, followed by Hollywood newcomers like Patsy Ruth Miller, Pola Negri, Clara Bow, Rudolph Valentino, Joan Crawford, and Dolores Del Rio. Ferragamo designed the first platform shoe in the store, as well as a popular Roman sandal design. Going beyond just color, the creative innovator employed satin, kid leather, suede, brass, wood, reptile, leopard skin, and even mosaics covering cork to decorate his comfortable but stylish shoes. Valentino supposedly enjoyed pasta with the shoemaker, and John Gilbert, Fairbanks, and Valentino spent occasional weekends in Arrowhead with him. As Ferragamo explained his success in his autobiography, “The world’s stars don’t come to my salon to buy my reputation; they come to buy shoes that fit and flatter them.”
In 1925, Ferragamo purchased the stop next door at 6683 Hollywood Blvd to expand both production and retail capacity and provide more display space. As he described in his autobiography, “I filled the interior with a series of colonnades designed to ‘shut off’ the fitting place from the main entrance space and so ensure an atmosphere of discretion and privacy.” The Italian Renaissance design, tapestries, lush carpets and draperies, and hand carved sofas radiated class. This redesign led Holly Leaves to declare that both the store and Ferragamo represented “a new spirit of retailing in the Hollywood Community.” Making a splash, the remodeled shop opened live at 9 p.m. on KNX radio.
Ferragamo looked to expand his empire and reach in 1926, even becoming a United States citizen that year. He appeared on the KNX radio talk show On Proper Footwear. Most important, he incorporated “Ferra-Gamo Inc.” with Los Angeles County, looking to establish his own high-end manufacturing facility to produce quality products.
Deciding to focus more on the world’s wealthy and high end clientele, Ferragamo returned to Italy later that year, closing his shop and selling the store. Though he would continue designing shoes for Hollywood talent like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Laurel Bacall, and Sophia Loren, Ferragamo would never personally work in Hollywood again. The Hollywood Boot Shop did, however, make a fleeting appearance in the 1928 MGM film Show People as Marion Davies and Dell Henderson drive down Hollywood Boulevard. Ferragamo’s Hollywood work for stage, screen, and celebrities helped pave the way for his haute couture shoe design, establishing him as the world’s top shoe designer.