The Rake journeys to the heart of Italy’s Tuscany and there rediscovers the style and spirit of Salvatore Ferragamo, a company whose forays into fashion, footwear and fragrance are always delivered with the epitome of taste and beauty. By Adam Hay-Nicholls.
In typical Italian style, a product launch requires a very large dinner. The Ferragamo family have been described as the Medicis of fashion and here we are in Florence, the birthplace of both dynasties, tucking into risotto under the watchful eyes of about 300 tonnes of Michelangelo and Donatello-carved marble. Armani stands for business, Versace for drama, but Ferragamo has always been about timeless Italian art, with a sprinkling of showbiz.
We are seated in the Opera del Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence’s original workshop which sits in the shadow of Brunelleschi’s dome and is now a refuge from pollution for many of the Duomo’s external sculptures.
The purpose of my visit to the renaissance city is an olfactory one. I have come to proffer the old schnoz and take a lungful of the label’s latest perfume. Ferragamo’s headquarters are suitably grand and historic; a fortress-like gothic palace on the edge of the Piazza Santa Trinita, built in the late 13th century at the same time the Duomo had its scaffolding up. In a room flanked by medieval tapestries, the fragrance collection Tuscan Creations is presented before me on a large and sturdy table. It was upon this varnished oak that the firm’s founder and shoemaker to the stars, Salvatore Ferragamo, invented the game-changing wedge and cage heels. He bought this Palazzo in the 1930s with a vision to create Italy’s finest fashions. But his story had already started.
The 11th of 14 children, Salvatore was born poor. He made his own shoes because otherwise he wouldn’t have any, and in the process he discovered his calling. In 1914, after an apprenticeship in Naples, the 16-year-old took the slow boat across the Atlantic to Boston, Massachusetts, to join his brother who worked in a cowboy boot factory.
With a thirst for glamour as much as an eye for a business opportunity, Ferragamo soon crossed the country and set up a made-to-measure bootmakers in downtown Hollywood. This was the golden age of cinema, and soon Ferragamo’s custom creations could be seen on the screen. In particular, his Roman sandals for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic The Ten Commandments made Salvatore a cobbling superstar. His muses at this time were mainly other Italians making it big in the USA, including soprano Lina Cavalieri, silent film star Tina Modotti, and black-and-white heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.
A true renaissance man himself, Salvatore studied anatomy at the University of Southern California so as to ensure his shoes were not only beautiful but comfortable too. But in 1927 he left America to return to Italy, choosing Tuscany for its tradition of craftsmanship. “This beautiful city,” he wrote of Florence, “with its centuries of wealth in art and its long traditions of noble leatherwork” would be his home. America, he decided, was too industrial. He wanted to build a shoe empire, but only one of the absolute highest quality. By having Florentine artisans work to Hollywood-inspired designs he would establish a marque that would dominate the red carpet.
The list of famous feet may very well max my word count: Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Sophia Lauren, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, and many more. He was lauded for his innovations, often unseen by the eye, and for the radical materials he would sometimes employ – not always precious – such as cellophane, bark, cork and candy wrappers.
Clothing collections, menswear, accessories, and fragrances followed. Salvatore died in 1960, aged just 62, but his six children went on to run the company. His daughter, Giovanna Gentile-Ferragamo, is particularly involved in directing the perfume side of the business. Fiamma, the eldest, died in 1998 but was a design star in her own right, creating the Vara shoe and the Gancino buckle. Ferruccio Ferragamo is the current chairman of the company. His NYU-educated and Goldman Sachs-trained son James, 46, is being groomed to take over. In total, there are 23 grandchildren all contributing to the stamp the family has put on Italian luxury and heritage. In addition to the core business, which boasts over 330 stores in 90 countries and an annual turnover of 600 million Euros, the family owns five hotels in Florence, one in Rome, and the Il Borro Tuscan Bistro in Dubai. The restaurant takes its name from Ferruccio’s own passion project: In 1993 he bought the 1,750 acre Il Borro farm in the Arno Valley which, fittingly, had twice passed through the Medicis hands. With the help of his wife Ilaria and son Salvatore he has restored the estate’s medieval hamlet and is creating bio-dynamic wine and olive oil on the land, as well as farming crops and Chianina cattle.
Theirs is a total passion for and commitment to Tuscany, and the family’s fragrance collection is the ultimate love letter to the region. The 11 editions in the revitalized Tuscan Creations series come in a rainbow of colours, each paying homage to the brand and its birthplace. The shades evoke red terracotta clay tiles, alabaster stone, lush green vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees, fields of lavender, and the gold jewelry you can find for sale on the Ponte Vecchio below. The bottle tops feature Ferragamo’s signature dark brown leather.
Giovanna introduces the ‘noses’, the parfumiers who have cooked up the scents of Tuscany in their Parisian laboratories. I find it quite amusing how these undoubtedly-skilled experts are feted. I have visions of a giant pink Monty Python-type nose gliding through these gilded rooms to applause. I would quite like to have worn an elasticated fake beak to this event, but it’s a serious business. Still, the newest fragrance which launches this season and the one I’ve come to sniff is the product of Alex Lee, a young Asian American ‘nose’ whose genuine all-consuming enthusiasm for fragrances is fresh, charming and cuts through any air of pretention.
Rinascimento is a spectacular scent. The Italian word for renaissance, it is intrinsically linked to this city. It is a unisex fragrance inspired by Florence’s ancient symbol, the fleur-de-lis. It has top notes of Italian mandarin, basil and green pepper, heart notes of lily, tuberose and iris, and base notes of sandalwood and smoky vetiver. It is a creamy bouquet of green notes and subtle leathery tones that allude to both Italian flora and Salvatore’s workbench.
Ferragamo’s is a rags to riches tale that inspires Hollywood dreams and Italian pride, and the sparkling veuve of this fragrance is a fitting tribute to trailblazing craftsmanship and the renaissance city that inspired it.