Florence is a city of museums and beautiful historical buildings. There is so much to see and so much to savor, but I had just the one place on my agenda — the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, a museum that celebrates the life and art of shoe maestro Salvatore Ferragamo.
There are many reasons why I have been fascinated with Ferragamo — both the man and the brand he created. One of the first people in the world to understand brand association with celebrities and stars, Ferragamo was a true pioneer, though you can’t tell that from the current devolution of the brand into a somewhat mass-market-Burberry-esque company. This is perhaps even more surprising because the business is still run by the Ferragamo family.
“In my shoes, [my clients] told me, they felt differently. In mine they could walk without suffering, which is surely no more than the function of the shoes. In my shoes they were happy.”
A lot of great businesses are built on this idea of making your clients feel different, take Apple for example. Salvatore Ferragamo is one of the earliest proponents of my deep seated philosophy of success – “it is not just about customer satisfaction, but also about customer happiness.” And that came from not just being a great designer of beautiful shoes, but also from being a perfectionist who constantly worked and tweaked the shoes for comfort, always looking for the utopian balance of form, function, and fashion.
Some facts about Salvatore Ferragamo
- Born in 1898 in Bonito, near Naples.
- Eleventh of nine children.
- Made his first pair of shoes at age nine, for his sisters to wear on their confirmation.
- Studied shoemaking in Naples and opened a small store in his parents house at the age of twelve, after talking an uncle into financing the operation.
- In 1914, he emigrated to Boston, and worked for a brief while at a cowboy boot factory with his brother.
- A year later he decided to go west aka California — first to Santa Barbara and then to Hollywood. He opened a shop and became a shoe maker to the stars, focusing on made-to-measure shoes.
- He made beautiful shoes, but wanted to makes shoes that were comfortable, so he joined The University of Southern California to study anatomy.
- After spending thirteen years in the United States, Ferragamo moved back to Italy in 1927 and settled in Florence, where he fashioned shoes for the wealthiest and most powerful women of the century.
- His clients included everyone from Audrey Hepburn and Lauren Bacall to Carmen Miranda.
- He died in 1960.
While many people have retained their love the modern Ferragamo brand and their shoes, I don’t much care for either the brand and their shoes, especially their mass produced lines that are meant to cash in on the brand, without the actually quality that helped establish the brand. Even their more recent designs are uninspired and are often imitating other more independent minded shoe designers.
That said, I was keen to learn more about the man and his thinking, the museum being an excellent way to do just that. It is situated in the basement of Palazzo Spini Feroni, the company’s headquarters at Via Tornabuoni n. 2. The museum is almost 20 years old housing some of the iconic shoe designs in addition to many wooden lasts created for the mighty and famous.
According to the museums of Florence website, “Palazzo Spini Feroni, a Medieval palace, built by Geri Spini, a wealthy merchant and banker to Pope Boniface VIII, in 1289 was purchased by Ferragamo in 1938 as the headquarters of the company and his own workshop.” According to the literature featured on the Florence Museums website, the museum celebrates Ferragamo’s “artistic qualities” and contributions he made to shoe design.
In the museum you find:
* Photos, patents, sketches, books, magazines.
*Wooden lasts of various famous feet.
* A collection of draws 10,000 models designed by Ferragamo from the end of the 1920’s until 1960, the year of his death.
To enter the museum, you have to walk down a few stairs and at the front desk pay 6 € (roughly $7.25) to enter the massive basement which is devoted to not just Ferragamo’s shoes, but also to different art and artists. When I visited, the museum was featuring an exhibition called Equilibrium, a show curated by Ferragamo archivist Stefana Ricci and Sergio Risaliti.
The exhibition, using many different forms of art, from painting to film to photography to sculpture, explores the concept of balance and equilibrium. The artwork in the show features creations of Henri Matisse, Antonio Canova, Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, and Roberto Barni. From my perspective this was an fortuitous bonus which unquestionably enhanced my visit.
“I discovered the interesting fact that the weight of our bodies when we are standing erect drops straight down on the arch of the foot as the plum line shows…I constructed my revolutionary lasts which, by supporting the arch, make the foot act like an inverted pendulum. The metatarsal joints and heels are freed of all body weight, and the shoes thus guide the equilibrium of the body as it walks”. (From the autobiography of Salvatore Ferragamo).
Ferragamo and his Philosophy
“Nature, the supreme architect from whom Man has borrowed and adapted so many of his ideas, has created the human foot in that shape and not allowed it to develop without an arch because, as any architect will tell you an arch can carry more weight than a flat surface. This arch, however, has to do more than carry a stationary weight, like the arch of a church door; it has to carry our moving weight as we walk. Therefore Nature has provided the foot with joints and swivels to allow us to walk in comfort. This simple mechanism moves and stretches as you walk barefoot: the joints and the toes perform their duties freely, falling back into their natural positions at the end of each step, ready for the next. You feel comfortable and free, as indeed you should. These are natural movements.”
“…many feet are injured by shoes. Does the answer lie, then, in the fact that when the foot is inside the shoe it is no longer allowed to perform its natural functions? Is it imprisoned like a bird in a cage, unable to work properly? If that is so does this imprisonment affect the arch? Again, if this is so does this mean that the arch not only should but must be supported?” [via Inexhibit]
Thus, Ferragamo developed the steel shank which supported the Plantar arch and thus allowed the foot to move like an inverted pendulum. The “metatarsal joints and heel no longer supported any weight and in this way, Ferragamo’s shoes led the body’s equilibrium as it walked, rather than opposing it,” the press release accompanying the news of Equilibrium exhibit notes.
The museum and the exhibit did a good job of making me aware of Ferragamo’s way of thinking. I was particularly delighted to see wooden lasts of famous patrons, including that of relatively recent visitors Angelina Jolie and Priyanka Chopra. Put this in contrast a shoe made for Maharani of Cooch Behar — equally fascinating to glimpse, as was the wild and whacky stuff Carmen Miranda wore.
Bottom line, the museum visit is worth the price — even if you have no interest in shoes. It tells the story of a versatile artist and a fashion brand that is now part of modern fashion establishment.
For more photos and a complete visual story, visit my Storehouse