Obituary: Wanda Ferragamo
Businesswoman who took over the family shoe firm and turned it into a global fashion empire
WANDA Ferragamo, who has died aged 96, took over the family shoemaking business when her husband, Salvatore, died in 1960, and with their children she turned it into a global business empire.
Her husband, the son of a poor farmer, made his first pair of shoes for his sister when he was nine and in the early 1920s moved to California, where he made cowboy boots for Hollywood westerns and sandals for Cecil B DeMille biblical epics. As well as being elegant, they were so comfortable that he was soon getting orders from stars for shoes they could wear off set.
By 1927 demand had grown so large that he returned to Italy, where skilled labour was more readily available. He opened a small factory in Florence, and in 1940, aged 42, married the 18-year-old Wanda Miletti.
The daughter of a doctor, she was born on December 18, 1921, at Bonito, a village east of Naples. Although Salvatore came from the same village, they did not meet until 1940. Salvatore's business had gone bankrupt in the 1929 crash, but by the late 1930s it was up and running again and he had bought Palazzo Spini Feroni, a large Gothic palace overlooking the River Arno in central Florence. This was a showcase for his footwear, but he also wanted it to be a family house, so he set off "shopping for a wife", as he recalled in his memoirs.
He found her in his home village during a visit to Dr Miletti, then serving as Bonito's mayor, who had secured Ferragamo's backing to pay for a wartime canteen and who had invited him to come and see the result. "He came to my house with his sister," Wanda recalled, "and my father was not at home, so I welcomed them. And I expressed my appreciation for what he had done for fashion, and he was very surprised, and he turned to his sister and said, 'This girl is going to be my wife'."
Salvatore's version was slightly different. Dr Miletti had been at home and the two men fell to discussing the shape of the foot. Ferragamo asked Wanda if he could use her for a shoe-fitting demonstration and fell instantly in love when he saw that she "had one toe peeping out of her stocking''.
Married in 1940, they spent their wedding night in a Sorrento hotel, watching the Allied bombing of Naples. Returning to Florence, the couple survived an attempted occupation of their home in nearby Fiesole by the Germans and bombing by the Allies. In the 1940s and 1950s Salvatore Ferragamo patented some 350 innovations, including the famous cork-soled wedge, created when steel shortages meant that there were no shanks to make high heels. (He persuaded the most fashionable duchess in Florence to wear a pair to church and the queues formed on Monday morning.) He made boots and shoes for Mussolini and for Eva Braun, and his clients came to include the Duchess of Windsor, Sophia Loren, Greta Garbo, Eva Peron and Marilyn Monroe, who was said to order Ferragamo shoes 30 pairs at a time and wore a pair in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Until 1960 Wanda Ferragamo led the comfortable life of the wife of a wealthy businessman and mother of their six children. When her husband died aged 62 of liver cancer, however, then 38 years old and with her children ranging in age from two to 17, she decided to take his place. She recalled how, at his funeral, "the working men shook my hand and said, 'Don't worry, Mrs Ferragamo, we will help you, we go on, we will win'." She knew "nothing at all" about business or about shoemaking, yet she was nobody's fool. "My instinct was to take good care of the financial position," she said, "because I was afraid that without Salvatore the company would go down."
One by one her children, and later several grandchildren, joined her at the firm. To prevent the possibility of internecine strife she initially paid each child the same salary, refused to hire in-laws and decreed that no more than three third-generation family members could work in the company at any one time.
Her eldest daughter Fiamma, as chief designer, invented the Vara pump, which became the company's most popular item. Another daughter, Fulvia, oversaw expansion into silks. Wanda's four other children - Giovanna, Leonardo, Massimo and Ferruccio - also took important roles as operations expanded to include bags, spectacles, watches, perfumes, designer collections, ready-to-wear, even hotel management. Salvatore Ferragamo SpA went public in 2011 and now has hundreds of boutiques in 26 countries.
Known to her staff as "Signora", Wanda Ferragamo stepped down as chairman in 2006 but went into work every day until recently because, she said, it was in his office that she felt closest to her husband. She continued to radiate stately elegance, her clothing tailored, her hair immaculately coiffed, her diminutive stature enhanced by seven-centimetre high heels. In 1995 she helped to found the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, and she remained head of the Ferragamo Foundation, which supports young Italian artisans.
Wanda Ferragamo, who died on October 19, never remarried and was predeceased by two of her daughters, Fiamma, in 1998, and Fulvia in April this year. Her other children survive her.