It must be among the towering ironies of Italian fashion that its supreme foot fetishist, Salvatore Ferragamo, had to leave the boot to make a shoe. But that’s precisely what he did in 1914, working out of a Boston factory before winding his way to California. Soon, the young cobbler from Campania was making Egyptian sandals for Cecil B. DeMille’s grand-scale silent epics and tracing the contours of Joan Crawford’s toes for custom orders.
Salvatore eventually returned to Italy to become the Florentine prince of heels, but his label’s Hollywood DNA was on full display last October, when Ferragamo sponsored a gala celebrating the opening of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Housed in the original Italianate post office of Beverly Hills, the Wallis offers a rebuttal to the notion that the only art form practiced in the 90210 area code is plastic surgery.
“Ferragamo has had a long love affair with L.A.,” said Massimiliano Giornetti, the house’s creative director since 2010. Giornetti had gathered an international troupe of models, heiresses, and social powerhouses for the occasion. The women—modern-day versions of Salvatore’s original inspirational sirens—posed for the picture here moments before the gala, during which Vittorio Grigolo, the Italian tenor, sang Puccini arias. “We always try to connect with other art forms,” Giornetti said, adding that in 2012 the house sponsored an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work at the Louvre.
“Like Leonardo, my grandfather was as much a scientist as an artist,” James Ferragamo, Salvatore’s grandson, said. Salvatore studied anatomy at the University of Southern California to learn how to design more-comfortable shoes; and when sanctions against Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime made materials scarce, he became an early purveyor of techno chic, turning to cellophane, Bakelite, and nylon. Then there were the unconventional shapes he dared to imagine, like the wedge and the platform.
Giornetti, now the custodian of a famous legacy that has been expanded from footwear to full ready-to-wear and accessories collections, described his responsibility this way: “You trust the craftsmanship; you reinvent the silhouette.” In his most recent show, the designer sent out sexy, airy dresses that combined transparent synthetic fibers with Tuscan embroidery—a marriage Salvatore Ferragamo no doubt would have sanctioned. “Salvatore was interested in beauty and functionality,” Giornetti said. “What he made was real shoes for real people—even if those people happened to be fabulous.”