Cover Photo: Salvatore Ferragamo S.p.A.

To celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday, Tatler shares rare images of the woman behind Italian luxury brand Ferragamo

Throughout the history of fashion, there are multiple examples of brands that evolved from powerful fashion families. There are the Armani’s, the Prada’s, the Fendi’s, and of course the Gucci’s who were on the silver screen this year with House of Gucci—but let's not forget about The Ferragamos. 

Known as the "shoemaker of dreams", Italian cobbler Salvatore Ferragamo created a fashion empire and passed on his family name for generations to come. As the 11th child of 14 from a poor Italian family, Ferragamo proved his dream of becoming a shoe apprentice by crafting shoes for his sister at the tender age of nine.

Starting out in a small Italian town, he eventually brought his craft in Hollywood and even studied human anatomy at the University of Southern California to learn how to make more comfortable shoes.

By then, his clients included Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, as well as royalty, such as the Duchess of Windsor and Queen Elena of Italy. But behind the transformation from a shoemaker to the fashion house we know today was Ferragamo's wife, Wanda Miletti Ferragamo.

She made her late husband Salvatore Ferragamo's dream come true, and was described by the house as a "woman in balance". Although passed away in 2018 at the age of 96, we remember her brilliant drive with historical images on her 100th birthday:

 

Tatler Asia
Above Photo: Salvatore Ferragamo SpA

"All women work, the only difference is that some do their work outside the home. In any case, homemakers need to keep the books like an accountant, decorate like an interior designer, cook like a chef and run their home like a CEO, and they must do all this while also working as a wife and mother. We women do everything, it doesn’t matter what and where our offices are."-Wanda Miletti Ferragamo

Same hometown roots

On December 18 1921, Wanda Miletti was born to a middle-class family in Bonito, the same town where Salvatore Ferragamo grew up. Her mother, Giovanna, and father Fulvio (who was doctor and chief magistrate), had a deep influence on Wanda’s moral and intellectual development. People who knew her later in life will describe her as "passionate, kind and intense."

Where the romance began

Salvatore wrote in his autobiography that he remembered falling in love with Wanda at first sight. She’d greeted the world-renowned shoemaker, saying, “You must be the famous Salvatore Ferragamo. Thank you for the wonderful contribution you have made to feminine elegance.” Ferragamo was struck by the young girl's words and told his sister who was accompanying him in English, "This girl is going to be my wife!" Salvatore was 42 years old then, and Wanda, just 18.

Five months after their first meeting, Wanda and Salvatore held their wedding at the Santa Lucia Church in Naples. Although Italy was at war during the time, the wedding was still a beautiful and heartfelt one.

The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in Sorrento and Amalfi. While Naples was hit by an English air raid in the distance, Salvatore consoled his young wife, telling her the bombs were fireworks in honour of their wedded bliss. The couple later founded their new home in the Fiesole hills of Florence and welcomed three children.

A Widow with Six Children

Wanda learned about the company through her husband and met with their clients, and even invited Hollywood star Audrey Hepburn to their villa as a guest. In 1947, she accompanied her husband to Dallas, where he won the Oscar of the fashion industry, the Neiman Marcus award, together with Christian Dior. 

When Salvatore died in 1960, Ferragamo was still only a women’s shoe label, and Wanda became a widow with six childrenand a business to handle. However, Salvatore left behind a solid foundation, and the legacy of wedges, "invisible sandals" and many more patents and trademarks.

Carrying on Ferragamo’s dream

Carrying on Salvatore's lifelong dream of creating an international fashion house that dressed men and women from head to toe, Wanda, with the help of trusted company employees and two of her daughters, made it happen.

Their eldest daughter, Fiamma, who had worked by her father's side, took over the design work at the age of 17. The iconic Varina ballet flats (with a signature ribbon bow) was one of her many creations.

Her sister Fulvia went on to be the creative director of men's and women's silk accessories—another popular product category. The brand later added men's and women's fashion, and eventually went public on the Milan Stock Exchange in 2011, and now the third generation of Ferragamo’s are handling management of the company.

A Celebration of Life

It’s reported that Wanda worked at her office well into her 90s, and she arrived every day in style, wearing 7cm heels that her husband had designed. Throughout her career, she won numerous global awards while balancing her home life, including her appointment to the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1987 and the Order of Merit of the Knights of the Grand Cross of the Italian Republic in 2004.

This year, Salvatore Ferragamo, Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, and Fondazione Ferragamo are honouring Wanda Ferragamo's life and legacy with a series of initiatives, including a biography and an exhibition set to open in May.

The exhibition, titled "Women in Balance", also tells stories of other women who, during Italy’s economic boom when Wanda was becoming a businesswoman, helped forge a different society from the one into which they had been born. It will celebrate women in the arts, culture and sciences—women who shaped their identities just like Wanda’s journey from housewife to entrepreneur with a business vision.

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