Illustration by Michael Willis
Illustration by Michael Willis

In 1907, Bonito, Italy, 9-year-old Salvatore Ferragamo could often be found intently watching the town cobbler tan leather skins, cut patterns, shape them around a wooden foot-shaped “last” and stitch the pieces together.

This did not amuse his father: Respectable people did not make shoes. Then fate changed the story.

Mariantonia, Salvatore’s mother, needed two pairs of white shoes for her 6-year-old daughter’s First Holy Communion, one pair for Giuseppina and another for the elder Rosina, the attendant. Furtively, Salvatore scurried to the cobbler’s, asking for white canvas, two child-size lasts and tools. The next morning, Mariantonia woke to find four small pairs of pristine white shoes. She gushed. The father relented. So begins the tale of Salvatore Ferragamo.

Two years later, Salvatore’s father suddenly died from an infection and, at the age of 11, the boy announced he would go to Naples to study his craft. After only a brief stay there, though, he borrowed money from an uncle to open his own shop back in Bonito.

At this juncture, the world, even Italy, thought little of shoes. Colors were limited -- the dominant palette was black, brown and white -- and styles, too, with low-heeled pumps, spectators, oxfords and buttoned or laced-up Edwardian boots. Poor families bought handmade shoes expected to weather a lifetime. Only the privileged could choose shoes to match an occasion or outfit.

Factory-Made Shoes

As World War I spread throughout Europe, however, the U.S. created methods of mass production, and cobbling became a booming industry. Now, shoes were less expensive, so women could afford to own more of them, and shorter skirts raised awareness of what they wore on their feet. Manufacturers could turn out shoes in various colors and styles.

Still, back in Bonito, where, by 1912, Salvatore Ferragamo was working with six assistants, the shoemaker’s role remained secure. Then his older brother, Alfonso, visited from the U.S.

“In America,” Alfonso reported, “nobody works by hand anymore.” Alfonso described the shoe factories where soles could be stitched to uppers, and heels were composed by stacking layer upon layer of leather -- all in a matter of minutes. In America, he said, Salvatore could earn much more for his custom-made shoes. Salvatore resisted at first but, soon enough, he was packing to move to the U.S.

In Santa Barbara, California, Salvatore and his three brothers opened a small shop, where the older Ferragamos repaired shoes and 16-year-old Salvatore made new ones for the movie studios. Quickly he developed a specialty: comfortable, attractive, period-appropriate cowboy boots. “The West would have been conquered earlier if they had had boots like these,” said director Cecil B. DeMille.

Salvatore Ferragamo grew into a successful, dapper artist with rugged, Bogart-like good looks, speaking English with a thick Italian accent that charmed his patrons. But he wanted to improve his skills. He had mastered the practice of measuring the foot and cutting, shaping and stitching to fit. Still, some customers complained that his shoes hurt their feet. He enrolled at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, to study anatomy.

There, Ferragamo tested his theories about weight distribution and the human skeleton. And he realized that he, like everyone else, was making shoes wrong. By measuring the foot while flat, they were creating shoes that supported the ball and the heel only. But human feet, when they are wearing shoes, need arch support. Ferragamo began building it into his shoes, and suddenly his customers began telling him he made them the most comfortable shoes they’d ever worn.

Hollywood Boot Shop

In 1923, he moved to Los Angeles and opened the Hollywood Boot Shop on the corner of Hollywood and Las Palmas boulevards. The film industry still kept him busy (among other jobs, he made sandals for “The Ten Commandments”), and the store became a destination spot for starlets. Ferragamo, it seemed, had satisfied his dream of opening a store that mixed art, podiatric science and commerce.

Nevertheless, four years later, he closed his LA shop in pursuit of his next big idea. Over the years, to increase his inventory, he had begun to sell some machine-made footwear -- made on his own arch-friendly lasts -- but had never been satisfied with the quality of the shoes. He began to wonder why the factory model couldn’t be applied to handmade shoes. In Italy, where labor was cheaper than in America and shoemaking a more widespread artisanal craft, he could hire other cobblers to work for him, creating an assembly line on which every stage of manufacture would be touched by human hands.

Italian shoemakers weren’t won over easily, however. Ferragamo went first to Naples, where the cobblers laughed at his proposal. He tried Rome, Milan, Turin, Venice and Padua with no luck. Finally, he settled in Florence, all but bribing shoemakers to work for him by offering the highest wages around. With 60 men in his employ, Salvatore designed an 18-shoe collection. Then, after sailing back to New York, he invited the city’s top department-store buyers to his room at the Roosevelt Hotel to see his new shoes.

George Miller of the I. Miller department store was first to arrive. “You have nothing, nothing!” he proclaimed. “Go back to Hollywood.”

Ferragamo then called Manuel Gerton of Saks Fifth Avenue and braced himself.

Gerton was in a rush, but Ferragamo could see that his eyes were alight. “You have done something new, Salvatore,” he said. “You keep these shoes away from everyone. I want them.”

And so Ferragamos became the first Italian shoes ever to be exported and sold internationally.

Innovation in Shoemaking

The Great Depression decimated the stateside business and, by 1933, Ferragamo faced bankruptcy. Then, another blow: After Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the League of Nations imposed sanctions on Italy. To make matters worse, as World War II gained traction, materials like leather, rubber and steel -- the staples of a shoemaker’s toolbox -- were diverted to military use. Supplies were so limited, Ferragamo considered trying to make shoes from glass.

Then, tinkering in his workshop early one morning, he slipped out to buy a box of chocolates for his mother, who had a sweet tooth. As he unwrapped a candy, he examined the transparent paper foil, manipulating it to test its pliability. He twisted it around his finger, gauging its strength. He bought sheets of transparent paper, experimented with layering and braiding them and found, to his delight, he could use them to make attractive uppers.

To solve the next problem -- how to make an elevated shoe without steel reinforcement -- Ferragamo thought of a design not used since the wedged sandals of ancient Greece: He would fill in the space between the heel and the ball of the foot with cork.

To advertise his new invention, Salvatore relied on a tried-and-true subset of consumers: wealthy, fashionable women. Sure enough, cork-bottomed wedges -- “lifties” or “wedgies” in the U.S. -- became enormously popular. By 1939, Ferragamo estimated that 86 percent of American-made women’s shoes were wedges, though he received disproportionately little financial reward. He had patented the style, but it caught on so quickly he couldn’t take legal action against every manufacturer that knocked it off. So the coolheaded cobbler returned to his drawing board to see what else he could create.

(Rachelle Bergstein is a writer and editor in New York. This is the first of five excerpts from her new book, “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us,” which will be published on May 29 by HarperCollins. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

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To contact the writer of this article: Rachelle Bergstein at rachellebergstein@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.