Ferragamo is one of the most renowned names in high fashion footwear. Born in Italy, Salvatore Ferragamo became the “shoemaker of dreams” in Hollywood, designing for films and privately for the stars. He eventually returned to Italy and built a company whose name became synonymous with quality and style.
Salvatore was born in the small village of Bonito in southern Italy in 1898. The modest Ferragamo farm could scarcely sustain the family of 14 children. It was a life Salvatore wanted to escape; he wanted to be a cobbler.
He befriended a shoemaker in Bonito, despite his parents’ misgivings. According to his autobiography, the young man first showed off his acquired skills on the occasion of one of his sisters’ First Communion. The family could not afford the traditional white shoes for the ceremony, so Salvatore made a pair. The family relented and allowed him to become an apprentice.
In 1909, Ferragamo moved to Naples, the largest and most sophisticated city in southern Italy. Although only 11, he stayed for several months, soaking up all he could of the craftsman’s art. Upon his return to Bonito, he opened his own shop.
Ferragamo was now a successful small businessman even before he reached his teens, employing six people in his shop. He was still not satisfied. In 1914, he joined the wave of emigration from Italy to the United States.
One of his older brothers, Alfonso, had written glowing reports of his life in America. He was working in Boston for one of the largest shoe factories in the country. Salvatore’s high expectations were dashed, however, upon his arrival. He later wrote that American shoes were “heavy, clumsy, and brutal.” A factory was no place for a craftsman.
He moved to the West Coast, where additional siblings had settled. He came to Santa Barbara where an older brother, Giralamo (Jerome), was working in a tailoring shop. Salvatore and Girolamo were soon joined by their eldest brother, Secondino.
Girolamo secured a position as a suit presser for the Flying A Studio, one of the largest movie-making concerns in the country. He knew that the studio’s demand for shoes and boots was immense and saw an opportunity for his brothers. He arranged a tour and, soon after, Salvatore and Secondino opened Ferragamo Bros. at 1033 State Street. Another brother, Eliodoro, arrived from Italy in 1917.
It was a tiny shop, but the business flourished. The brothers received many orders from the studio, as well as general repair work and even some custom manufacturing orders. The Ferragamos ended up buying a home at 719 California Street, up near St. Francis Hospital in 1919.
Salvatore undertook a rigorous education program to better himself. He enrolled in night school to improve his English. He drove to USC to take evening classes in anatomy. He took correspondence courses in chemical engineering and math — all to give him the skills and knowledge needed to make fine, custom footwear.
The closure of the Flying A Studio in the summer of 1920 forced Ferragamo Bros. to re-emphasize shoe repair at the expense of manufacture. Dissatisfied, Salvatore once again decided to move on. In the spring of 1923, the family opened a shop in Hollywood. Salvatore Ferragamo’s career as “shoemaker to the stars” was about to begin in earnest.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 12 East Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.