If the shoe fits….
I spent a long and fascinating afternoon in Museo Ferragamo, the Ferragamo Museum, recently.
Being me I wouldn’t have thought that thousands of shoes could have held me spellbound for long, but I was wrong. The museum is down in the vaults beneath the extravagant headquarters of Ferragamo, in Palazzo Spini Ferrone, in Piazza Santo Spirito. It opened in 1995 but for some reason it was closed for ages but reopened in the basement of the headquarters only in 2006. The collection is a stunning panorama of over sixty years of shoes—Cinderella would have had no trouble finding another shoe here, and a prince as well, for that matter. Imelda Marcos must light candles to this shrine every night. The list of the famous, and the wooden models of their feet, form a roll-call of the celebrities of the twentieth century: Ava Gardner; Katherine Hepburn; Mary Pickford whose feet were as tiny as a Geisha’s; Sophia Loren; Audrey Hepburn who only wore flatties; Rita Hayworth whose feet turned inwards, Greta Garbo who took a size 41, exactly the same as me; Eva Peron whose rather tarty high heels with the ankle-bow are still made and are in the current collection; and Marilyn Monroe who was apparently as hard on her shoes as she was on her men, because they only have six pairs of her stilettos in the museum and they are all in bad shape. It wasn’t just women though of course—Andy Warhol stars among the celebrity pics.
The walls are covered in photos of all these gorgeous creatures having their feet caressed by Salvatore Ferragamo, and there are cases full of the receipts for their orders: Marilyn of course ordered six pairs at a time; Elizabeth Arden had her size 6B posted to her in August 1938; Mrs. Paul Mellon ordered hers to be sent to her at the family estate, Huntland Downs; Ginger Rogers paid $39.95 for hers in November 1959 and so did Mrs. Henry Ford, though hers had 50c added for postage paid! I’d have thought that Ferragamo could have let the postage go, wouldn’t you? These all came from the shop at 424 Park Avenue, New York, while in May of 1959, Mary Pickford’s cost $25.95 from the shop at 323 No. Rodeo Drive, Beverley Hills. They don’t all go back to the ‘50s though—there is also a pair made for Drew Barrymore in 1998 for the film of Cinderella.
There are only six Ferragamo centres in the world where the hand-made signature shoes are sold, and opulence is the order of the day in each of them. They are: Florence; Milan; Paris; Tokyo; New York just recently; and of course Beijing, the latest to open. Salvatore was not a Florentine; he was from Naples, but the headquarters is in Florence where the Ferragamo company now owns seemingly, half the city. They have the whole block where the fabulous Renaissance Palazzo Spini Ferrone commands the area, then on both sides of the Arno is their chain of luxury hotels: the regal Lungarno Suites, the very hip Hotel Art; the restrained and elegant Hotel Continentale; and the flagship Hotel Lungarno in Borgo San Jacopo. They also have a shop which sells designer homewares all based on the less-is-more principle of modernist chic. Salvatore Ferragamo has been dead for ages but his widow, who was twenty years younger and is now eighty-six, still comes in to work every day!
The museum may be housed in the basement but it’s not just any old basement; the ceilings are vaulted and covered in medieval frescoes of the stemme or blazons of the ruling families of the time. A Florentine friend told me that in the 1970s the basement was a nightclub with a very unsavoury reputation, called The Well of Beatrice, and that she was strictly forbidden to go there. The thing that strikes me most forcibly is that almost all the designs could still be, and are in many cases, still are in fashion today. By far the most intriguing were the sandals of pure 18 carat gold, made in 1956, for the wife of an ‘Australian tycoon’!! Not too many Australians were buying their wives golden slippers in 1956, soooo any guesses?