Growing up Ferragamo

A new generation of Ferragamos is taking the brand forward while staying true to the family's heritage, writes Divia Harilela

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 10:35am

It's a well-known fact in the fashion industry that the Italians are all about keeping the business in the family. While names like Versace, Missoni and Zegna all fly the family flag, no other brand sums up this ethos more than Ferragamo.

It was the family's matriarch, 93-year-old Wanda Ferragamo, who transformed her husband's small shoe business into a global success. The firm went public in 2011.

"The business was not very big when we were growing up," recalls her grandson, James Ferragamo, who visited Hong Kong recently.

"When my grandfather passed away in the 1960s, there was only the shoe business. Then my grandmother started working, as did her six children. The girls worked on the product and the sons worked on developing different markets. She is the woman who led everything."

The dashing 42-year-old (the son of Wanda and Salvatore's eldest son, Ferrucio) has been working in the company since he was 27 and is director of women's leather products. James wanted to join the family business ever since he was young.

"When I was 10, I went to the factory and made a pair of shoes for my grandmother. They were a pair of Vara flats in black patent leather with a gold bow. I ruined three pairs before I actually got it right.

"My grandmother never wore them and put them on the mantelpiece to show off instead," he says affectionately. Wanda is still the company's honorary chairwoman.

My boss is not a Ferragamo, so it's not easy ... You have to bring more results
James Ferragamo, director of women's leather products

While James' father entered the family business at the age of 18, his path was slightly different. He studied at boarding school in England, before heading to New York with his twin brother Salvatore. James completed both his undergraduate and masters degrees at New York University while spending holidays working as a sales assistant at the Ferragamo boutique in Los Angeles.

He joined finance firm Goldman Sachs briefly before completing his MBA in 1997.

The next year, when it was time for him to join the family business, it wasn't as easy as expected. By that point the family had enforced a rule that only three members of the family could work at the company at one time, making it very competitive.

"It made sense as there are too many of us. With the second generation, all six of the children were involved in the company, so by the time you get to the third [generation], it gets complicated," he says. At last count, his family numbered 61.

"This way was ideal because it became competitive for us while remaining attractive to professional managers. Today my boss is not a Ferragamo, so it's not easy being a family member. In the end you have to bring more results … Besides, we are outnumbered."

As the first member of the third-generation to join the business, James brings a youthful energy to the brand.

"So many times people talk about Ferragamo and how their mother wears it. Of course we are happy about that because the mother has the money, but we want the younger customer," he says. "People need to see Ferragamo as an innovator."

A key part of this role is collaborating, since 2010, on all leather goods collections with the brand's creative director, Massimiliano Giornetti.

James considers him a kindred spirit; the two are the same age and joined the business at the same time. Above all, they share a similar vision of making Ferragamo more modern while still respecting its heritage.

"Together, we need to communicate Ferragamo's creativity. For 

Massimiliano, he pushes on the accelerator of creativity and creates novelty with the ready-to-wear. My role is to try and make sure that we have quality and never compromise on it," says James.

"At the beginning of the season, Massimiliano gives us a starting point, usually an inspiration, like the 1960s or Los Angeles. From that theme, we develop a colour card, which he approves, and then we research the fabrics [and so on]. Every shoe, bag and belt we present has to be his vision."

While James' responsibilities include overseeing all categories from bags to belts, a key focus is naturally the shoes.

Salvatore Ferragamo himself was considered a pioneer, having studied the anatomy of the foot to ensure his shoes were comfortable as well as beautiful. He created more than 20,000 original shoe models, inventing styles such as the cork wedge, ballerina flats and the invisible sandal. James has taken this heritage one step further by developing dedicated collections such as the Audrey Hepburn shoe and red carpet collection. Most recently he unveiled the Vara and Varina made-to-order collection.

The ready-to-wear lines, meanwhile, have started to create buzz. Highlights from the spring-summer collection include a flat sandal of soft nappa leather fastened by metal buckles, along with a sandal-boot hybrid that is provocative yet luxe. A pair of pumps feature a leather wrap around the ankle, fastened by sexy laces.

"My grandmother always said, 'The more you print the name, the more readily available it is and the less value is maintained'. You have to put the name on the right product. You have to make sure what you are doing is giving value to the brand," James says.

Naturally, part of this value comes from Ferragamo's "Made in Italy" roots. It is a key part of the brand's message, especially in new markets such as China.

James says there are no plans to move production outside of Italy in the near future.

"No matter what, all our products will always be made in Italy," he says, noting that Ferragamo recently celebrated 50 years with one of its factories. "My father had a very rigid point of view on this. Italy, to us, represents a certain uniqueness, and people love this idea of artisanship.

"At the same time we are always researching in every direction. We are trying to find new materials and leathers. I have a cousin who is vegan, so we created a collection for her. Who knows? We may create one for the public," James says.

No doubt Salvatore would approve.