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Wanda Ferragamo in the garden of her residence ‘the Palagio’ in Fiesole, in the scenic hills above Florence, in the 70s

Text Teresa Favi
Photo Credits Salvatore Ferragamo

December 17, 2021

The fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo celebrates the centenary of the birth of Wanda Miletti Ferragamo

Our interview with this legendary woman

On December 18, 1921, Wanda Miletti Ferragamo was born. From 1960 to 2018, when she passed away, she was the intelligent and solid guide of the Maison Salvatore Ferragamo; a woman who was able to perfectly combine the more traditional femininity of being dedicated to the home and family with her commitment to work and society. In August 1960, after the untimely death of her beloved husband Salvatore, Wanda decided to take over the presidency of the company and combine this new dimension of her life with the care of her family and her children, some of whom were still small; she chose to carry on her husband's project and to honor his memory; she made a cultural choice, in the full meaning of the term, with the intent to preserve and strengthen the dream that had led Salvatore to America and then to Tuscany, Florence, the place of choice for the couple.

On this special occasion, we republish below our interview with this extraordinary woman exactly 10 years ago, when she was still Honorary President of the famous fashion house founded by her husband.

Are you not tired yet of working?

“It’s impossible to stay away from something you believe in. You see, my husband’s story is so exceptional and beautiful, that I always felt the need to keep it alive and to nourish it. I will do this as long as I possibly can”.

Her voice trembles when she recalls the funeral of Salvatore in 1960, when his employees assured her “Madam, we’ll make it, you will see, we will help you.” She was 38 years of age and had six children, aged 2 to 17.

Salvatore and Wanda Ferragamo with their children in the garden of Villa Il Palagio

You had never worked before?

“No. But I rolled up my sleeves and learned from the most loyal employees. Those who knew my husband were fascinated by his genius and by the way he treated his employees as equals”.

Salvatore Ferragamo came from humble beginnings, correct?

“We were both born in Bonito, a small village two provinces to the south of Naples. As the eleventh of fourteen children, he started working at age nine in a shoemaker’s shop. He then immigrated to California when he was fifteen to join his brothers. Nine years later he was the most famous shoemaker of Hollywood”.

Why did he decide to return to Italy, especially to Florence?

“Stories about the excellence of Florentine craftsmanship had made their way to America and were heard by Salvatore. Wealthy heiresses would talk about the most beautiful embroidered lingerie found in Florence, unique silverware, accomplished leather cuts, and the best straw hats in the world. After thirteen successful years in America, Salvatore realized that it was time to return to Italy in order to achieve his objectives”.

Wanda with her children Fiamma, Giovanna, Leonardo, Ferruccio and Fulvia Ferragamo on the roof of Palazzo Spini Feroni in 1983. Photo David Lees

What fascinated you about your husband?

“His charisma and unique ways, his great style. He exuded warmth and elegance. He loved beautiful things, but hated ostentation”.

How did you meet?

“In early September 1940 he came to Bonito to inaugurate a food bank that my father, a doctor and very human man, had built thanks to his contributions. Salvatore arrived in a silver Alfa Romeo with red moroccan interiors (his only weakness were nice cars) and I opened the door and welcomed him with lots of compliments. He was proud and surprised: ‘But Miss, how do you know me?’. ‘Well’, through magazines‘. Truthfully, our village did not even receive newspapers, but I had overheard stories about him the days before. He convinced me to take off my shoe to see my foot, to be able to send me his latest creations. And then we both saw the small hole in the right sock on my big toe... I turned red as a beet”.

Wanda Miletti and Salvatore Ferragamo, mid-1940s

An awkward moment, what happened next?

“The next morning a bunch of tuberose flowers arrived with a note: “May I see you again?”. Until today, the scent of tuberose reminds me of that day. For days on end roses and tuberoses arrived at my house. I was walking on clouds. Due to the age difference of 24 years, my father was initially in disagreement. But finally Salvatore won him over and two months later, on November 9, we got married in Naples at the church of Santa Lucia. That night the Naples bombardment began and we fearfully watched the bombing from the terrace of our hotel in Sorrento. After three weeks of honeymooning (Sorrento, Amalfi, Capri and the Ligurian coast up to San Remo) I saw Florence and my new home for the first time. And that was the beginning of my new life”.

Royalty, wives of heads of state, and famous actresses came to Florence to buy custom-made shoes from your husband. Who left the strongest impression in your heart?

“Audrey Hepburn with her elegance and sophistication, but above all her extraordinary humanity. Let me tell you an anecdote. During a dinner at the Palagio restaurant, a waiter dropped a heavy spoon with a loud metal bang. We all turned around to see. Not wanting to mortify the boy, Audrey did not even flinch and continued to eat as if nothing had happened”.

Actress Audrey Hepburn with Wanda and Salvatore Ferragamo in front of Palazzo Spini Feroni in Florence in 1954. Photo Archivio Locchi

With 400 patents and a boundless imagination, what are the greatest inspirations of your husband?

“The most important invention, which never gets enough attention, was the metallic arch support for the heel, invented in 1920, the result of his maniacal scientific research on the structure of the foot. There were also shoes made of candy wraps or fish skin vamp, the cork sole, or the invisible sandal with vamps of nylon, which in 1947 earned him the Neiman Marcus Award, the Oscar of fashion. Salavatore’s inspiration for the sandal derived from the fishing lines of the fishermen along the Arno River”.

Do you remember your first pair of Ferragamo shoes?

“I most certainly remember a beautiful pair of laced-up shoes with small fish scale patterns on the vamp and heel”.

Wanda Ferragamo with some models created by Salvatore, 1940s

A passion and a secret of Wanda Ferragamo?

“Camellias are my passion.  As for the secret ... there’s an object that no one outside of my family knows. It’s a silver doll on a round base that swings to the side, but always returns aligned to the center. It’s handcrafted by the artisan Mrs. Pagliai. All of my grandchildren received this doll as a gift when they were born, with the following engraving: ‘Get back up and follow the path of integrity, Grandma Wanda’. It is meant to be comforting, because anyone can blunder into a difficult situation. I want them to know that the family is always behind them. But, the most important thing is to get back up...”.

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