On a balmy Thursday in Florence, James Ferragamo, grandson of Salvatore Ferragamo, is playing tour guide at his company headquarters — the 11th century Palazzo Spini Feroni overlooking the winding River Arno. Ferragamo, the director of men’s and women’s shoes and the leather division, is proudly highlighting all the patents mounted on the walls of the dining room: the undulating cork wedge with its layerlike rock formations; the Gloved Arch, which swathes the entire foot in leather; and the iconic F Wedge.
When Ferragamo spots the glass wedge patent, he proudly recalls his grandfather’s unwavering focus on innovation. “He created the concept of covering a wedge with glass and then breaking it with a little hammer to get a shattered effect. He made it for Carmen Miranda in the 1950s.” Another cabinet contains replica lasts that the house’s late founder made for Hollywood royalty, including Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.
The family’s rags-to-riches story has all the makings of a film classic reminiscent of the icons the company has dressed over the years. From its humble beginnings, Ferragamo has grown into one of Italy’s most powerful fashion companies. Last year, it posted sales of 1.4 billion euros, or $1.6 billion. While the company has dramatically evolved since its inception, one thing has remained the same: The business has always been a family affair.
After an FN photo shoot with his dad, aunt and cousin, James Ferragamo opened up about his unique experience at the company and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Your grandfather died before you were born. What do you wish you could have talked to him about?
I would have loved to have met him to understand his character and relentless drive. He made his first pair of shoes at 9, was working in a store in Naples at 11 and set sail for the U.S. at 16. He came from a very poor family and had nothing to lose, but it’s still difficult to believe that someone at that age would do that. He was a risk-taker. He bought this place [Palazzo Spini Feroni] in 1938 during the Second World War, paying in installments. The deal stipulated that if he missed one payment during the term, he would forfeit the lot. I would love to understand that daring.
He was known for crafting so many iconic shoes. What was his creative process like?
He was such an inventor. Sure, he was fixated on shoes, but he also drew plans for leg braces and even submarines. He had an inherent desire to create. For him, it wasn’t so much a question of success. It was more about doing and being innovative, as that was what he enjoyed.
Like your grandfather, you went to
the U.S. at an early age and worked at Saks Fifth Avenue. You also interned at Goldman Sachs in London. How did these roles inform your experience?
I found the stock market very interesting, but there was no tangible product, so I felt that something was missing for me. It was also very much numeric as opposed to telling the story of the company you are promoting and what it means. At Saks, I was in buying and distribution. That was a fascinating job. It’s actually one of the most difficult roles, as you have to cater to a population with such a vast taste selection.
You first joined the company in 1998. What is the best part of being involved in a family business?
That it was created by my grandfather. For me, to be part of the third generation and to work with this amazing team is an incredible feeling and an amazing honor.
What is the most challenging part
of being in a family business?
Sometimes it’s difficult not to cross the line when you have multiple bosses. For example, I can’t talk to my father [Ferruccio Ferragamo] without talking to the CEO [Eraldo Poletto] because he is my direct boss. You need to maintain that corporate approach and not play one person against the other. I couldn’t do that. I went to school in England, so they say I’m “very proper.”
What is the biggest conflict you have had over the years, and how was it resolved?
You’ve got to remember, this is an Italian company, so people talk with their hands. There’s always a full-on argument. In the past, you would hear my aunt Fiamma shouting at her brother Jerry from the next room. When my grandfather passed away, Jerry wanted to replicate the handmade shoes in a more industrial way, so they argued about design versus industrialization. It was always for the good of the company, though, and no one held a grudge. I don’t shout. You can do that within a family, but not when there are external managers involved. The third generation — my cousins Angelica, Diego and myself — we’re more civilized when we get together.
What have you learned from your father?
My father is amazing. He has dedicated his life to growing the company, bringing it forward and guiding the business in terms of strategic opportunities. He has also protected it. He was CEO until 2006 when he became chairman. He is meticulous and grounded. I can sometimes be too theoretical, but he always talks in a very concrete way, and he reminds me, “You’ve got to make it happen.” But he has always been very fair.
You have a twin brother, Salvatore, who works in the family vineyard. How has his experience been different from yours?
When he was growing up, he loved the outdoors, so that was always very natural for him. We have an amazing wine estate my father purchased in 1993; it’s attached to a small 13th century village close to Arezzo. He works on both the distribution and develops new products. He’s also in the process of building a golf course there.
Ferragamo has a rule that only three third-generation family members can be directly involved operating the business. How does it work?
It was created in 1997 before we went public. It is looked on favorably by the analysts, as they see that there is the right balance between family members and non-family members. In the third generation, there is myself, Angelica [Visconti], who is the director for southern Europe, and Diego [Di San Giuliano], who is the family representative on the board and responsible for e-commerce.
Ferragamo has been adding non-family members to the design and executive teams, including your current CEO. How has this strategy shaped the company?
My father always reminds me that the biggest risk for a family business is when it gets to the third generation. It gets harder the more distant you are from the founder. From a statistical standpoint, that is when businesses fail. But if you look at the stats, those businesses tend to be where only the family is involved. So you need to ensure that the management is made up of the best talent.
You have brought in Paul Andrew
as footwear design director. What prompted this decision, and what
drew you to Andrew in particular?
Paul is an amazing talent. When we first met, it was more about his vision for the company than the shoes themselves. He came up with the “high tech meets high craft” concept. He is about creating shoes that have that legacy. He dresses women from the shoes up. Ferragamo started out as a shoe company, after all. Paul is also all about embracing all the small details that make a shoe timeless, and never compromises on fit and comfort. That is so Ferragamo.
What do you suppose your grandfather would think of the company today in this digital-obsessed era?
He would have been on that before anybody else. He would also probably have made the lightest sports shoe before anybody else because he was such a fanatic about innovation in general. He created an over-the-knee sock boot in 1925. We have a saying in the family that everything has already been created by my grandfather.
What other family-run businesses do you particularly admire?
The Antinori family. They are 26th-generation winemakers with an amazing vineyard just outside of Florence.
What would you like your own legacy to be?
That I have continued to fulfill the dream of my grandfather to make Salvatore Ferragamo one of the world’s leading brands. There is still a lot of work to do.
Wanda Ferragamo, James’ grandmother, is the honorary chairman and a huge force. Here, the younger Ferragamo talks about her contributions.
On stepping into her late husband’s shoes: “She has dedicated her life to the pursuit of what he wanted the brand to become. It was only a women’s shoe label when he died. There are not many brands that would have been able to progress in such a way.”
On her guiding principles: “She gave a silver doll to every single Ferragamo cousin. There are 23 of us. The doll has a weight at the bottom. When it falls over, it comes back up. It is to remind us not to be scared of failing. If you are scared of making errors, you’re not going to go very far.”
On her collection of letters: “We keep her letters in four volumes of this red book. She wrote us stories about her father: how he was involved in the First World War and the difficulties he had to go through as a doctor. I look them over a lot with my kids.”