Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams

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As solidly made as the shoes of its subject, though not as imaginative, Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams does exactly what it sets out to do – tell the life story of Salvatore Ferragamo, the man who puts shoes on Dietrich, Garbo, the Duchess of Windsor and Ava Gardner and built an empire based on high-end footwear.

He was clearly a remarkable man. Born in a small village 90km east of Naples in 1898, Salvatore was the 11th of 14 children and the second of his parents’ children to have that name – an older brother had died.

He wanted to make shoes from almost as soon as he could remember but his parents discouraged it – cobblers didn’t make money – but all that changed the night he made from scratch two pairs of shoes for his sister’s first communion the next day. She’d otherwise have had nothing to wear.

Parental blessing secured, Ferragamo opened his own shop aged 12. Yes, 12. By 14 he had six assistants. By 17 he was arriving in New York without any English. A stopover at his brother’s place in Boston and a tour of the shoe factory there reinforced the conviction that mass production was not the way to go. And so he headed to the west coast, where the nascent film industry was churning out westerns. Cowboys need boots, reasoned Ferragamo, and soon he was on his way.

The famous names followed, first Lottie Pickford, then Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish. He studied anatomy in order to work out how to make remarkable shoes that were also comfortable – “fashion with comfort” he replied later to an interviewer when asked for the secret of his success – and started filing patents for all the innovations in shoe design he came up with.

From here it’s an up and down story – a dead brother in a car crash when he was driving; shoes for Rudolph Valentino; shoes for Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad; for Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson; the return to Italy; the Depression and bankruptcy; marriage and his return to the top of the pile through hard work.

Along the way we learn that Ferragamo made lasts of every famous foot he shod, that he invented the cork wedge heel, that he loved new and unusual materials – the shoe made of nylon fishing line, for example.

Salvatore's widow, Wanda
Salvatore’s wife, Wanda, ran the company after his death

Famous faces turn out to sing their praises – designers Manolo Blahnick and Christian Louboutin, a slightly pointless Martin Scorsese (who seems to be being guided through the interview, as if he didn’t really know much about Ferragamo), and cadres of Ferragamo business associates and relatives. There is footage of his wife, Wanda, who died in 2018 (he himself was dead aged 62 in 1960), which is a lot more valuable than the contributions of some of the Ferragamos, who seem to have been interviewed on the sole basis that they share a surname. The pretty granddaughter (all the granddaughters are pretty) who never met him but felt like she knew him, kind of thing.

At a nudge off two hours, there is simply too much of this stuff, too many family members saying the same thing, and yet saying not much at all.

What saves the film is the assiduous research – Ferragamo’s copious home movies are used, as well as archive footage, old photographs, interviews he made while he was alive, and filling in the gaps is Michael Stuhlbarg’s measured voicever reading from Ferragamo’s autobiography.

There is no dirt, no scandal, not much insight into Ferragamo’s character, beyond the fact that he was driven and an innovator. Since all the interviews were conducted by other people – Giuppy D’Aura in the main – the suspicion arises that titular director Luca Guadagnino didn’t have an awful lot of involvement in it at all.

Not long before, Guadagnino did direct a lush, Hitchcock-inspired advertising campaign for Ferragamo, and that does look like the work of the director of Call Me by Your Name and A Bigger Splash. This, not so much. For all its richness in information, it all feels a bit corporate, like the sort of video presentation you’d make to a sell-side analyst. Lovely shoes, though.

Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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