16 luglio 2022
by Laura Antonini

Mission Wanda. Him, her, and the Ferragamo empire

Wanda Ferragamo 
Wanda Ferragamo 

Daughter, wife, widowed mother and then a business woman capable of transforming a shoe company into an international fashion house and then into a joint stock company listed on the Borsa di Milano. Last but not least, grandmother of a veritable tribe of over 70, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, scattered around the world, with whom she stayed in contact until her death by posting them letters with guidelines, newspaper clippings and any suggestions she considered useful for their inner and professional growth. The story of Wanda Ferragamo, who aged 18 married the shoemaker to the stars 24 years her senior, is simply extraordinary. The incredible and exemplary life of a woman, who throughout her very long existence, (she passed away in 2018 at the age of 97) successfully manifested her husband's dream, carrying it forward to the present day and, standing tall, forged ahead ahead with his lifestyle and his personal choices. 

The brilliant visionary of humble origins, but gifted with character and determination, had left Bonito, a small town in Irpinia for America. He knew how to make shoes and wanted to make the most beautiful and comfortable shoes in the world. He succeeded in a short time, revolutionizing the fit and production of this essential accessory to the female wardrobe and seducing Hollywood actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo.

Then he returned to Italy, to Florence, a city symbolic of Italian beauty already familiar to European travelers and home to skilled workers who would soon earn his product the virtuous stamp of ‘Made in Italy’. His dream went further, with the dual ambition of expanding the business to dress women from head to toe and to create a business in which his whole family could work. This mission would take shape only thanks to his alliance with Wanda Miletti, becoming a reality that was regenerated even after his death in 1960. 

She, Wanda Miletti, was born in 1921 in Bonito, just like Salvatore. In the tiny village less than an hour from Naples, she was home-schooled as befitted the children of the wealthy—her father was a very strict and highly respected doctor—and then continued at a college run by French nuns. She had lost her mother and had already lost two siblings when, in 1940, she met her soul mate Salvatore for the first time. Already settled in Florence, Ferragamo was visiting his home village as a benefactor. “My father said that it was not good to marry a man older than me; that I would find myself a widow with lots of children and that’s what happened. But after college, I dreamed of my prince charming and it got me down thinking that, in my village, no one would come and rescue,” she remembered in one of her many interviews. Galeotta was a shoe that Salvatore had her try on. In a record time of three months, they were married and then they moved to Florence to a beautiful house on the hill of Fiesole, playing host to illustrious guests such as Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, and with a family that expanded with the birth of six children: Fiamma, Giovanna, Fulvia, Ferruccio, Leonardo and Massimo. The eldest was 19 years old and the youngest two when, at the age of 38, Wanda was left a widow by her beloved Salvatore on 7 August 1960. This tragic event, after the first weeks of bewilderment, impressed in Wanda the determination to continue the life project shared with her husband.

“I had never worked,” she would say modestly on several occasions, “but I decided to pursue the dream.” Many later asked her how she managed it. “I don't know,” she replied “Women are sort of guardians of the feelings that drive a union. Little by little, I found the energy I needed to keep going. I, who had always and only taken care of my family, had to deal with everything: Management, supplies, technical stuff, monitoring expenditure. I believe that all, or almost all, women can run a business well if they are capable of managing their families wisely. I was familiar with all the projects because Salvatore always kept me informed. How much fun I had working!” 

Women in balance

Women who are divided between work and family. Working mothers, wives and daughters who are forever balancing on the thin wire of responsibility: a very topical issue, which is often the subject of debate. Now the subject of a new poetry of art and design, in the beautiful exhibition ‘Donne in Equilibrio’ (Women in Equilibrium’ curated by Stefania Ricci and Elvira Valleri, on display at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence until April 18, 2023. The exhibition is in the Palazzo Spini Feroni overlooking Via Tornabuoni in the heart of the city, home to the Maison museum, and tells the story of the evolution of women in the period of the economic boom starting with the iconic figure of Wanda Miletti Ferragamo. Wife of Salvatore, shoemaker of the divas, brilliant founder of the Ferragamo brand, this woman from 1960 until her death on October 19, 2018, led with intelligence and solidity the brand that her husband had made into a global symbol of Italian excellence.

Wanda was a pioneer of an interesting and personal search for balance between her new working dimension and her family

‘Signora Wanda’, as everyone has always called her at the company where she continued to work until the very end, was a legendary figure who, in August 1960, when her beloved Salvatore died, leaving her with six children and an established company, found herself taking up the entrepreneurial reins of the maison, transforming an artisan workshop of women's shoes into an international fashion house listed from 2011 on the Borsa di Milano. Her decision to lead the company made her a pioneer of an interesting and personal search for balance between her new working dimension and her family.

“I had never worked before in my life, so I didn’t know where to start; moreover, I had no preparation whatsoever,” reads a writing by Signora Wanda. “Up til then, I had taken care of the house and the children, which was what education for women in my time was limited to. Now the family and the company had only one boss, which was me. It was one big challenge to achieve the balance between the responsibility of educating the children and at the same time learning my new role in the company. It was almost a sleight of hand, in which I became an expert. I tried to focus on a new product line, while two seconds later I had to respond to all the demands from my six children. How would I like to be remembered? Above all as a mother, a mother who lent herself to entrepreneurship.”

Wanda was a pioneer of an interesting and personal search for balance between her new working dimension and her family

The common thread that binds the nine rooms of the exhibition at the Ferragamo Museum starts with her and with the experience of one of the first women captains of Italian industry, focusing on the central theme of the complexity of the female reality in Italy between the 1950s and 1960s, a period in which Wanda changed her life. These were the years of what is known as the “economic miracle”; a period marked by profound changes in Italian society. A time in which a crowd of women appeared in the different sectors of Italian society; it was a reality in motion that testified to the complicated and even contradictory path, which not only led to the personal affirmation of many, but to greater freedom for all women, contributing to the construction of the Italian Republic.

To tell the story of this journey through the changes in the female universe, the set designer Maurizio Balò chose to transform the museum rooms into nine rooms of an apartment typical of a bourgeois family of the period. Indeed, the home was that private space, to be furnished and personalized; the place of identity par excellence of the woman. The only sector out of context is the entrance hall that reproduces the office of Wanda Ferragamo, overlooking Piazza S. Trinita. 

Here, visitors can admire the family photos, the honorary degrees received over the years and the many photographs in which Wanda is captured with famous figures, such as Pope John Paul II or Queen Elizabeth, by whom she was received on March 15, 2005 at Buckingham Palace, on the occasion of the state reception organized for the President of the Italian Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

The themes of the sections of the exhibition are therefore intended to recall the rooms of this ideal house: the dining room, the library that tells us about the new female professions, such as hostess and secretary, the attic, the kitchen that held the technological innovations that would help women to worry less about domestic chores, thanks to household appliances.

On display together with period objects, there are also the pages of magazines, as well as the film advertisements, broadcast by the popular television program Carosello, established in 1957, which presented the new family intimacy as a self-referential universe in which to experiment new habits, which served to mark the time of everyday life and the levels of economic status. And then the living room, the girls' room, the wardrobe, a room staged around the Italian fashion that in 1955 conquered the foreign market with the affirmation of the new industrial sector: prêt-à-porter.

This fashion responded to the new identity of a woman on the move, travelling by public transport and in need of practical clothing. The designers included female names of Italian dressmaking, from Antonelli to Germana Marucelli, Gigliola Curiel to the Sorelle Fontana, and then Roberta di Camerino and Simonetta, who are on display with some of their creations, while the shoes in the exhibition were produced by Salvatore and Fiamma Ferragamo. 

 The history of Ferragamo gives you the sense of how the great sentiment of Wanda Ferragamo combined with an innate common sense and an incredible ability to relate and understand made this woman the real pivot of the success tit has achieved to date. “She did not like to talk about herself nor claim personal merit,” recalls Stefania Ricci, who has directed that Ferragamo Museum since 1995, one of the first business museums in Italy, strongly advocated by Ms. Wanda and which, in the past few months, has been hosting the exhibition ‘Donne in equilibrio’ (Women in Equilibrium), which pays homage precisely to her pioneering role as a woman capable of reconciling private life and work. “She always let her husband’s dream do the talking, a dream which then also became her own, thus contributing to the evolution of the maison.” 

Ms. Wanda followed and looked after the company like you do with a family and, at the same time, she brought up her children always trying to keep the family together.

Today, she is remembered by her granddaughter Ginevra Visconti, who wrote Nel Libro Rosso di Tà (Electa Edizioni) specially for the exhibition dedicated to her at the Ferragamo Museum. There is no doubt that Wanda Miletti was central to the company's development over the years. The many documents in the vast Ferragamo archive include evidence of how the foundations were laid, before the listing on the stock exchange, for what would become one of the most successful family businesses that still has not succumbed to the flattery of the big French groups. There has been no shortage of acknowledgments received testifying to her greatness. The International Woman of the Year Award in 1982, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the City University of New York in 1986. She was made Cavaliere del Lavoro of the Italian Republic in 1987. But also Officer of the British Empire in 1991, an honor awarded to her by Queen Elizabeth, the Fashion Group Award in New York and the Qualità Italia award in 1997 from the President of the Italian Republic. 

“Ms. Wanda followed and looked after the company like you do with a family and, at the same time, she brought up her children always trying to keep the family together,” continues Ricci. “She always had a consistent lifestyle, from diet to personal care, dosing the frills and respecting the time for rest in the evening, which ensured that she never lost sight of the lucidity and enthusiasm to achieve the targets she had set.” And all without any management training; guided rather by an intelligence that today’s business theories would describe as emotional, which also enabled her to choose the right associates and make decisions. Her intuition led her to identify the most suitable places to open a store; she analyzed the local customer base and the competition, she studied the production offer, took care of training the sales staff, the way they presented themselves, and even the positioning of goods on the shelves. Among many, the decision in 2006 to appoint a CEO (Michele Norsa) who successfully led the maison to listing on the stock market in 2011; but also the decision to limit the entry of new generations to the company thanks to an agreement that regulated–in pioneering fashion among Italian family businesses–the thorny issue of generational handover.

“Young people worry me, she would later say towards the end of her life. “It seems to me that they are a bit forgotten. I often see them without goals, without ideals, without healthy references, tired of life.

Indeed, she has always focused carefully on young people. She sent to her grandchildren personal letters enclosing newspaper clippings perhaps with Obama's speech or with a scientific publication that talked about new important discovery. Her letters had to be filed and kept, so she also sent everyone a large red leather book engraved with their different initials. Another thing she had sent to everybody was a strange silver doll she had made by a silversmith in Florence, with a swinging body that never let it fall, as if to say that “yes, you can even make mistakes but the important thing is always getting things back in balance.”  

“Young people worry me, she would later say towards the end of her life. “It seems to me that they are a bit forgotten. I often see them without goals, without ideals, without healthy references, tired of life. We need to set goals, big or small, because they are the great force that make us get up every morning.” It is precisely with young people in mind that she set up first the museum, and then the Ferragamo Foundation in 2013: a legacy that helps to feed the vibrant memory of an entrepreneurial history built on moral rather than economic values, to be handed down to future generations. 

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