Following a craftsman in the Salvatore Ferragamo workshop in Florence as he goes through the complex step-by-step assembly of the Italian shoe designer’s famed Rainbow model, it’s hard to comprehend that this funky, multicolored wedge-sole sandal was actually created in 1938 and is not some superfly pop art extravagance of the disco era. It exemplifies the bold originality of the 20th century innovator, perhaps the prime progenitor of the Made in Italy fashion revolution, who receives an effusive salute in Luca Guadagnino’s biographical documentary feature, Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams.
Picked up by Sony Pictures Classics worldwide outside Italy on the eve of its Venice Film Festival premiere, this is a stylish entry in the library of fashion docs that have become a booming subgenre in recent years.
Its most enticing element is the extensive time spent on Ferragamo’s Hollywood years in the 1920s, designing exotic footwear for The Thief of Baghdad and The Ten Commandments, not to mention shoes created for Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri, to name just a few. When Ferragamo first turned his hand to a cowboy picture, Cecil B. DeMille allegedly told him: “The West would have been conquered sooner if they had boots like these.” The thought of him hand-tooling white nubuck and black calfskin Oxfords for Rudolph Valentino is enough to make any shoe whore’s head spin.
At two full hours the film is overlong and at times repetitive; additional tightening prior to release could improve on editor Walter Fasano’s somewhat jumpy structure. Guadagnino’s interest lies squarely in the areas of design aesthetics and personal biography, not in business, so there’s little explanation of how the Ferragamo family kept the firm going strong after Salvatore’s premature death in 1960, expanding into luxury goods. If you want to know who designed subsequent lines, don’t look for that info here.
Much is made of the importance placed by Ferragamo on family, despite having left his tiny hometown of Bonito at age 11 to refine his innate shoemaking skills in Naples and then spending 13 years in America, from his late teens through his 20s. But even if his Super 8 films of family gatherings are sweet, the emphasis on la famiglia becomes dull and hagiographic when adoring testimonials from Ferragamo’s widow and several of their six children and countless grandchildren yield mostly interchangeable recollections. It’s touching that Guadagnino wants to show how beloved the absent patriarch remains, 60 years after his death, but I glazed over each time an interview began with some variation on “I didn’t know my grandfather, but…”
Thankfully, there’s more than enough fascinating material — as well as choice archival footage and photographs — to build a robust narrative. The film was written by fashion journalist and author Dana Thomas, best known for her book about Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, Gods and Kings.
The reminder that being a cobbler was once considered a low-class profession is useful in understanding how a kid from a poor farming family of 14 children had to sway his parents before pursuing his dream. A charming anecdote reveals how 9-year-old Salvatore toiled all night in the basement to make shoes for his sisters’ First Communion the next morning, and his father, drawn by the noise of all that hammering, watched in silence.
The magical dimension of the footwear trade is suggested by clever use of the 1935 Arthur Davis animated short, The Shoemaker and the Elves, and later by references to shoes in fairy tales and folklore across different cultures. The opening footage of a pair of dazzling scarlet metallic pumps coming together from scratch in the workroom evokes associations from The Wizard of Oz to The Red Shoes, instantly cementing the link between Ferragamo’s creations and the dream culture of movies.
Those early years generate some of the most captivating parts of the story — the apprenticeship with the town shoemaker; the job in a fashionable Naples store, where he learned to measure, cut and mold shoes; the return to Bonito to set up his own business at 14 with a loan from an uncle in the priesthood; the Atlantic crossing to join his brother in Boston, where the assembly-line mass production of the famous Queen Quality shoe factory left him unimpressed.
Enterprise, determination and imagination appear to have defined Ferragamo from the beginning. He traveled by train across the country, getting a sense for the first time of the vastness of America, when he moved with his brothers to California. He got his first foot in the door of the nascent film industry in Santa Barbara before relocating to Los Angeles and opening his own store on Hollywood and Las Palmas. Celebrity clients flocked.
He started designing for actresses just as the star system was taking shape; the extent of his imprint in Hollywood is evident in footage of his workroom, stacked with wooden shoe molds identified with names like Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard and Sophia Loren. Among delightful clips highlighting his work during that period is Swanson in flashy high heels with attention-grabbing bows and ankle straps as the bad-girl title character in 1928’s Sadie Thompson.
One of the most salient details is the attention Ferragamo gave to comfort, enrolling in evening classes to study anatomy at the University of Southern California in order to better understand the dynamics of the foot and how body weight is ideally supported. Given the “Beauty is Pain” ethos often associated with killer heels, that emphasis on wearability in itself seems radical.
Seldom sticking to a strict chronology, the doc skips back and forth to show the birth of Ferragamo’s Italian empire, when he returned from the U.S. in 1927, drawing on quality materials and artisanal craftsmanship to continue producing exclusive designs for the American market. He scrambled back from bankruptcy during the Great Depression and re-established his business in the tony headquarters of Palazzo Spini Feroni, a 13th century Gothic block in downtown Florence where he initially rented rooms before buying the building in the 1930s. It now houses the Ferragamo Museum and Foundation.
Talking heads from across a range of fields weigh in, including Martin Scorsese and various film scholars; costume historians; fashion editors like Suzy Menkes and Grace Coddington; and admiring subsequent-generation shoe emperors like Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. Ferragamo’s own words are heard in recordings from his memoirs, made in 1955 and in Australian interviews from 3 years later, while connective passages are narrated by Michael Stuhlbarg, doing his best to wade through the flowery thickets of translated Italian.
Guadagnino layers lush musical tracks over much of the film to pleasing effect, including pieces by John Adams, Aaron Copeland, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Victor Young, Nicola Piovani and Ryuichi Sakamoto. And he closes with a cute “shoe ballet” by stop-motion animator PES titled A Dream of Hollywood, featuring multiplying pairs of Rainbows and other iconic Ferragamo models dancing in Busby Berkeley formation.
But the most poignant takeaway of this content-rich tribute is the designer’s humble words about bringing comfort to the women of the world — not style or beauty or glamour — heard over candid shots of Audrey Hepburn at her loveliest during a private shoe fitting.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: MeMo Films
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: Dana Thomas
Producers: Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Gabriele Moratti
Executive producer: Stella Savino
Directors of photography: Clarissa Cappellani, Massimiliano Kuveiller
Editor: Walter Fasano
Narrator: Michael Stuhlbarg
Sales: Sierra Affinity