Franco Fieramosca and Cristina Nannelli in Capri.

Franco Fieramosca, a force in the luxury footwear business who was instrumental in building Gucci, Prada and other top labels in the U.S. market, died Wednesday at age 81 from complications related to a liver condition.

“Footwear was his passion. Work was his life. He loved his job so much,” said his wife, Cristina Fieramosca. “He was still in touch with a lot of people. He never let it go.”

An expert in both product development and distribution, Fieramosca was born and raised in Italy, and his career began in 1960 at Bally of Switzerland. He studied all aspects of production and in 1973, the company transferred him to the U.S. “In those days, it was Bally, Bruno Magli and Ferragamo,” Fieramosca said in a 2008 interview. “There was no Prada, and Gucci had only its own retail business, which was not huge in this country.”

Fieramosca eventually left Bally to work on assignments for other high-end firms, including Ferragamo. In 1983, he joined Cole Haan as vice president of women’s shoes, and in 1992, he accepted a consulting position at Gucci in product development — the same year he launched his own footwear line, Fieramosca & Co.

It was at Gucci that Fieramosca met Cristina, and a partnership — both professional and personal — was born.

“Gucci hired Franco because they wanted to wholesale footwear in the United States. Dawn Mello saw an article about him in Footwear News and called him for an interview,” Cristina remembered. “It was July 1992 and Franco was introduced to the shoe department. He decided everything was wrong. We redid [it all] — the color of the lining, the price structure, the sizing, we worked like dogs. He really changed the business at Gucci. A few years later, the company sold a million pairs of shoes.”

Domenico De Sole, the former president and chief executive officer of Gucci Group and current Tom Ford chairman, said Fieramosca had “incredible knowledge” about footwear. “I worked closely with him and all the merchants at Gucci. When I took the company public, I took all the bankers to see the collection in Florence. All of our showrooms were there and Franco presented the shoes. He did a phenomenal job for us,” De Sole said. He also vividly remembered a trip to Japan with Cristina, Franco and the entire merchant team. “I arrived a day later and everyone was waiting for me. Franco was there in a kimono! They were a great couple.”

Brian Blake, the former president and CEO of Gucci Worldwide who is now a Tom Ford executive, said Fieramosca played a pivotal role in Gucci’s expansion into the U.S. during a time of intense reinvention of the luxury brand. “[Footwear] was new for me, and Franco had all the contacts and understood what the competition was doing. He was key,” Blake said.

Fieramosca spent five years expanding Gucci’s presence in American department stores and independent retailers, and he ran his own brand on the side. “It was the only place where I could do whatever I wanted to do. It was a freedom,” he said in 2008. (Fieramosca ended production of his footwear line in 2006.)

By 1997, he had become a Prada “fanatic.” Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli met with Fieramosca, and in early 1998 offered him a position liaising between the creative and merchandising departments.

In 2004, Fieramosca retired from Prada. For several months he worked on a freelance project for Polo Ralph Lauren, but in less than a year, Bertelli had lured him back to the company, under the condition that he could live and work primarily in the U.S. and forgo a grueling transatlantic travel schedule.

After a 10-year stint with Prada — and 48 years in the footwear industry — Fieramosca retired in 2008, the same year he was inducted into the FN Hall of Fame.

That honor meant a great deal to him, said Ron Frasch, longtime retail executive and now an operating partner at Castanea Partners.

Frasch remembered Fieramosca as a “super kind and thoughtful person.” “We have stayed in touch over the years, and it seemed like he was the one always taking the lead. I was lucky enough to have known him for many years from working with major brands to his entrepreneurial initiatives,” said Frasch. “He was so passionate about footwear and was always a shoe dog’s shoe dog. He will be greatly missed.”

John Ascher, a close friend and former Ralph Lauren executive, called Fieramosca a man of great taste and style. “He was very fair and always showed concern for everyone he worked with,” Ascher said. “He always recognized everyone else for their hard work and contributions.”

In addition to Cristina, Fieramosca is survived by two sons, Marcello and Adriano.

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