FLORENCE — The “Women in Balance 1955/1965 [Donne in Equilibrio]” exhibition is a tribute to Wanda Miletti Ferragamo, Salvatore Ferragamo’s wife, but it also shines the light on women’s empowerment — a topic that continues to be timely and relevant.
The exhibit is staged at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo here and will run from Friday to April 18, 2023. It was unveiled on Thursday in the presence of several Ferragamo family members, including the founder and his wife’s daughter Giovanna Gentile and their sons Ferruccio, Leonardo and Massimo.
“This is one of the most significant moments for the museum. My mother wanted it at all costs and conceived it as an act of love for my father and the family, reflecting all the values represented by the brand,” said Leonardo Ferragamo, chairman of the company, at Palazzo Fini Speroni, which houses both the headquarters and the museum.
Miletti Ferragamo took over the company at age 38 after the death of her husband in 1960 at age 62, which left her a widow with six children, the youngest only three years old: Fiamma, Giovanna, Fulvia, Ferruccio, Massimo and Leonardo.
“That was a wonderful passing of the baton that was never interrupted,” he continued, as his mother, who had never worked in the company before her husband’s death, masterminded its development into an international fashion brand. Miletti Ferragamo remained a key point of reference for the company and the family until her death in 2018 at age 96.
Through the exhibition, the Ferragamos also celebrate the role of women in society at a time when “their evolution was most significant” after World War II, in the 1955 to 1965 period, said Leonardo Ferragamo. Miletti Ferragamo’s most difficult choice may have been whether to sell the company or not, but she decided to carry on her husband’s legacy.
Becoming head of a company from her role as a mother was a step shared by many women in that period, as they began to have a more active role in society. In the preface to the exhibition’s catalogue, Miletti Ferragamo said taking care of the children “was as far as women’s education went in my day. Now there was only one head of the family and the company: me. The challenge was to find a balance between the responsibility of raising the children and my new role in the business. […] How would I like to be remembered? As a mother — a mother in the service of entrepreneurship.”
The first room in the exhibition in fact spotlights her studio, her many awards and prizes, opposite a rack of vintage shoes, and images flanked by Ronald Reagan or bowing to Queen Elizabeth are framed on the walls. But it is her many family photos that stand out on the white desk, near her signature crocodile handbag and leather gloves.
Her dream, said Stefania Ricci, director of the museum, was to expand the company left by her husband while keeping the family united. “She managed the company as a mother does her family, with empathy, emotional intelligence, taking care of her employees.” It was also fundamental to “keep the memory of her husband alive, and she succeeded.”
Ricci started thinking of the exhibition a year ago and as she went along, she realized how fashion, too, changed as women were working out of the home more. Ricci said she wanted to tell the stories of other women who, similarly, balanced personal success with devotion to their families, in the period shortly after being allowed to vote. She saw “flying as a metaphor of the economic miracle,” and placed vintage uniforms on mannequins and bags of flight attendants in one of the first rooms, surrounded by photos taken at the time.
In another wardrobe-like room, pointing to the rarity of a Confezioni Apem Milano short, floral dress with a bow at the neck dating back to 1955, Ricci said the fabric “was totally synthetic, but it reflects the research that went into those first ready-to-wear designs.”
Fashion at the time became the second target for consumer spending after food, she said. “Through these clothes you can see the change in silhouettes, they are more tapered, and there is a triumph of knitwear and jersey, more suitable for working women.”
In this room are bags by Roberta di Camerino; a 1959 short Krizia shirt dress; Sorelle Fontana and Irene Galitzine gowns, as well as a floor-length evening dress that belonged to Miletti Ferragamo and was one of the first designs by her daughter Giovanna. There are several suits by Max Mara and a photo of that firm’s founder Achille Maramotti’s mother Giulia appears among the women entrepreneurs with other memorabilia, including her research on women’s body types.
Laura Lusuardi, fashion director of the Max Mara group’s fashion labels, visiting the exhibition, praised Ricci’s curation, saying that the decade chosen “was an important moment for Italian fashion, and it has not really been explored enough.” Ricci personally visited the Max Mara archives to select the designs on display, Lusuardi related. “This room tells the story of the beginning of Italian fashion.”
In another part of the exhibition are also a few pieces by Gae Aulenti that Max Mara lent to the museum, as the Italian brand worked with the famed architect and industrial designer on several projects.
Also present at the unveiling, Miletti Ferragamo’s granddaughter Ginevra Visconti presented her book “Nel Libro Rosso di Tà [In the Red Book of Tà — how Miletti Ferragamo was nicknamed by her 23 grandchildren].” The book collects the letters written by Miletti Ferragamo to her grandchildren. “We always felt so close to her, she was a constant presence even from afar, she was a great communicator and writer,” said Visconti. “And she cared so much about the younger generations and their future.”