Passionate. Intense. Kind. A flag bearer for Made in Italy.
Those were all words used by industry members to describe Wanda Miletti Ferragamo, who died Friday afternoon in Fiesole, Italy, near her beloved Florence. The matriarch of the Salvatore Ferragamo family, and honorary president of the company since 2006, was 96. She was the wife of the shoe designer and innovator Salvatore Ferragamo, who created the platform and cage heels and was instrumental in developing the company after her husband’s death in 1960, which left her not only their company but a widow with six children: Fiamma, Giovanna, Fulvia, Ferruccio, Massimo and Leonardo.
Giovanna, Ferruccio, who is president of the fashion group, Leonardo and Massimo issued an internal company memo on Friday relating the passing of their mother “with enormous pain, together with our children and all of our family.” Calling their mother an “extraordinary person,” they said “her precious teachings and the memory of her will be for all of us an example of rectitude and great passion for life.”
“I built on Salvatore’s very solid foundations,” Miletti Ferragamo told WWD in 2006. “He was a very special person, a man with great humanity, feelings and passion. He studied anatomy and learned that the weight of the body falls vertically on the arch of the foot. That’s how he made such great yet comfortable shoes.”
But behind Salvatore’s artistry was his wife’s business abilities, and her leading role at the company was rare for a woman in that era.
“She was always incredibly attentive to others, she was very generous and was approachable in a sweet, kind and intense manner,” said Michele Norsa, who held the role of chief executive officer of Ferragamo for a decade until 2016. “She always tried to make things easier, and she really helped me join the family. She had a magic ability to read people. She had a very clear vision of the company and whenever there was a need to make a decision she always knew the direction beyond financial considerations. She was an important presence in meetings, always attentive and she had a heightened sense of duty.”
Asked how she felt when the company went public in 2011, under his lead, Norsa said Ferragamo “was very proud of the listing and of the fact that the company was growing.”
“Generous, curious and humorous” is how Laudomia Pucci, Emilio Pucci’s daughter and image director of the Florentine fashion house, described Miletti Ferragamo. “When Salvatore Ferragamo died, my father took Fiamma under his wing, and when my dad passed away, Wanda did the same with myself with love, care and generosity. She has always supported us and when we hosted the first event of “Les Journées Particulières” with LVMH she came to Granaiolo, Italy, to see the archives because she was such a curious woman. She also had an incredible sense of humor — I remember one day she told me ‘You know, sometimes designers do ugly things and I have my own museum of horrors.’ She was just incredible.”
“Today we have lost an incredible woman, a unique personality in the fashion industry and an icon of the Made in Italy [movement],” said Alberta Ferretti. “She was a wife who decades ago demonstrated how a woman can successfully balance family and work. As a woman, I think we all really owe her. I’ve never met her personally, but through the words and the examples of her children, who over the years have carried out her values and her vision.”
“Mrs. Ferragamo and her children personify the healthy, classic Italian family with values based on work and love,” said Valentino Garavani. “All my admiration for her, who was able to create and pursue this beautiful example of family business.”
“Wanda Ferragamo was a pioneer and ambassador for Italian fashion,” said Fendi accessories and men’s wear creative director Silvia Venturini Fendi. “A great matriarch and tireless entrepreneur, she never stopped to actively contribute with unchanged passion to the success of her company, in a way that was very rare for women in the Sixties. Her work, dedication and passion will be an example for every generation.”
“She has been, with her kind discretion, a great entrepreneur, a symbol of that will to consider fashion an expression of beauty,” said Giorgio Armani. “The passing of Wanda Ferragamo leaves a great void, but her indelible mark remains on our country’s fashion industry.”
“Signora Wanda Ferragamo has been one of the best and strongest symbols of the Made in Italy with a long-lasting leadership of entrepreneurship and illuminated vision: She will be deeply missed by the fashion system and by our country,” said Gildo Zegna, ceo of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group.
“The fashion industry lost an incredible soul and entrepreneur,” said Gucci president and ceo Marco Bizzarri. “Without a doubt, Mrs. Ferragamo gave a contribution not only to the family business but also to the city of Florence. With her creative leadership, she brought her hometown to the epicenter of the international fashion scene.”
Florence-based Raffaello Napoleone, ceo of Pitti Immagine and a human resources manager at Ferragamo from 1986 to 1989, said in that role he often met with Miletti Ferragamo, who “always followed the arrival of new employees at the company with special attention as she was very much aware of the importance of choosing any collaborator well. I was immediately impressed by the particular attention she paid to men and women selling in the stores, then and now essential vehicle of the company’s image with customers.” Napoleone also emphasized her “passion for details and for things well done,” and her “affectionate and sincere participation to the personal life of collaborators and of their families without ever forgetting a word, a card, a kind thought with her wishes,” noting, in particular, her appreciation “for what Pitti Immagine had done and was doing for Florence and for Italian and international fashion.” He concluded with one of Ferragamo’s musts: “It was essential to never waste anything and to use pencils until the end!”
“She was an extraordinary woman. She founded with her husband a wonderful dynasty, which is so well representative of Made in Italy, not only from an aesthetic point of view but also in terms of lifestyle, as it highlights Italian family values,” said Carlo Capasa, president of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana. “She will be missed and leaves her children, which are a strong, tangible sign of her testament in terms of skills and commitment to work.”
“She was just incredible. She has been an example of how to keep together such as a big family with so many different, big personalities,” said Mario Boselli, honorary president of Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana. “She took on the responsibility of guiding a company and a family with love and dedication. I really loved her and she has always made me feel loved. During my seven years at Pitti Immagine [as president], she always showed me her gratitude for what I was doing. I feel very sad today.”
“I’m so sad to hear that Mrs. Wanda Ferragamo passed away. I’m sure everybody is aware of her unique role as protagonist of the fashion industry and ambassador of the Made in Italy,” said Vogue Italia editor in chief Emanuele Farneti. “Most of all, I want to highlight the extraordinary profile of a woman who in the Sixties succeeded to impose herself with her intuition and perseverance in a world ruled by men.”
Massimiliano Giornetti, a former Ferragamo creative director until 2016, defined Miletti Ferragamo “the Lady of Fashion” and gifted “with extraordinary intelligence, a proverbial strength of character and a pioneering economic-commercial vision. She represented a model and a reference for generations of women and entrepreneurs. Deus ex machina, a family woman able — at the age of 39, [being] a widow and with six young children — to carry on with tenacity and an almost prodigious strength the development and the dream of one of the most [iconic] Italian companies.”
“Her stories were fascinating, her anecdotes [were] suggestive: To talk with her was a precious gift. But I remember the reverence that her powerful presence demanded, she had a magical aura that you immediately felt crossing the threshold of Palazzo Spini Feroni. Her unmistakable scent permeated the air, immediately putting you in a state of awe.
“Her pearl necklace and her [demure] makeup [were a must],” Giornetti continued. “Impeccable in her tailleurs perfectly matching her beloved silk scarves, there wasn’t a fold in her clothes as in her pride. For her, firmness was vision and pride. This is the most precious lesson I learnt from Mrs. Ferragamo, not to conform myself to what happens and to what others think and not to bend myself to the ugliness that surrounds us. To let myself be inspired by nature and its harmony.”
The 11th child of 14 in a poor family, Salvatore made his first pair of shoes for the first communion of one of his sisters and became hooked on his métier. After studying shoemaking in Naples, Ferragamo opened a small shop. In 1914, he immigrated to Boston, where one of his brothers worked in a cowboy boot factory. He and his brothers then moved to California, first Santa Barbara and later Hollywood. He opened a shoe repair shop, and his own made-to-measure shoes became popular with the stars. He even studied anatomy at the University of Southern California to find out how to make more comfortable shoes. His autobiography was called “Shoemaker of Dreams.” Among his clients were Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, the Duchess of Windsor and Queen Elena of Italy. His daughter, Fiamma, later created another firm classic, the Vara pump, with a round toe, grosgrain ribbon detail and gold signature buckle. She was considered to have inherited her father’s talent as a shoemaker, but she predeceased her mother, dying at the age of 57 in 1998. Her sister Fulvia Visconti Ferragamo died in April, aged 67. She was creative director of men’s and women’s silk accessories, including foulards and ties — one of the storied core businesses of the house.
At 17, Fiamma had taken the reins of design. “We were also very supported by our U.S. clients, who liked matching shoes and bags,” her mother said. “I was never into that look, but the bags were a big success.” Fulvia moved to Milan with her husband, Giuseppe Visconti, where she was not far from the silk industry of Como, and she came up with the idea of doing silk scarves, also a winner. Men’s and women’s fashion and other products were added later. The Palazzo Spini Feroni, which Salvatore bought in the Thirties, later became the Ferragamo museum.
Miletti Ferragamo herself continued working well into her 90s because, as she said to WWD, “I cannot not go [to the office], and I am passionate and the time flies when I am in my office.” At another point, she said, “They say work keeps our mind trained and young. Plus, there’s still so much to do. Our clients must continue to feel at ease with our products, conceived to exalt their femininity.” She still traveled from her estate Villa Maria in Fiesole into Florence each day to work and regularly attended the brand’s fashion shows in Milan, until most recently, always impeccably dressed and razor-sharp.
Throughout her life, she received many prestigious awards in Italy and globally. She was named “International Woman of the Year” at the Louisville, Ky., meeting of the Committee of 200, an association of women manager, in 1982; she was named a Knight of Industry by the Italian Republic in 1987; received the Fashion Group Award in 1991, and followed in 1992 by the “Mary Ann Magnin Award” in San Francisco. In 1995, she was bestowed the title of “Honorary Officer of British Empire.” In 2004, she was named a Cavaliere di Gran Croce by the Italian government.