'I design for real women': Inside the mind of Salvatore Ferragamo's new creative head

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Salvatore Ferragamo built an empire on shoes worn by stars from Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe. Decades later, the A-listers are still fans – but appealing to Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga isn't enough for the brand's new creative director...

Milan in mid-January is cold. The leafless trees at the edge of the city's Linate airport are shrouded in a thick hoar frost; the ground is blanketed white. As my taxi travels into the city, the ice queen's touch begins to melt, but the wintry sunshine is misleading – the temperature remains distinctly low. It is so cold that the natives are almost uniformly kitted out in quilted jackets; young or old, studiedly casual or smart and stylish, even indulgently trimmed with fur, there are no two ways about it: quilting is in.

It is a pointed reminder of the practicalities that a designer must bear in mind when creating a commercial collection: the highs and lows of the k weather close to home, and – for a global brand at least – their reverse parallels when one dips below the Equator or across the International Date Line.

"When I design a collection I have to keep in mind many things," says Massimiliano Giornetti, the 40-year-old creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo. "I live in Florence and when it's freezing here, somewhere in Singapore or South America it's super-hot. I cannot develop a collection only about furs and duvet coats in winter because we have to fill stores in the world where they never see winter."

Creating a global wardrobe is just the tip of the role Giornetti was handed two years ago. Having been a menswear designer for the brand for 10 years, working his way up to head the division, Giornetti took over the helm of womenswear too in July 2010 after a series of creative directors had failed to make a lasting impact with their collections.

With 590 stores around the globe, the most recent additions being in Bogota in Colombia and Lima in Peru, Salvatore Ferragamo is truly an international brand, with 80 years of heritage. And its story reads like a fairy tale.

One of 14 children, Ferragamo was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Naples at the age of 11, before opening his first shop within his parents' home in 1912. At 16 he travelled to Boston to work with a brother at a cowboy-boot factory – a job which lasted just 15 days. In his twenties he moved to California, where he secured his first contract with an American film company, making boots for the actors in Westerns. By 1919, he had set up his own shoe-repair and made-to-measure shop in Santa Barbara before adding another branch in Hollywood. Ferragamo found himself working with Tinseltown's finest, both on screen and off. And, with the endorsement of names such as Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn and Princess Grace of Monaco, his endeavours soon returned impressive financial results.

Focused only on improving his craft, Ferragamo undertook an education in anatomy at the University of Southern California so as to design shoes that not only looked good but were comfortable, too. In 1927, he returned to Italy, setting up shop in Florence, where the company's design team remains to this day, alongside a museum dedicated to the brand's history and extensive archive.

Though still under the control of the Ferragamo family – Ferragamo's nonagenarian widow Wanda and their six children – 25 per cent of the company's stock was floated on the Milan Stock Exchange last June at €9 a share, valuing the company at €1.5bn. And Giornetti aims to grow it further.

"We recently opened two stores in South America – years ago we could not even imagine there was a demand for Ferragamo, for fashion, for luxury, in these places," he says. "When the Ferragamo family and the management gave me the honour to be in charge of the womenswear collections, in a way it was a challenge to really find out what the idea of the Ferragamo woman is."

The creative director arrived at his current position via a circuitous route. After studying literature at university – in a bid, he has admitted, to please his parents – Giornetti travelled to New York to visit the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), then to London, where he was intrigued by what he found at Central St Martins and the London College of Fashion and the capital in general – a melting-pot of religion, culture and forms of expression.

He returned to Polimoda in Florence, which had collaborative links with FIT, St Martins and the London College, to study fashion further – "the school is so beautiful, a very old Medici villa on a hill in the centre of the city, and you had the chance to really talk with your teachers and exchange points of view" – before getting his first role, in womenswear, in a Roman haute-couture house. It is an experience he describes as fascinating. "You have the chance to work on something unique, developing a concept. There is no pressure to sell and make it a business."

In time he brought this focus to the menswear stable of Ferragamo. "Menswear is about the detail, the finishing, construction. Someone said I was crazy at the time, as it's very difficult when you're doing menswear to be able to come back to womenswear. People think that womenswear is more difficult, probably because it is more visible."

Giornetti needn't worry – his first womenswear collections were met with critical acclaim. Described as the "sleeper hit of Milan" by Style.com's executive editor, Nicole Phelps, Giornetti's collection for autumn/winter 2011 was a marriage between the feminine and masculine –a power-suiting silhouette rendered in traditional tailoring fabrics. His supersize houndstooth checks were soon worn by the celebrity avant garde, namely Anna Dello Russo and Lady Gaga, who garnered column inches for the brand by accessorising hers with matching sunglasses.

But, Giornetti assures me, "I'm not thinking about Lady Gaga or Angelina Jolie when I'm designing an outfit; I'm thinking about real women, a woman with a family, with work – not living on the red carpet or in a golden cage. That dress has been worn by everyone from Rihanna to an Italian actress to real people in the street. I was in Paris recently and saw a woman wearing that dress in the restaurant I was in. That really was an honour."

It is an intriguing emphasis given the brand's long-standing association with celebrities. Ferragamo designed some of the most iconic shoes of the past century – including Dorothy's ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – while Angelina Jolie's infamous posing at this year's Oscars spotlighted a pair of the brand's satin peep-toe heels.

Yet, says Giornetti, "I think it's very important that fashion is becoming more democratic. It's much more about expressing your inner style and personality, and that is making the whole concept of fashion much more alive."

In the UK, Salvatore Ferragamo ready-to-wear is currently found only in its branded boutiques, but its footwear, accessories and fragrances are in the most discerning of stores, from Dover Street Market to Harrods. "Ferragamo is a brand that provides style and elegance which can be worn in a cool, contemporary way or as a sophisticated, timeless classic," says Caroline Lyons, head of fashion concessions for Harrods. "It allows the client to decide on their personal style, without being a statement brand and without compromise to quality and fit. The customers span a huge spectrum, from the loyal 'Vara' [a classic bow-adorned pump designed by Ferragamo's daughter] to the young fashionista."

Giornetti's fervour for the animation that only the wearer can bring to fashion perhaps masks the importance he places on the narrative behind the presentation of a collection. I visited Milan in mid-January to view the pre-fall collection, which for the first time was being presented to the press. A fortnight before I was due to travel, I received an email from Ferragamo's UK publicist explaining that there was a "serious problem" with the chosen location and the trip could be cancelled unless another venue which matched the mood of the collection could be found. It went ahead as planned, however: a cinematic presentation in an ornately decorated waiting-room in Milan's central train station. The location was central to the narrative of the collection, which presented the "fragments of a journey" of an "ultra-sophisticated woman". Made up of rich jewel shades juxtaposed with soft nude tones, the feminine pieces were discreetly opulent – exotic skins trimmed and patched knitwear and pleated skirts.

The idea of the journey is one to which Giornetti has long been attracted. He tells me of a memorable exhibition of the work of Pablo Picasso at the Royal Academy in London. "You see the evolution in the work; the aesthetic vision started from a very classic, academic way and became something that was much more personal. You learn the rules and then you have the chance, personality and energy to break them."

Art is an important inspiration not only for Giornetti, but for the Ferragamo family, too. It was recently announced that next summer the brand's second resort collection will be the first to be shown inside the Louvre, where it will also sponsor an exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci.

But just as important to the designer is the construction, with every piece still being made in Italy and the level of craftsmanship this communicates to the consumer. "It's not something for one season – you can wear it and then put it to rest in your wardrobe. I always found it fascinating the moment in which we open the wardrobe of our father, grandfather, mother and find a beautiful shoe, bag or tailored jacket. I'm not a nostalgic person but I think it's very important to be able to take some knowledge, some idea of elegance from the past and translate it to the future."

This could be a metaphor for his role at the helm of Ferragamo – following in the footsteps of "a genius, a man with a strong creativity and a sense of architecture" can't be easy. "The archive is simply amazing," he says. "But while it is important to be linked to the heritage of the brand, you must also think about the future, otherwise you will arrive at an end point where you are just reproducing the work of Salvatore Ferragamo. I have to work without any fear of the heritage, but also ask, 'What would [Salvatore] have been doing in this moment?' He was testing, experimenting with new colours, shapes, materials – Cellophane, raffia, cork.

"I don't feel scared of comparisons with Salvatore, but the approach has to be in respect of the work of Salvatore and the Ferragamo family. They give me the chance to express my aesthetic vision, my view. I'm not looking for a personal spotlight."

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