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A red Swarovski pump made for Marilyn Monroe to wear in "Let's Make Love."

Walk of Fame

by Isaiah Freeman-Schub | DC magazine | August 27, 2012

Friendly buona seras and grazies echo in the frescoed corridors of Palazzo Spini Feroni, the medieval palace that houses Salvatore Ferragamo’s headquarters in Florence. I’m here for the lavish opening of Marilyn, an exhibition on Monroe at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. The show spans a string of cavernous rooms and includes everything from iconic film clips to memorable magazine covers to artworks like Andy Warhol’s “Four Marilyns.” The complete picture of Monroe’s complex and intriguing character—both on and off camera—mesmerizes the crowd of Italian socialites, young starlets and Ferragamo devotees. As guests murmur in the gilded salons of the palazzo, reflecting on the life of the famous actress, views of the Arno River and Ponte Santa Trinita serve as a reminder that the brand couldn’t possibly be more Italian. Yet, the company’s beginnings can be traced back to the early 1920s to the heart of Hollywood, where its founder, Salvatore Ferragamo, crafted footwear for the burgeoning cinema industry, cementing his reputation as a “shoemaker to the stars.”

Originally trained as an apprentice to a local cobbler in the south of Italy, Salvatore migrated to the United States in 1914, finding work in a footwear factory in Boston. Though impressed by the speed and efficiency of American mass-production methods, he was disappointed in the final quality of the products. “To me they were heavy, clumsy and brutal,” he wrote in his autobiography, Shoemaker of Dreams. “Far, far below the standard I had set for myself.” With hopes of finding customers who would value his handmade creations, he set up a small shoe-repair shop in Santa Barbara, a silent film industry hub. Obsessed with the perfect fit, he attended evening classes on human anatomy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His knowledge and skill garnered high-profile fans. In Caroline Cox’s tome Stiletto, she notes that Cecil B. DeMille was heard to say, “The West would have been conquered earlier if they had had boots like these,” referencing the comfort of the Ferragamo shoes he commissioned for the heroes in popular Western sagas.

When the film industry moved to Hollywood, Ferragamo followed. In 1923, he opened the Hollywood Boot Shop on Hollywood Boulevard, at the corner of Las Palmas. During this time, he produced footwear for such classics as The Ten Commandments and The Thief of Baghdad, while expanding his business to retail clients like I. Magnin & Co. in San Francisco and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Mae West, Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford were regular customers, and he was happy to adorn their feet in his colorful creations. It was only after this initial success in Hollywood—his outfit was barely able to keep pace with orders—that the company moved its operations to Florence in 1927, where skilled craftsmen could execute Ferragamo’s innovative designs.

The allure of the “Made in Italy” stamp only increased the designer’s popularity with celebrities. Home to the company’s headquarters since 1938, the Palazzo Spini Feroni became a destination for film stars, aristocrats and royalty, who traveled to have their feet measured and to consult directly with Ferragamo.

Audrey Hepburn’s signature ballerina flats? They were Ferragamo. And while Carmen Miranda might be known for her tropical headgear, her Ferragamo-designed gold mosaic platform sandals were crafted with enough disco-ball dazzle to shine on their own.

And then there was Marilyn. As one of Salvatore Ferragamo’s most loyal customers, it was Monroe who made the designer’s pumps famous—some rumors even attribute her seductive walk to the heels. Although the two never actually met (she placed orders through his Park Avenue boutique or had friends bring her shoes from Italy), she was the proud owner of 40 pairs, ranging from the rhinestone-encrusted numbers made for Let’s Make Love to black calfskin versions for everyday wear. In 1954, after getting fed up with playing the blond bombshell, she moved to New York and started attending Lee Strasberg’s classes at The Actors Studio, wearing more conservative colors as part of her image overhaul. She ordered dozens of pumps to go with her new elegant look, but there was no concealing her sex appeal.

Today, 50 years after Monroe’s untimely death, portraits of her by famed photographers like André de Dienes and Cecil Beaton hang in the ancient stone halls of the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo next to a digital reproduction of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” asserting Monroe’s status as a sensuous and mythical beauty. Some of her personal wardrobe pieces, memorable costumes—complete with shoes, of course—and original writings, convey the many facets of the intriguing sex symbol’s everyday life. “We wanted to show she had a brain, she had a heart,” says Stefania Ricci, director of the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. “She was very intellectual, a smart businesswoman and symbol of the American dream.”

For the fervent Monroe fan in search of a siren strut, the legend lives on: Six of the actress’ most iconic shoes are being reissued, available at Salvatore Ferragamo boutiques this month. Because, while the Florentine artwork and historic images elevate Monroe to near-goddess stature, she was, it’s easy to forget, a mere mortal in 5-inch stilettos.