Wanda Ferragamo: CEO of Balance

Wanda Ferragamo: CEO of Balance

A Florentine exhibition that celebrates Wanda Ferragamo compels a reflection on the ‘enormity’ of balance in women’s lives.

Curators consciously express their interpretations of a person, era, trend or creation in different modulations when they design exhibitions. A viewer will still watch and remember in a personal way, guided often by individual resonances or the invisible ‘sacks’ of thoughts we carry in our lives.


The objects in Wanda Ferragamo’s office.

Wanda Ferragamo: Women in Balance, an ongoing exhibition at Musée Salvatore Ferragamo inside the medieval building of Palazzo Spini Feroni in Florence, is a homage to legendary shoe designer and founder of the luxury goods brand Salvatore Ferragamo’s wife. The lanes around this address, house stores from the world’ most respected luxury brands and legacy speaks louder than changing fashions with the Renaissance palace Palazzo Strozzi at stone’s throw.

The documentation around Wanda’s life and work and the conversation with Stefania Ricci, one of the curators and longtime director of the museum who takes me around, compels me to reflect on the enormity of the word “balance”. That one shoe of life most difficult to balance on.

Especially in the lives of women from traditional societies like Italians (Indians too) who “balance” their individual capabilities and dreams with those of the husband and children. Sometimes with extended families, their whims and destinies, even family businesses.


Wanda’s Balance as Life Skill

Balance is a benign and beautiful word. It has been expounded with profundity in disciplines as widely apart as sculpture, philosophy, fitness or Zen Buddhism. Yet it is hard to tug and tow and live up to. Some women manage this “balance” exceptionally well because they accept who they are in the larger scheme of things. The scheme is always larger than individual desires. Others do it with quiet elegance even when the “larger” diminishes their personal identity. And yet others create a personal identity out of this very balance because they believe there is nothing entirely personal unless it is inclusive of the tales and triumphs of a sisterhood.

Whether you are alert to the curatorial script of Women in Balance or glean from shoes on exhibit (oh yes, there is a wall full of them), a bag or two, a pair of kid gloves, silk scarves, art works, old photos, handwritten notes, a fully stocked fridge reminiscent of Wanda’s kitchen…it is apparent she was a woman who made her identity as an enabler. “Mother in the service of entrepreneurship” as one of the quotes mounted in the exhibition reads.

Ferragamo Beyond Footwear

Wanda Miletti, the daughter of a doctor from the town of Bonito in the Campania region, had married Salvatore in 1940 and together they had six children. This exhibition that celebrates her life as a matriarch, business woman and nurturer, opened in May and is curated by Stefania Ricci and Elvira Valleri. It focusses on just one decade—1955 to 1965. An informative and well-designed exhibition catalogue in the form of a thick book captures the curatorial scape.

This was the decade when Wanda joined her husband’s shoe shine business after they had returned to Italy from the US where after the Second World War he had emigrated and opened the Hollywood Shoe Store. After his death in 1960, she carried the legacy of the once-poor-boy-from-Bonito who became a dream shoemaker. She became both foot-soldier and boss, growing the business beyond footwear, holding the family close as it evolved to add silk, fragrances, fashion. Wanda kept a curious eye on the surge of Italian women in various spheres of life from beauty and modelling to writing, fashion and financial business to scientific innovation, art and sports.

In sync, Women in Balance represents—through the eyes of Wanda—the work and life, visuals and wiring of other Italian women as well who wrote or rode, who graced covers of magazines like Life and Vogue, designed and defined style in the Italy of the last century. They made sure the kitchen bins did not have trash and fridges were well stocked. That children went sent out to play while being schooled that life is work.

Sole Vision

Amongst the exhibits, Wanda’s exotic leather bag and kid gloves have been put at a defining place near the entrance to the exhibition. There are numerous photos spread across that offer the visitor a peek into her youth and later life. The clothes and shoes she wore for her wedding to a man much older than her, the happy shine in her eyes as her children play around her in the family home in Tuscany are seen in the photographs. Her stance in family photo albums—remains resolutely “benign” and in balance. The exhibition grows on you with quotations and blurbs picked from Wanda’s conversations, letters and talks offering an insight into the person she was. As Wanda grows from a young bride to the matriarch of the Ferragamo family holding up a business that has a store façade in every luxury street in the world, I wonder about her inner balance.

Musée Salvatore Ferragamo’s material and memory (outside the Wanda exhibition) document several tall stories from the lives of men and women who Salvatore shod, known as he was as “shoemaker to the stars”. From actors Joan Crawford to Marilyn Monroe and Indira Devi, the Maharani of Cooch Behar amongst several other influential names from the last century; Presidents included. However, shoes seldom just tell the story of glamour or power. They represent the walk of life at different speeds, on moulds and fits that represent fashions of an era and the architectural skill of the shoemaker.

The Ferragamo museum waltzes with many such evocative narrations through more than 10,000 models of shoes Salvatore made from his first shoe patent in 1920 to 1960, till he died.

It is fascinating how the benign and “balanced” Wanda sustained that sole vision.

Wanda Ferragamo: Women in Balance is on at Musée Salvatore Ferragamo, Florence till April 18, 2023. Open 10:30 am – 7:30 pm all days. * Schedules may be subject to change.


Preview: Wanda Ferragamo at the opening of the Naples store in Piazza dei Martiri, 1954
Banner: The ‘Women in Balance’ exhibition at the Ferragamo Museum at Palazzo Feroni