WANDA FERRAGAMO will be remembered as a woman ahead of her time. The matriarch of the Italian family passed away last month at age 96. She leaves behind a global luxury brand, an inspirational legacy, and over 70 descendants.
The young Wanda never dreamt of stepping into the business world. In keeping with gender conventions of the time, she was content living as the devoted wife to Salvatore Ferragamo, the eponymous brand’s founder.
“Women were taught only to play the piano and paint and learn about culture. That’s all,” she told Time magazine in 2007. “Preparing to get married — that was the path.”
But life threw her a curveball. The year was 1960, and Wanda was aged 38. That fateful year, her husband Salvatore Ferragamo died of cancer, leaving her to care for six children and his shoe-making business.
A Woman To Be Reckoned With
She had never held a job before. Nor did she have a clue about shoe design, or business operations.
Yet to her youngest son Massimo, his multi-tasking mother was more than qualified to take over the reins of the business.
“When my father passed away, my mother went into business. People said she never worked in her life. I say: Look, she had the toughest job of all. Six kids at home – just having to order food for them to make sure they didn’t starve… I would never take that job,” he said, even as he recalled growing up with his siblings in Florence.
“It was amazing that she did it, without us feeling the weight of whatever she was doing. She did it very naturally.”
Mrs. Ferragramo proved her detractors wrong. It took her five decades, but under her astute leadership, the Florence-based shoe business is a leading name in luxury fashion. Its annual revenue is reportedly over US$1.6 billion.
In 2016, Wanda let her children take the lead and steer the ship. She stepped down as chairwoman, taking the title of honorary chairwoman.
Her son Ferruccio is president and chairman; her daughter Giovanna Gentile Ferragamo is vice chairwoman; and her son Leonardo is a senior executive. Eldest daughter Fiamma was the brand’s creative force who worked under the guidance of her father for a year. Another daughter, Fulvia, overseas silk accessories. (Fiamma and Fulvia both died of cancer in 1998 and 2018 respectively.)
A Lioness With A Heart Of Gold
She may have been a driven and principled leader to the outside world, but Massimo remembers Wanda’s softer side.
In both her role as a mother and as a mentor at work, he says that she was a nurturing advisor.
“She understood that if you impose on a young person, naturally, they want to do the opposite. She was good at not imposing – but in suggesting,” says Massimo, who is chairman of Ferragamo USA. He shuttles between America and Italy, where he runs the luxurious Tuscany resort, Castiglion del Bosco.
“When I went to America in 1982, I started working for our office there. She was always giving positive feedback, praising me for the good things. I’m sure I made lots of mistakes. She never hit me for my mistakes. This was very good motivation.”
“We don’t consider a CEO as being more important than a doorman. A CEO might have more responsibilities (but everyone is an) equal, they all deserve attention… We have employees working with us for 55 years, 45 years. My mother had the eye to find these talents and the heart to keep them motivated and happy.”
Wanda taught by setting the example, says Massimo. Her leadership style was something to be admired, and emulated. “Some things, our mother told us. Some things she transmitted to us by osmosis. Just by watching her, we absorbed. I always admired her incredible humbleness.”
Keeping The Family Spirit Alive
Most of all, she was a romantic. She kept Salvatore alive for her children by creating special moments throughout their growing years.
“One of my fondest memories was when I was 14,” says Massimo. “She organised a cruise for my older brother Leonardo and me, from Italy to New York. She said ‘You are going to go so many times in your life by plane. The first time you go, I want you to go the same way as your father did the first time. We had a fabulous time. Till this day, I remember it like it was just yesterday.”
“That’s why she was a very special person because she was able to combine the two — she was great in business, and she was great in keeping the family (spirit) alive.”