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[Herald Interview] Heritage kept alive in generations

James Ferragamo talks about Italian design house’s founding legacy and new customization options for Vara pumps

The Italian luxury design house Salvatore Ferragamo has been slow to bring dramatic changes to its designs. Signature designs such as the ribbon bow and metal buckle have been repeated or revived with handbags, shoes, accessories and ready-to-wear collections.

“Some of the signature pieces are the same design although new colors and materials have been added. The styles have always been the same because they’ve become icons,” said James Ferragamo, who oversees the women’s leather shoes and bags division, in an interview with The Korea Herald last week in Seoul. James is the grandson of the firm’s founder. His father Ferruccio is the president of the company.

Started as a footwear store in 1919 by the founder Salvatore Ferragamo, it has been transformed into a luxury design house for handbags, shoes, accessories and clothes across three generations.

“You create products that are unique and stand the test of time. That’s what happened to Vara. It’s elegant, timeless, could be worn in the day and worn in the night.”

This year marks the 35th birthday of Ferragamo’s iconic Vara pumps ― the three centimeter-heeled round-toe shoe with a grosgrain ribbon bow and metallic disc. Designed in 1978 by his aunt Fiamma, the eldest daughter of the founder, the Vara pumps have helped Ferragamo establish itself as a global shoe brand.

While inheriting the early design, the design house offers customers about 16 different options to create their own Vara. They can choose the color of the shoes’ bows, heels and body, and select either patent leather or tweed for the material. They can also have their name engraved on the soles.

Women’s leather bags and shoes account for 50 to 55 percent of the total sales revenue of the design house, according to James Ferragamo. Combined with men’s accessories, leather goods take up 78 percent of its overall sales.

Ferragamo’s Gancini metal buckle will be revived in the new bag set to be released for the fall season this year. The tote bag Fiamma, named after the creator of the Vara pumps, took inspiration from Gancini.

So far, Korean consumers have responded favorably to Ferragamo’s legacy, making the country its fourth-largest market in the world. The Korean market accounts for 11 percent of the house’s global sales, with sales reaching 150 billion won ($142 million) last year after the United States, China and Italy.

“Koreans appreciate quality, attention to detail and craftsmanship,” James said.

The design house remains one of the few family-owned Italian design businesses. The Ferragamo family owns 75 percent of shares in Salvatore Ferragamo. Other Italian design houses have seen their ownership handed over to foreign corporations. A French conglomerate, LVMH, owns BVLGARI and Fendi; another French company, Kering, owns Gucci and Bottega Venetta.

“Succeeding the tradition is a great honor as a member of the family. And it’s a big responsibility,” said Ferragamo.

“You have numerous people you have to report to ― official ones and unofficial ones. In the end you work for the same objective.”

Under the Ferragamo family rule, only three members of a single generation can be involved in management of the design house. James Ferragamo is one of the 25 cousins who met the requirements and qualifications, including a master’s degree and three years of work experience at other companies.

“We want to make sure the house is under a professional management,” he said.

By Lee Woo-young (
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Korea Herald daum