Ferragamo’s New Frontier

Photo: Aimee Herring

SOMETIME BACK IN 1998, Massimo Ferragamo, the 43-year-old head of Salvatore Ferragamo’s U.S. operations, decided to open a boutique in downtown Manhattan. Massimo is so polished – permanently tanned, immaculately dressed, with a buttery Italian accent – it’s easy to forget the shoe giant’s humble beginnings: Massimo’s father, Salvatore, was a cobbler from a tiny Italian village who arrived in the United States in 1915 at the age of 13 and quite literally built the business by hand. Since the fifties, the company has been a venerable presence in New York – Marilyn Monroe used to buy her shoes at the boutique. And that presence has grown in recent years: Ferragamo opened a 14,000-square-foot women’s store on Fifth Avenue in 1996 (the company recently acquired the Banana Republic next door and plans to expand into it) and a 2,500-square-foot men’s store in Trump Tower.

But Massimo, along with the rest of his family, thought it was time to update the company’s image, to begin revamping the boutiques – all 350 of them, a process that looked to be both long and expensive. “Why?” asks Massimo. “Why is, because Salvatore Ferragamo looks for the best locations, always. It takes Ferragamo extra time, because we are very stubborn about locations.” He wanted SoHo, and he wanted a corner.

MAY 2000 A location, at the corner of Greene and Spring Streets, is found after an exhaustive search of the neighborhood’s listings. “I dreamed out loud to our real-estate agent that it would be available,” says Lynda Abdoo, senior vice-president and retail director at Ferragamo. The space is inhabited by a clothing store called Laundry Industry, known mostly for the giant fish tanks in its windows. But Ferragamo’s agent is determined: She tracks down Laundry’s owner in Amsterdam and makes an offer. The deal is closed by October.

LATER THAT MONTH An architect is selected. “We want to be modern without being avant-garde,” Massimo explains. This is a company, after all, that has its most loyal following among well-heeled ladies, who swear by Ferragamo’s classic bow-tied pumps.

Eight architects are interviewed for the job; four are invited to submit proposals. The winner? Michael Gabellini, who has a SoHo firm and a résumé that includes stores for Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander, and Nicole Farhi. Gabellini also has a sleek Prada wardrobe, a curly, shoulder-length bob that is impervious to humidity, and a propensity for wedge-heeled shoes and long, conceptual monologues. Ask him how he won over the Ferragamos, and he describes “an interpretive process with respect to the evolution of their collection, something which was really approaching the spatial aspects directly related to how the product groups are now being evolved.”

The Ferragamos are sold on his visions of filtered light veils, saturated luminescent planes, and rhythmic lines of direct light. Custom mannequins! Sheer chain-mail window dressing! The family taps Gabellini to update all the stores, beginning with simultaneous projects in SoHo and Venice.

EARLY NOVEMBER Construction begins, and Gabellini experiences the most frustrating event of the process: The Landmarks Preservation Commission forbids the use of walnut on the exterior of the store. “I’ve left this, emotionally,” he says, “but I do believe that walnut on the outside would’ve provided more depth and warmth and material integrity.”

NOVEMBER 29 The project’s grand kickoff: The Ferragamo family invites 40 fashion editors down to the empty building on the corner for a holiday dinner. The luxury-brand explosion is in full swing (Chanel’s SoHo-store opening was scheduled for that week), and as the Town Cars clog the block and editors desperately shield their shoes from the rain, the idea that SoHo was ever filled with starving artists seems wholly implausible.

The space is raw, with a rough wooden floor, stripped walls, and bare windows. But outside there’s a giant, maroon Ferragamo scaffolding that enshrouds the building, and inside, round tables have been set up and tiny white lights are strung around the ceiling. “We will open this store in May!” cheer the Ferragamos. Their guests tuck into their steaks and smile indulgently. Thoughts of the still-unopened Prada store a block away dance in their heads.

DECEMBER One of the materials Gabellini has decided on, nickel silver, proves to be very hard to come by. It turns out the European Union has decided to use the very same material to manufacture euro coins, resulting in a worldwide shortage. The shipment is delayed.

FEBRUARY 20 The space is a cacophony of exposed brick and insulation, with plywood and construction dust everywhere. “This building has not been touched!” Abdoo says, pulling from the walls newspapers heralding World War II troop movements. The foreman walks Gabellini around the site as a handful of workers saw and hammer and pry things apart. A gaping hole has been cut in the floor, opening up to the basement; someday, there will be a giant floating staircase here. Gabellini takes Abdoo for a tour of the dungeony downstairs space, which will be transformed, he promises, into a “grotto.” The staircase will open to enormous windows that should, eventually, flood the downstairs with light. But today it is so dark and so dusty that everyone is sneezing and shivering.

MARCH 1 The nickel silver finally arrives.

JUNE A call from Ferragamo headquarters. The opening – now one month late – is looking more like August.

JULY 23 Meanwhile, in Venice, the first completed Gabellini-designed store in the chain has opened. “I am exhausted,” says John Krenek, Ferragamo’s international visual director. “The opening was so much work. The stewardess even took pity on me.” But as he passes the photos around the SoHo store, there’s a tangible relief: This is possible, the photos say. Gabellini, however, has learned some lessons from his first go-around, and he calls the project manager over for a consultation.

JULY 25 A pack of Italian workmen who helped complete the Venice store have been flown to New York to make and install the furniture and the fixtures. They are hammering away at the site, chattering in Italian, and anxiously watching progress in the rest of the store. There is plenty in evidence: the skeleton of the staircase, for example. “There are about six trades involved in this staircase,” says Michael Leonetti, the project manager from Richter & Ratner, the construction firm hired for the job.

Richter & Ratner has built pretty much every high-end store in town – Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, and FAO Schwarz, to name a few – but the staircase is difficult even for this crew. It is made of giant slabs of steel (they will later be covered with limestone); each step weighs 400 pounds. “We had some alignment problems,” Leonetti admits. “We had to do some welding.” Today, it is 90 degrees outside, and everyone on the site has sweat through his shirt. “It’s hard to imagine,” Gabellini says to Walter Migala, the newly hired store manager, who is suffering through the sweltering meeting in a tidy suit, “but this staircase is going to be so light.”

AUGUST 10 The opening date has been pushed back to September 12. There are now 80 workers inside the space, and in spite of the 102-degree heat they are all moving very quickly. “You can dream and imagine anything,” Gabellini says, rapturously, “but the act of building has nothing to do with the dreams. It’s brick and mortar, and we really weren’t sure, even though we had drawings and experience, if the proportions would be good. But the quality of the light and the proportion of the height of the space is more than we even anticipated.”

SEPTEMBER 20 There will be a party, 200 or so guests, and it will attended by several yet-to-be-determined Big-Deal Personalities. Will the new customers follow? “We have a classic name,” Massimo says. “But we make a constant effort to be modern. From this store, Ferragamo will learn a lot.”

Salvatore Ferragamo is located at 124 Spring Street

Ferragamo’s New Frontier