10/16/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
In his four-decade career, Salvatore Ferragamo accomplished all that an impoverished cobbler from Bonito, Italy, ever could have dreamed. He shoed style legends from Greta Garbo to Audrey Hepburn, created innovations like the spike heel—used for Marilyn Monroe's Some Like it Hot
stilettos—and was dubbed "the shoemaker to the stars" by the Hollywood press.
So when he died in 1960 at the age of 62 from cancer, many expected that his wife, Wanda—who was now left to raise six kids on her own—would be content to turn over the company to someone else. "Everyone thought that I would never be able to cope with the pressing needs of six children and a company facing increasing competition from other designers, a few of which were zooming in to buy us," says Wanda, who was 40 at the time. "But I felt a huge strength because I thought, 'All the sacrifices Salvatore made must not go to waste.'"
They have not. As Wanda, now 85, sits in the garden of the family's palatial Florentine home, Il Palagio, she looks around at the 10 children and grandchildren gathered for a photo shoot. All of them are wearing full Ferragamo, from their shoes to their linen suits to their scarves—and nearly all of them have helped her to carry on the family business, turning it into one of the world's premier luxury labels.
Today there are more than 450 Ferragamo stores worldwide, selling everything from the line's original shoes to women's and men's ready-to-wear clothing, accessories and perfumes, generating $729 million in sales last year. And, as ever, Ferragamo retains a devoted celebrity following, with a client list that includes Jennifer Aniston
, Keira Knightley
and Eva Mendes, who says, "I have a white crochet bag of theirs that I have literally worn to death! And then there's one that I've had for about six months that is hanging on a hook on my bedroom wall, because it really is like a piece of art."
The family's artful contributions to the fashion industry will earn official recognition this month, when they go to Beverly Hills to receive the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award, previously given to luminaries such as Giorgio Armani and Tom Ford. "There isn't one person who sees the name Salvatore Ferragamo," explains event chairwoman, Peri Ellen Berne, "and doesn't think of wonderful, beautiful shoes."
With that kind of legacy, it's no wonder that working in, as they call it, l'azienda di famiglia ("the family business"), isn't considered a birthright. "The silver spoon and platter definitely don't have our names on them," says James, 35, a grandson who is the head of women's leather goods. "Strict guidelines were established: You have to have a master's degree, you must have worked for at least two years in a different company." Adds Massimo, 48, Wanda's youngest, who is the chairman of Ferragamo USA in New York: "Since I turned 11, I would have to spend one month of my summer working. Nowadays, you'd probably get accused of child slavery!" Of course it's also okay for a Ferragamo to choose another line of work entirely; should any of her younger heirs "ask what I think if she would like to be a writer or a nurse, I will be very happy for her," Wanda says.
Remarkably, through it all, the family has managed to avoid any major infighting. "There are some sibling rivalries," admits granddaughter Angelica, 32, who works in Shanghai as a marketing analysis manager. "But they do not have to be in the company—you should see uncle Massimo and [his brother] Leonardo fighting it out on the football pitch!" And should any scuffle ever threaten to get out of line, Wanda "will intervene with a quiet yet determined 'That's enough,'" says James. "La nonna has final say."
She also continues to feel her responsibility as "the custodian of Salvatore's dreams," she explains. And so Wanda, who never remarried and remains chairwoman of the board, still goes to the Florence office every day, with no plan to retire. "I can't detach myself," she says. "It is part of my heart."
Coat and boots, 2005
TERRENCE HOWARD Shoes, 2006
EVA MENDES Bag, 2005