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Meet Maria Sole Ferragamo: For the Love of Leather

Maria Sole Ferragamo – the granddaughter of the late designer Salvatore Ferragamo – tells us about crafting leather jewellery with a conscience, the meaning of luxury and her St John’s Wood pop-up

Ferragamo – it’s a big name to follow in the world of fashion, but Maria Sole Ferragamo, the granddaughter of the late designer Salvatore Ferragamo, is taking the family’s love for leather in a new direction with her versatile jewellery. Her work also carries an important environmental message, thanks to her focus on repurposing some of the fashion industry’s countless leather remnants.

Today we’re meeting at her new pop-up shop on St John’s Wood High Street, where she excitedly gives me a tour. “I think it’s one of the few areas in London that still has this rustic village identity. It’s a very authentic place,” she begins, as she talks about the appeal of the area where she has chosen to introduce her work to a London audience. Open until Christmas, the shop showcases Ferragamo’s upcycled designs and has a part-gallery, part-retail space feel. The collection on display ranges from surprisingly light spiral-shaped earrings (modelled artfully by Ferragamo) and flexible cuffs, to a one-off cage crinoline-inspired piece worn like a skirt that was originally created for international design competition Craft the Leather. 

Necklaces adorn the walls like pieces of art, but are in fact one of the most versatile items. Created from one long strip of leather and reinforced so they can be bent and twisted in many shapes, each piece can be transformed into something new every time it’s worn. It’s possible to order pieces online, but the advantage of being in the store is having Ferragamo herself on hand for her advice on the different ways each of her creations can be styled.

As for where this enthusiasm for design came from, growing up in Florence with its architectural beauty and talented craftsmen, as well as being in a family with fashion at its heart, had a big impact. “Ever since I was eight years old, I loved to make things with my hands. I grew up with a family who is passionate about making beautiful things, so my design influences came from all around me. Although I never met my grandfather, I think of him every day as an incredible example.”
After opening his first boot shop in 1919, Salvatore Ferragamo created his own company in Florence by 1927, and its illustrious history – it created designs for the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn – has seen it grow into a successful fashion house today, known for its shoes, handbags, ready-to-wear clothes and accessories.

It was also in the family factory that Ferragamo found the inspiration for her own leather creations. “I was 15 when I first discovered how many leather remnants are left over in the fashion process. I had visited the factory and was shocked by the amount of excess, and it stayed in my mind.” Although she first studied architecture, Ferragamo then progressed to an MA in Jewellery at London’s Central Saint Martins. Here she saw the potential in the remnants of high-quality leather and decided to incorporate them into her designs.

“Where there is manufacturing there are always leftovers, but I think that what designers do, or they should do, is see opportunities where others don’t,” she says. “During the war, my grandfather couldn’t work with leather so he found a way of using cellophane chocolate wrappers to make shoes. Even in a tough situation, he showed you can use your creativity to see things from a different perspective, and see opportunities where other people see threats, or negatives.”

The fact that jewellery is not something traditionally made out of leather, and is also not usually designed to be worn in many different ways was – in the spirit of her grandfather – an obstacle she was happy to confront. “I was obsessed with challenging the different aesthetics of leather, and I wanted to use the material in an intelligent way,” says Ferragamo, who didn’t let the difficulties she faced in using upcycled leather phase her either. “When I started my MA two years ago, researching sustainable fashion was really hard. It was seen as a limit to creativity, but now things are changing. There’s a rise of the conscious consumer who asks more questions like: ‘where has this come from?’, ‘who made it?’, and ‘what is the impact of this piece?’, which I think is really positive.”

Celebrity advocates are often a way to raise awareness of issues such as those surrounding the environment, and Ferragamo has a few people in mind to wear her jewellery. “I would most love to see my pieces on Queen Rania of Jordan. She’s so elegant, and I think these pieces are for women that are self-determined and have a strong character. Otherwise, I would love to see them on Tilda Swinton, or Emma Watson – for her commitment to sustainable fashion.”

People aren’t always receptive to the idea of repurposed materials. “Change is hard for everybody. Going out of your comfort zone in general is always hard, and each of us has his or her own perception of luxury,” she admits. “I just believe that if I’m putting something new into this world, it has to be something that spreads a good message, that we cannot do things without considering the environment. I’m motivated by something much deeper and more profound than business or success. I would have done something else otherwise.”

Ferragamo believes that the true luxury of jewellery lies in its connection with its wearer. “I think that you create a sort of intimate relationship with jewellery. It’s not about the price, the preciousness of the material or the sparkle.” The relationship with the wearer is enhanced in the way that Ferragamo’s pieces can be manipulated and wrapped around the body, and she frequently refers to her designs as ‘body architecture’. She says her work has undoubtedly been influenced by her former studies. “Studying architecture also taught me to be a very careful observer, so I never underestimate details,” she says.

As for these finer points, being involved in the production of the pieces also allows her to ensure that everything is done correctly, with skills she picked up interning at the Salvatore Ferragamo factory. “I was making shoes and bags, and learning all of the processes. I think it’s super important as a designer that – even when you get to the point when you have other people doing things for you – you must know how things are made and know what is doable and what is not.”

Although Ferragamo admits that she’s not sure what’s next – “I try to live in the moment” – she does harbour some long-term goals. “I believe in the transversality of design, so I would like to collaborate with designers in other fields, for example furniture, in order to build my own identity as a designer, rather than as a brand. My dream would be to collaborate with different brands and create capsule collections using their leather remnants.”

Bringing such a project to fruition is a brave endeavour, in a world where the purchase of sustainable fashion is frequently seen as an act of charity, but with intelligent design at its heart, Maria Sole Ferragamo’s work is on track to succeed.

Open until Christmas at 41 St John’s Wood High Street, NW8, mariasoleferragamo.it