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Director Luca Guadagnino talks new Salvatore Ferragamo documentary

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you are a lover of fine shoes or fashion history, then you surely know the name of Salvatore Ferragamo. Across a decades-long career that incredibly began when he was just a child, he dressed everyone from Hollywood stars to European royalty to fashion lovers worldwide. His shoes, known for their comfortable fit, as well as his innovative designs and materials. Now, in a new documentary, we learn about the man behind the label and what motivated his obsession with the art and craft of making shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SALVATORE: SHOEMAKER OF DREAMS")

SALVATORE FERRAGAMO: You'll be surprised what made me famous. Given comfort to womens of the world, first of all. It is on the comfort that I have given that I have built all the fantasy. My dream is of patterns. Fashion, greater comfort - that's what I give.

MARTIN: That's a clip from Salvatore: Shoemaker Of Dreams, which is directed by a celebrated innovator in his own right, the filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. And he is with us now to tell us more about the film. Luca Guadagnino, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.

LUCA GUADAGNINO: Thank you so much for having me with you guys today. Thank you.

MARTIN: So Ferragamo has an incredible life story. I mean, he starts as an apprentice at 10 years old. He leaves home at 12 years old. He comes to the U.S. by himself. He played a role in the very early days of Hollywood, costuming stars and then outfitting them for their real lives, moving back-and-forth between the U.S. and Italy. And then in his personal life, I mean, the car crash, losing his brother, being grievously injured, going bankrupt, starting over, succeeding magnificently. Did you know all that before you embarked on this project?

GUADAGNINO: I've been acquainted with the Ferragamo legacy a little bit because I have a very nice friendship with Diego di San Giuliano, who is the son of Fiamma Ferragamo, the eldest daughter of Salvatore. And throughout the years, I've been curious about them, about the great grandfather of Diego and his beautiful legacy as a creator of fashion. I also worked with the brand a couple of times. And then I bumped into the autobiography "Shoemaker Of Dreams." And

it's then when I read this amazing book that I discovered the multiplicities of interests and inventions and intelligences and creativities that Ferragamo was made of. And so it became quite irresistible for me to go back to Diego and the Ferragamo family and say, hey, guys, I think we should tell the story of your grandfather and your father because he was such an incredible person, filled with so many different contradictions and, in general, very generous ideas and great sense of life and wanting to create and do more, that would be worth it to see that on screen. And that's how it started.

MARTIN: You tell Ferragamo's story in his own voice and, of course, interviews with the family, but there is a tremendous amount of archival footage, some of it quite old. I mean, that's an incredible boon to you as a filmmaker. Did you know that this footage existed when you embarked on this project?

GUADAGNINO: I knew there was a great work done by the foundation, Ferragamo, the museum, Ferragamo in Florence. I knew that they had created these incredible archives. But then when we went to see them and we collected all of them, we found so much that was to be shown, like all his beautiful family films that he shot in Super 8 - owning a Super 8 in the '20s, in the '30s, in the '40s. Or the incredible body of work that he created not only as a designer, but also as a inventor. He invented a lot of stuff.

MARTIN: You know, I have to tell you, I learned so much from this film. Like, for example, Italian shoes, Italian craftsmanship is just known worldwide. So I was really, have to say, shocked to learn that at the time that he was growing up, shoemaking was actually looked down upon as a profession, and his family was reluctant to allow him to pursue it because it was considered such a kind of low status. I was really surprised by that. And, you know, and, of course, also the fact that he came to the U.S. as a child alone at 12. I mean, I barely let my kids go to soccer practice by themselves when they were 12. So, I mean, I'm just sort of - I'm floored by all of that. But as he describes in the film, he had no fear. And I was just so intrigued by that. What do you make of that?

GUADAGNINO: Certainly, he was one of a kind. I think even in those period of times in which the south of Italy was almost like a far west. Even to those standards, he was really one of a kind and definitely must have been someone with a fierceness in him that was unstoppable. He says in the movie that he is inhabited by something that he has to release out of his own body, you know, like something that transcends him. That's quite true. Also, he was someone who was not judgmental at all. So in a way, he wasn't thinking like being a shoemaker is too much of a humble job. He was an artist, and he knew that that was his way of exploring art and expressing art.

MARTIN: So, hey, this is fascinating. So I'm glad you said that to me. You said he's not judgmental at all. I was struck, as I said, by so many things that I learned about him, how many patents he filed, for example, the fact that he took an anatomy class so that he could learn more about the foot. But I was also struck by the things I did not learn from your film, for example, the fact that, you know, Ferragamo was one of the go-to designers for D.W. Griffith, who made one of the most racist films that Hollywood has ever produced, which is saying something. I mean, I'm talking about the racist propaganda, "The Birth Of A Nation." And then upon his return to Italy, he had to navigate the fascist regime of Mussolini. Do you know what he thought about any of this? Or do you just not want to tell us? Or do you have a theory that, say, beauty lives apart from politics?

GUADAGNINO: Well, as disappointing as this may sound, I kind of tend to believe that he must have been apolitical. I tend to think that he must've been someone who was kind of like, live and let live. Of course, we know that that's not a position that is the best of positions. But I don't felt that I needed to judge him for that. You know what I mean? I know that I take positions in my life that are very precise. But I think like for Ferragamo, particularly because he was someone who always lived in more - in the bridge than in the mainland, because he was always in between, in between America and Italy, in between the south and the north, in between being someone coming from very humble origins and then becoming part of (inaudible). All of that, in a way, this in between condition made him feel - be someone who was kind of like probably not very keen to take a position.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I'm thinking that some might be attracted to this film because they have a love of fashion. But I take it you have hopes that others will see it - forgive me for asking you to sort of define this, because obviously the work lives on its own. But who do you hope will see this film and what do you hope they will draw from it?

GUADAGNINO: I wish for this movie to reach people who are going to learn from it, that you have to really believe in yourself and in your vision. More than dreams, I would say vision. And for people who have no vision, I hope they see in this movie how they could help people with vision, not tearing them down, but actually empowering them. So it's about being empowered by yourself and empowering the others that I think this movie can, in a way, have a little insight in the audience.

MARTIN: That was director Luca Guadagnino. His latest documentary, "Salvatore: Shoemaker Of Dreams," is in theaters now. Luca Guadagnino, thank you so much for talking with us.

GUADAGNINO: Thank you so much for having me with you guys. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.