When I meet Massimo Ferragamo, the Chairman of Ferragamo USA, in Vienna he has just touched down from New York, where he spends a good majority of his time, but despite the hours of traveling and the pouring rain outside, Massimo is in jubilant spirits.
Massimo is in Vienna to speak at the Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit, on the subject of philanthropy. As subjects go, it’s one that is very close to his heart. “It all goes back to the DNA of Ferragamo and the important underlying elements of the company,” he says, “and that will come out in anything you do.”
Ferragamo has several philanthropic projects on the go, because “we have always constantly been involved with philanthropy, to a certain extent,” Massimo explains. “Consumers are much more sensitive to corporate social responsibility, and they are much more informed about it, so the company has a responsibility to respond to it.” Ferragamo likes to be involved with projects that will – understandably – complement the brand, and it is apparent that such links are mutually beneficial to all parties involved. They helped with the restoration of the last painting of Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin And Child With Saint Anne, and in so doing, became the first brand to have a fashion brand at the Louvre, “which was nice.”
Away from shorter-term projects, there is one ongoing initiative that Massimo is particularly proud of. With 40% of young people in Europe unable to find work, Ferragamo is focusing on bringing more young people into the workplace. “We’re not going to be able to make a dent into that 40%,” Massimo reluctantly concedes, “but at least, for our part, we can try to help.” That help has come in the form of teaching young people the art of artisanship. But in today’s mass-production market, does he not think the whole concept of artisanship is something of a dying art? “I actually think there’s going to be a revival of that,” he says, before adding, “but I’m an optimist!” Contemporary attitudes towards traditional craftsmanship, it would seem, have altered the way in which it is viewed. “To be an artisan is a noble job,” Massimo says. “Before, you were someone stuck working at the back of a staircase in an untidy, dirty place. Today, I think an artisan should have a university degree. Someone who can make a pair of shoes by hand should have a degree.”
Above all else, this is the bread and butter of the Ferragamo business. Set up by Massimo’s father, the eponymous Salvatore Ferragamo, the brand almost didn’t happen due to a little parental friction. “My father was the eleventh of fourteen children,” Massimo explains. “When he set up his business, he wanted to be a shoe-maker. My family fought him tooth and nail. They didn’t want him to be a shoe-maker, but he insisted because he said it’s not a question of being a shoe-maker, it’s a question of trying to do it better than anyone else.”
The youngest of six, Massimo followed his older siblings into the family business, but is more relaxed with his own children – “I would never tell my children to work for Ferragamo!” he laughs. “If they really wanted to do it, if they were dying to do it, then they would have to go through some very difficult doors in order to be able to qualify. But the toughest thing they have to do is look inside themselves to really see what they want to do.” Massimo remains a proud father, however. “In my personal life,” he reveals, “my proudest achievement is my wife and kids. I have a fantastic wife, Chiara, and I have two great kids, my boys.”
Speaking of kids, how does he view the digital behemoth that is social media? “A lot of friends of mine who are my age have said, ‘Massimo, have you tried Twitter? It’s fantastic!’ I said, ‘look, I am sorry, but beyond e-mails, I have limitations.’ It’s true, I have big limitations – so I don’t do Facebook and I don’t do Twitter. They said, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing!’ Three months later, I was talking to them and I said, ‘how is it going – are you still doing Twitter?’ They said, ‘oh no, forget it – I don’t have time!’ So I think [social media] is for a certain group of people, definitely for a younger group of people, and companies are obliged to respond. From a company point of view, we need to be very attentive, actually much more attentive than we were before, because people out there are talking a lot and commenting a lot.”
A philanthropic family man with a finger on the digital pulse (and with fantastic footwear to match), Massimo Ferragamo is very much the embodiment of the values his company champions. “I personally feel very lucky to have been born into this family,” he says earnestly. You suspect that pride works both ways.