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Gianni Morandi, left, and Wanda Ferragamo attend the Salvatore Ferragamo fashion show as part of Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Autumn/Winter on Feb. 27, 2011, in Milan, Italy.Vittorio Zunino Celotto

Wanda Ferragamo, who stepped in to run her husband Salvatore Ferragamo’s shoemaking business after his death in 1960 and then oversaw its expansion into a global luxury-goods brand, died Friday in her hilltop villa near Florence. She was 96.

An internal company memo signed by her surviving children confirmed her death.

When Mr. Ferragamo died of cancer in 1960 at 63, Ms. Ferragamo, then 38, decided to take over the business herself, despite having no experience working in the industry – or working outside the home at all.

“I had never worked in my life before my husband died,” she told Time magazine in 2007. “I was a very young girl when I met him. At that time, women were taught only to play the piano and paint and learn about culture. That’s all.”

The couple had six children, the youngest being only two years old. But she felt that she had to carry out her husband’s vision – to push the company beyond footwear. And she insisted that it be known by his full name, Salvatore Ferragamo.

Over five decades, first as president and then as chairwoman, Ms. Ferragamo oversaw the growth of the company from a small shoe-design and manufacturing concern in Florence into a leading luxury-goods house ranging beyond shoes to sell leather wallets, silk scarves, crystal flacons of perfume and much more.

When she had inherited the business, it made 800 pairs of shoes a month. By 1981, it was making 60,000 a month in addition to selling handbags and menswear. She introduced eyewear in the 1990s, and she opened stores in New York, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Mexico City.

Ms. Ferragamo navigated the company’s first public stock offering in 2011. According to Bloomberg News, Salvatore Ferragamo now reports an annual revenue of more than US$1.6-billion.

In 2004, Ms. Ferragamo was awarded the Cavaliere di Gran Croce, or grand cross, a top honour in Italy. She stepped down as chairwoman in 2006 and took the title of honorary chairwoman.

Wanda Miletti was born Dec. 18, 1921, in Bonito, a hilly village in southern Italy about 90 kilometres east of Naples. Her father was a medical doctor and the town’s mayor; her mother was a homemaker.

It was in Bonito that she met Mr. Ferragamo, who was 24 years her senior. He had been born there in 1898, the 11th of 14 children of a poor farmer and his wife, who grew wheat and olives. But it was a circuitous path that had led him to her.

Salvatore Ferragamo had left school at 9 to work as an apprentice to a local cobbler. By the age of 11 he was working in the trade in Naples. When he was 16, he travelled to the United States, first to work at a shoe factory in Boston, and then to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he joined his brothers. He wound up in Hollywood, where he set up a business making shoes for the studios during the silent film era.

He made Egyptian sandals and Western boots for Cecil B. DeMille’s large-scale epics, and became a sought-after heel maker for screen sirens such as Joan Crawford, Anna May Wong, Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish.

He returned to Italy in 1927 and set up a shoe shop in Florence. The financial crash of 1929 had him declaring bankruptcy, but by the late 1930s he had been able to pay off his debts and purchase the Palazzo Spini Feroni.

When he moved in, Mr. Ferragamo wanted to fill the building not only with footwear but also with family. So he went on a tour of Italy – to go “shopping for a wife,” as he wrote in his autobiography. He found her in his hometown, Bonito, where he had become a local benefactor.

There, Ms. Miletti’s father invited Mr. Ferragamo to his home and, according to Mr. Ferragamo’s memoirs, the men entered into a conversation about the contours of the foot. Mr. Ferragamo asked Ms. Miletti if he could use her for a shoe-fitting demonstration. He fell in love with her the moment he saw that she “had one toe peeping out of her stocking,” he wrote.

Two weeks later, Mr. Ferragamo sent her a pair of custom black suede oxfords. “I had never worn anything so comfortable,” Ms. Ferragamo later recalled. “I thought I could fly.”

They married in a church in Naples in the fall of 1940 – she was 18, he was 42 – and as Mr. Ferragamo told it, they spent their first married night watching Allied planes attack the city.

They and their family later lived in a 30-room villa in Fiesole, a hilltop village overlooking Florence.

Ms. Ferragamo leaves her son Ferrucio, who is now president and chairman; her daughter, Giovanna Gentile Ferragamo, who is vice-chairwoman; her son Massimo, who is chairman of Ferragamo USA; her son Leonardo, who is also a senior executive; 23 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren. The family says she leaves “more than 70” descendants.

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