M ilan-based jewellery designer Maria Sole Ferragamo is a busy woman. The founder and Creative Director of SO-LE STUDIO, hers is one of the most exciting jewellery brands in Italy today. Sole is the company’s head of design and the artistic vision behind its trademark leather-sculpted pieces. She’s also the focused entrepreneur expanding the Studio’s activities, working with the artisanal expertise to execute them and as well as that, she is the dreamer at the heart of the brand, who manages every now and then to escape her hectic daily life to sketch and prototype ingenious designs, often with subtle twists of colour and texture, that inspire, empower, and accentuate the soul of its wearer.
Since launching SO-LE STUDIO in 2017, Ferragamo – the eldest of four and granddaughter of Salvatore Ferragamo (founder of the eponymous footwear brand) has become known for her simple, elegant pieces, crafted from trimmings and offcuts of leather, gathered from factory floors. These days, the raw materials – leather and latterly brass shavings – are sourced rather more formally than when this whole story began, back in Maria’s childhood, when, interning at her family’s factories during school holidays, she was sufficiently intrigued with the tactility and possibilities of the leather offcuts she found littering the factory floor. Soon enough, this curiosity evolved into an obsession. From childhood beach summers selling her homemade pieces to passing tourists, to studying design at St Martins in London, to setting up her own atelier in Milan - Ferragamo’s dedicated passion continues to drive her, to this day.
Having shown her creations at events such as Art Basel, Salone Internazionale del Mobile and MiArt (Milan’s contemporary art fair) and engaged in fruitful collaborations such as with London’s Elisabetta Cipriani, Ferragamo’s practise has blazed onwards and upwards. Her collab with Cipriani, for instance, inspired Sole to start using brass shavings to complement her leather creations, an unusual medium which again, Sole has made her own.
This autumn, Maria Sole Ferragamo is the guest curator for Sotheby’s global Luxury Edit series, casting her eye across the wealth of objects and garments, her selections reflecting her distinct appreciation of style, fashion, luxury and sustainability.
A Life Less Ordinary: Maria Sole Ferragamo
You’re collaborating with Sotheby’s Luxury Edit this autumn. What’s your take on a global brand like Sotheby’s actively championing sustainability and ethical buying habits, and what aspect of the Luxury Edit, especially excites you?
I think with a brand like Sotheby’s, the value of buying consciously is naturally embedded. Most of the time, you’re buying pre-owned objects, recognising the existing value of something that already has a story. Also, I’m happy to see how a brand like Sotheby’s is opening up to the younger generation. One of the reasons I feel very honoured to be a guest curator for the Luxury Edit is that I believe our generation has not only an important role to play in educating the next generations, but also the previous ones.
"One of the reasons I feel very honoured to be a guest curator for the Luxury Edit is that I believe our generation has not only an important role to play in educating the next generations, but also the previous ones."
That’s the idea we have with the Luxury Edit, presenting something which has had a previous life, a history and giving it a new lease of life.
Exactly, it’s really related to this. Objects have an energy, a shared experience from their previous owners. And for me, it’s also interesting to appreciate how these objects were made and appreciate how durable they are. I’m very much into crafting, into making, and recognising how well older items were made, despite being perhaps made at a time when there was limited technology.
So, with that in mind, what is your own definition of luxury?
Well, like sustainability, luxury is one of those words that has been used and abused, in different contexts, and acquiring all sorts of meanings. It’s hard to define what it means. It’s easier to define what it doesn’t mean! To me, it’s not related necessarily to preciousness, a high price point. Luxury is about intelligence, an intelligent approach to what you are doing, what you are creating, the experience you’re conveying - it’s about respect.
There are three values of luxury that overlap with sustainability. Timelessness - a luxury piece, a luxury experience should be designed to last over time. Soul - I think an object needs to have a soul. And then beauty. And I think these three values really overlap with the concept of sustainability. To sum up, my definition of luxury is about an intelligent approach and care to the whole process of creating something that can last over time and can nourish beauty and convey specific feelings.
"My definition of luxury is about an intelligent approach and care to the whole process of creating something that can last over time and can nourish beauty and convey specific feelings"
And sustainability is a major component of your own design practise – you built up a signature style using leather offcuts from the Ferragamo shoe factory and latterly, you’ve been incorporating discarded brass shavings, from factories. You’ve talked in the past about how you would pick up scraps of leather from your family’s factory floor, as a kid, twist them into shapes and go on from there…
Yes, that’s how it was - abandoned leather is a material that I learned to love since I was very little. It came naturally to me, having a creative mind and with a passion for jewellery - to transform it, give it a second life. Maybe it would have been easier to make a design and then find the perfect material, right? But because I always like to challenge myself not to take the easy way and I like manipulating things, I went down the recycling route very naturally. I was born into a generation which has been very vocal about how Earth is reaching its capacity and is running out of natural resources, nonrenewable resources.
So, the sustainability aspect to your practise is a major element.
Exactly, it’s an important part, but it’s not the major element. I want people to fall in love with my work because it should convey emotions and feeling. My pieces should make the wearer feel protected - strong, beautiful, and important. And then yes, they’re made with a leftover resource, which is an added value, but it’s not the main reason why I think people come to my jewellery.
Also, while I don’t claim SO-LE STUDIO is a fully-sustainable brand, I still say that part of our ethos is up-cycling. We create new pieces from leftover resources but that in itself is not enough to be sustainable. In fact, I always say that first, you need to define what sustainability means to you.
"Sustainability is about constantly asking yourself questions, being aware of the consequences of your actions, and then being respectful and responsible in anything you choose to do"
Which was my next question!
For me, it’s about constantly asking yourself questions, being aware of the consequences of your actions, and then being respectful and responsible in anything you choose to do. It’s a 360-degree perspective, and respect is one of the deep meanings of sustainability if you go to the origins of this word.
Let’s explore this a little further, because not only has your jewellery been usually formed from offcuts of leather, but you recently began incorporating brass shavings into your pieces, again, using by-products from manufacturing…
I find the brass shavings so different in size and shape, because they result from brass pieces being cut on a lathe machine, from a big piece, leftover pieces like when you shave wood and eliminate layers. So, the pieces are very random. In fact, at the moment, I’m running out of the particular brass shavings I use for my Doodle and Cocoon earrings, because the factory is not making that particular piece they come from - a clasp for a bag – anymore.
So using offcuts like these shavings for earrings or pendants, means they are each quite unique?
Yes, the earrings are different for the right and left ear, each pair is completely unique. When I make a set of earrings, I try to pair similar ones together, as you can see here with the Doodle and Cocoon set. Over time, we’ve begun to add colour, or I’ve plated them in palladium, so you can see that they are not identical.
Let’s look at your process in some more detail. I’m looking at this beautiful necklace here – what is it called?
This necklace is called Luminous and it is one of my very first designs. It’s a necklace that really dresses you up. The idea is that you can wear something extremely simple underneath. You can flat-pack it in an A4 folder, bring it to the office, exit the office, put it on and you’re ready.
It’s so sleek and lightweight!
Yes, and it’s leather. The design is made on AutoCAD - I don’t use any parametric software. And I don’t work in 3D, I really design line by line, and then I test on a mannequin line by line. By tweaking each line, it really does change the design. It’s a really long process because I mainly iterate through model-making. I do sketch a little, but I mainly use sketching as a tool to inform my model-making.
Is there a lot of creative energy between the sketching and prototyping?
Yes, it’s a constant dialogue between sketching and prototyping. I sketch, I prototype, I play with the prototype, I stretch it, I push it in all possible directions, oftentimes what was meant to be a necklace becomes a bracelet or an earring, because I try not to limit myself at the beginning but always be open to possibilities and to the best expression of that structure, that technique, that geometry. So, often it doesn’t necessarily end up being the same thing as I imagined when I started.
How do you go about the process of actually crafting a piece?
Well, for example, this summer, I’m going down to Tuscany and I will stay in the factory, in my wonderland, for two or three weeks, because I’ve reached a point where I need to create new things and here [in Milan], I’m constantly bombarded by distractions and things to do. When I go to the factory, I can get on with some prototyping, I’m able to be in touch with the artisans and work together with them to improve the products and to implement them.
There are different facilities - one for the leather pieces, one for the metal components, one for the brass shavings, one where the ladies do the enamel - so I go around them all.
"People were asking me - is this jewellery, is this a garment, an accessory, a piece of art or design? And I was kind of happy not being able to answer this question with a single answer!"
So, the Luminous necklace we’re looking at here, this was based on your first major piece as Sole Ferragamo?
It was originally a direct extension of my degree show collection at St Martins in London. That had a bigger collar piece, very Elizabethan, a statement piece, but it already had these features of being easy to wear and being able to completely transform your outfit. When I showed it, people were asking me - is this jewellery, is this a garment, an accessory, a piece of art or design? And I was kind of happy not being able to answer this question with a single answer!
It's all of those things at once!
Yes, it’s all those things at once! But when I was starting out, it was unsettling, because it’s easier when things fit one category, and you can label something clearly. But then, as I kept pushing in this direction I realised that you could see and experience all those aspects within this piece of jewellery from numerous perspectives. So, this necklace evolved from the very first necklace I made, called ‘Dido’. Here, I wanted to make something with the same impact but slightly easier, so it doesn’t go all around your shoulders and back, but just creates this very airy, movable effect as it drapes your body.
You just referenced Elizabethan-era style. This is rather an interesting coincidence as we recently showed a rare Armada portrait of Elizabeth I as part of our Platinum Jubilee exhibition in London. Here, I’ll show you a picture of the one we showed…
Wow! Yes I am fascinated by the sheer variety of accessories, objects, and designs worn not only by Queen Elizabeth I, but also by women during that era. I’m fascinated by their structure, how they adorned the body, their architecture. Look at the ruff she’s wearing around her neck – it’s so architectural and geometrical.
Those ruffs were huge! I think they were made of starched lace?
Yes, I think it’s stiffened lace. But what fascinates me most is the symbolic power of these objects. While they were symbols of power, representing an aristocratic role, they were often also associated with some sort of constriction or constraint. And in my own designs, I’m obsessed with transforming things. I like to take elements of protection and strength and transform them into pieces that hug you, make you feel protected but free at the same time and not constrained in any way. Also, I’m really inspired by armour – I used to go and look at the suits of armour at the Wallace Collection in London - again because they have so many elements for different parts of the body, there’s protection, constriction, heaviness, and comfort, all in one. So, I’m inspired by these elements of protection and design on different parts of the body, transforming that into comfort, easiness, and lightness.
" I want my pieces to be a way you can really express who you are, how you feel, your personality, your identity, your aesthetic"
So, in your own pieces, you build in an element of support that harmonising with the wearer’s body?
Yes, it’s not a constraint, but it’s caressing, hugging, giving shape. The pieces will highlight your silhouette in a very gentle and delicate way, as my material of choice is leather. It’s soft, warm, and lightweight. It adapts perfectly to your body. It’s a very important piece that people notice when you’re wearing it but you don’t notice that you’re wearing it. This is very important to me. If you’re wearing something in which you feel constrained, Elizabethan-style, you’re limited by it. But I want my pieces to be a way you can really express who you are, how you feel, your personality, your identity, your aesthetic.
As Founder and Creative Director of SO-LE STUDIO not only do you have to keep coming up with ideas, designing, collaborating and sourcing materials, but also you also run the day-to-day business. How do you simultaneously manage the creative and business side of things?
It’s very challenging. Being an artist comes from a passion and creative urgency. I create because I could not not create. And maybe also, because of the way I grew up, it wasn’t enough for me to create things that would just sit in the wardrobe. I wanted them to be alive and to make people happy. So, when I turned this passion into a business, it was natural for me. Even when I was very little, during the winter, I would make bracelets and necklaces and during the summer, I would sell them on the beach. I would be at the seaside, I would involve a friend, my brothers, it was really something serious.
Did the people buying your pieces know they were buying an original Ferragamo?
I don’t think so! They were necklaces with bees, or with angels or something very simple, but I remember they would sell pretty well [laughs]. The thing is, I grew up with this really strong ethic of work, not taking anything for granted. Whilst I recognised that I was very lucky to be born in the family I was born into, I always felt I had to deserve it, so would work even harder.
It’s been a constant motivator in your life?
Yes, I had to demonstrate that I was good enough. So, while it was natural for me to turn this passion into a business, simultaneously maintaining the professions of being a creative director, an artist and an entrepreneur all needs a lot of discipline. Especially the entrepreneurial part - I didn’t study economics, I studied architecture and jewellery design - but I’m lucky to have amazing advisors and people I can ask advice from. But then I need to be disciplined because often I get absorbed in the business side of things and with so many things to do, it’s hard to set aside the time to create and approach creation with a free mind. My mind needs to be clear. But those things are very challenging for me and tough and I’ve stopped telling myself, no, I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m getting along with it, it’s part of the job - I couldn’t do anything else!