Sole Train

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Nir Elias / Reuters

Visitors attend the opening of Ferragamo's 80th anniversary exhibition in Shanghai.

A pair of battered Doctor Martens were not, I quickly realized, the shoes with which to make an entrance at a dinner party being held in Shanghai in honor of the late Salvatore Ferragamo. Were he to have seen them, the "Shoemaker of Dreams," as he was known when he was crafting platforms and slippers for Hollywood icons like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe would doubtless have spun in his grave, fast enough to power the lights of the Bund, Shanghai's luxury strip.

The choice of Shanghai as the city in which to launch Ferragamo's 80th anniversary celebration hints at the growing importance of the Eastern hemisphere in the global market for luxury goods. Ferragamo's descendents know that growing their market share requires expanding their presence in nouveau riche markets like mainland China, where they have already opened an impressive 25 stores and have 8 more planned for this year. Some of these outlets are even popping up in unlikely and remote places such as icebound Harbin and industrial Shenyang — far-flung, provincial cities where high style still means white socks, polyester slacks and faux-leather man bags. Educating these consumers in the general principles of fashion is a gargantuan task, never mind teaching them the difference between Ferragamo and Fendi or Fiorucci. Presumably, this is why Ferragamo organized two days of brand-building events here last week, beginning with a dinner party, followed by the opening of "Salvatore Ferragamo: Evolving Legend 1928-2008," a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), a fashion show and an after party.

The dinner — a cozy affair for 150 guests — was held at the eccentric loft apartment of Pearl Lam, a Hong Kong-born art dealer and local society doyenne. Filled with large art pieces and furnishings that might be charitably described as vibrant, it resembled a gallery or a slightly camp club more than a home. (Last year, Lam freely confessed to the New York Times that her loft was "bonkers.") A gaudy, stainless steel sculpture by Zhang Wang filled one entranceway; a trio of brightly dotted, spoon-shaped chairs by Zhang Qingfang was clustered in a corner.

Lam's apartment overlooks what expats somewhat offensively dub the "French Concession" — the old colonial name for the Luwan and Xuhui districts — although the almost exclusively white, champagne-sipping crowd certainly had something of a colonial air about it. The celebrity quota included actresses Melissa George, Jennifer Jason Leigh, January Jones and Ginnifer Goodwin, as well as ballet dancer Roberto Bolle and several generations of Ferragamo family members.

The next afternoon, guests gathered at the MoCA forecourt in People's Park, where Ferruccio Ferragamo, Salvatore's eldest son and the company's CEO, launched an retrospective exhibition that consisted mostly of shoes and handbags, some of which had been worn by Taylor, Monroe and Mary Pickford. He was flanked by movie stars Tony Leung (In The Mood For Love) and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha), whose presence drew hordes of passersby to gawk from just outside the VIP enclosure, holding phones aloft in an attempt to capture a grainy souvenir. Ferruccio talked about how Shanghai was chosen for the exhibition's premiere partly because the city represented 'the future.' Let's hope they do something about the eye-watering, throat-searing pollution before the future actually arrives.

The exhibition was a let down — two floors of display cases filled with fashion paraphernalia that managed to make MoCA look like a slightly funky trade pavilion (albeit one attended by people like Christina Ricci, spotted gazing into a shoe cabinet). On the other hand, that evening's show of Ferragamo's 2008 fall/winter collection was a stunning triumph. It started an appalling hour and half late, but once it was underway the brand's design team deftly demonstrated the remarkable evolution of its wares in recent years. Models sported modernist, layered basics in somber tones of black, white, navy and dark grey. Some of the men's wear — a glittery black jacket and a pair of brown leather pants worn with a dress shirt and black tuxedo jacket — appeared too Italianate for most male tastes, but in general the quality was a genuine revelation. For days afterwards, I found myself coveting the cool trench coats. You could even describe some of the stuff as edgy and street-smart. Who knows? Perhaps I'm onto something with the Doctor Martens after all.