Franca Sozzani: Agent provocateur

The doyenne of Vogue Italia deals in more than just pretty clothes – Franca Sozzani made her public sit up and take notice of a 50-year old fashion institution. Here’s how she did it  

It is 2010, and spring has just arrived in Milan’s Piazza Castello. Crocuses are beginning to bloom in the square, the copses in Parco Sempione are tipped with gold and tourists are beginning to snake around the entrance to Castello Sforzesco, the castle dominating the piazza that’s home to much of Milan’s notable art, from Mantegna to Michelangelo. 

Overlooking the castle at No. 27 are the offices of Vogue Italia, where a team is meeting to discuss the August issue. Art directors, stylists and feature editors are resplendent in the creations of modern-day Michelangelos, from Saint Laurent to Martin Margiela; at the helm is Franca Sozzani, their Editor-in-Chief.

The conversation is not focused on hemlines or the new Klein blue. They are discussing the recent BP disaster, in which the Deepwater Horizon rig gushed oil into the sea for 87 days, killing 11 people and destroying marine life, becoming the largest oceanic oil spill in history.

Four months later, Vogue’s front cover hits the stands. On it, silver- haired model Kristen McMenamy lies prostrate on a charred rocky surface, her couture dress doused in oil. 

The BP oil issue... it was a mess. Let’s just say certain people were shocked they let me do what we did. I can’t think of any other magazine that would’ve been allowed to do something like that 

Franca Sozzani , Editor-in-Chief, Vogue Italia

Photographed by Steven Meisel, the cover and inside spread depict McMenamy in various ‘washed-up’ poses, including one in which fluid is bubbling out of her mouth. It was intended, says Sozzani, as a commentary on the disaster.

The fallout from her decision was swift, with mainstream condemnation of the photoshoot as “wasteful and hypocritical” and “extremely unsettling”. “Glamorising this recent ecological and social disaster for the sake of ‘fashion’,” wrote the website Refinery29, “reduces the tragic event to nothing more than attention-grabbing news-stand fodder.”

Five years on and sipping tea in a Dubai hotel, Ms Sozzani wryly recounts the ordeal. She is here to host the Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience, a celebration of fashion and emerging designer talent held in the labyrinthine Dubai Mall. Post-event pictures show Franca, clad in white feathers, mingling with similarly glamorous cohorts: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Christian Louboutin, Alberta Ferretti. But for now, she is happy to discuss challenges that arise when shaking up a magazine steeped in heritage.

Franca Sozzani Vogue Italia fashion show
Sozzani is adamant that talent should be encouraged in Dubai

“The BP oil issue... it was a mess,” she admits. “Let’s just say certain people were shocked that they let me do what we did. I can’t think of any other magazine that would’ve been allowed to do something like that. CNN and the BBC made a big deal about it. 

"How dare a fashion magazine have a political approach? And it was not commercially successful.” But do you stand by it, I ask. She pauses, for a split-second. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

It was this conviction that had led to other notorious cover shoots that were more favourably received, such as the ‘black issue’ in 2008. Featuring only black models and articles about black-related subjects, the issue proved topical, coinciding with Obama winning the Democratic nomination for president over Hillary Clinton.

But at the time of conception, the issue’s success was completely unexpected, Sozzani claims. “I even thought Steven Meisel [the issue’s photographer] at the beginning was not so happy to do this. But I convinced him by asking why, when you go to a show, do you see maybe one or two black girls out of 50? For me, the girl that I liked at that time was Liya Kebede [an Ethiopian-born model], and the clothes that I liked were the ones Liya was wearing. People around the world were excited about this issue.”

Its publication alongside Obama’s win proved “salient”, she says, though she is amused by accusations that it had been a business-minded decision. “People thought we had done that on purpose! Maybe they do not realise that a magazine isn’t produced in a day.”

Franca Sozzani Vogue Italia surgery issue
The ‘surgery issue’ saw supermodel Linda Evangelista stalk down hallways clad in bandages from plastic surgery

It was the ‘black issue’ that galvanised Sozzani’s ideas about philanthropy and nurturing young talent, ideas that first took shape when she was a philosophy student in Italy, and developed as she lived a nomadic existence in London, India and Berlin.

“From that point, I really changed my vision of everything. I had already started to fundraise for Aids and work with young designers, particularly from Africa. I started to see what could be done in support of them, discovering very young and very creative designers from Africa. After that issue, Vogue changed. It became much more committed to commentary on the social, the political, even the ‘costume’.”

By ‘costume’, Sozzani’s referring to the very aesthetics that Vogue as an institution devotes itself to. What is beauty? Is the pursuit of it worthy? How far should one go to attain it?

These ruminations culminated in the ‘surgery issue’, a tongue-in-cheek photo-shoot that saw supermodel Linda Evangelista stalk down hallways clad in bandages from plastic surgery. “At that time, everybody was talking about surgery, Botox, etc, so I said, ‘OK, let’s make light of it.’ But of course it was also meant to be a reflection on how people can destroy themselves with these kinds of things.”

Sozzani’s own aesthetic has been instrumental in defining the title’s perception. As such, while Vogue UK may be classically elegant, Vogue US commercial yet glamorous, and Vogue Japan unusual and architectural, Vogue Italia will always be the provocateur, the instigator. It is a role Sozzani, and her executive board, are happy with. “You ask if there is tension between the creative and commercial departments... all I can say is that personally, I feel completely free,” she declares.

Vogue changed. It became much more committed to commentary on the social, the political, even the ‘costume’.

Franca Sozzani , Editor-in-Chief, Vogue Italia

This freedom, which has also seen her move around the African markets encouraging and connecting young designers, seems set to extend to the Middle East. The first Who Is On Next? Dubai event, presented during the Vogue exhibition in the city, is a scouting contest for fashion designers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, with winning collections sold in a temporary store in the Dubai Mall and on e-commerce platform Yoox.

Sozzani is adamant that while talent should be encouraged in a place such as Dubai, developing its own fashion week is not the answer. “Globally we have around 70 fashion weeks, and with only in 52 weeks a year, how can we possibly attend them all?”

Instead, she says, the market should embrace its natural advantages. “You already have something not many places have: the possibility to sell. Eighty million people shopped in the Dubai Mall last year and 78 million travelled through the airport. Give them something new! Don’t wait once a year. Do something in February, in April.”

Local designers, she says, should aim to be cosmopolitan and look outside of their own immediate environment for inspiration. “Keep your tradition, but don’t be scared to evolve. People who live here should also spend time in London, in Paris, in Milan. Don’t think about a ‘local’ person. These days nobody is local any more. I consider it a limited way of thinking.”

Sozzani jokes about relocating to Dubai. “If I was 20, I wouldn’t hesitate!” For now, though, the Editor-in-Chief is content to return to Milan and lead her team. To aspiring female bosses, she offers a few droll words of wisdom: “You have to take risks, and you shouldn’t try to be nice with everyone, because you can’t please them all. Some people will think you’re too tough, but as long as you are not killing anyone, you know... how bad can it be?”