Until last Tuesday night I barely knew who Franca Sozzani was. I had certainly seen this peculiar character on some magazine before, yet I am ashamed to admit I had no idea of how amazing this 66-year-old woman’s career had been, and still is.
She was born in Mantova in 1950, and her brave personality already peaked at the age of 7 when she took off to study in a boarding school in France for a year. She then returned to her native town, where she attended a high school specialized in humanities. Afterwards, even though she wanted to study medicine at first, she eventually attended philosophy and literature at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, graduating in 1973. Following her degree, a meeting with Yves Saint Laurent was key in drawing her towards the fashion world, notwithstanding her father’s disapproval.
Her career officially began at Vogue Bambini in 1976 and soon she also served as an editor at the influential Italian fashion magazine Lei. Sozzani took over Italian Vogue in 1988 – the same month of her American counterpart Anna Wintour – and immediately expanded the magazine’s distribution by opening to foreign countries. In 1994 she was appointed editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Italia, Vogue’s renowned publishing house.
Sozzani’s approach has always been different from that of her Italian predecessors as well as from that of the American edition. She transformed the Italian magazine into a strongly image-oriented platform, whose main means of communication thus became photography. It is no surprise then that, as early as the 1990’s, Sozzani championed and nurtured a group of young unknown fashion photographers now considered the best in the world: Steven Meisel (her favorite), Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh, Ellen von Unworthy and Paolo Roversi. Differently from other editors, Sozzani indeed believed that the image was the most powerful way to talk to people, and that text should only be there for support.
Sozzani has been able to exploit the power of photography in using fashion as a vehicle for tackling social, political, and even environmental matters. She indeed holds the view that, being fashion one of the most important media of the modern world, it carries a high degree of responsibility. According to her, fashion isn’t only about clothes, glamor, and trends, otherwise every new issue would simply be a boring new catalogue of garments. In fact, its main aim should be to stay contemporary and record the ever changing times, trying to go far beyond fashion itself. In her view, fashion is actually more “a story of life” than a simple story of clothes, merely because the way we dress is the first way we express ourselves. In this perspective, Sozzani has always used Vogue to send messages and help people outside the fashion world, coming up with several extreme and controversial issues. For her, however, this has never been about sensationalism but rather about attesting true reality.
One of the most memorable issues of her magazine is certainly the 2008 “Black Issue”, featuring only black models as a response to the lack of ethnic diversity on international runways. Interestingly enough, the issue got reprinted three times – a major exploit in Vogue history – and sold out nearly everywhere outside of Italy. However sales within Italy were extremely limited, a failure she attributed to Italy’s backwardness as for multiculturalism.
Other famous issues that come to mind are the “Makeover Madness Issue” of 2006, in which various supermodels were shot as if in rehab clinics; a provocation to the exploding phenomenon of plastic surgery. Another is the story she published in the aftermath of the BP spill in 2010, featuring model Kristen McMenamy wearing a fur coat and covered in oil.
Through her magazine, Sozzani has also engaged into several philanthropic and humanitarian works: becoming increasingly committed to helping people in underdeveloped countries. She now spends a lot of time in Africa looking at ways the fashion industry can help to not only create awareness amongst Western societies, but more concretely to create jobs and increase education where needed. This is why she has been appointed Goodwill Ambassador of Fashion4Development: a global campaign that uses fashion-based initiatives to support UN intervention in Africa targeting areas such as poverty and gender inequality. In 2012, Sozzani came up with “Rebranding Africa” for Uomo Vogue, an all-Africa issue with images of beauty and elegance far removed from sickness and poverty. This presented a positive image of a continent, which is now emerging in the fashion arena thanks to the quality of its craftwork and to its artistic creativity.
But what is her suggestion to business students like us? “Follow your dreams”, she says. “Having a strong concept behind your brand isn’t enough. What you really need is a true vision.” And since fashion is a huge business, she has always followed this philosophy herself, because “what you do in the long term must have a true sense” both to you and to others. Hence, Sozzani encourages young people to be creative and feel free to distance themselves from what is already around. Even in the fashion world the role of the designer – the creative mind – is prior to that of the stylist; who gives concreteness and makes possible the dream of the designer.
To my question whether her university studies of philosophy and literature inspired her throughout her life and career, she gave one straight-forward answer: culture is fundamental, no matter what field you wish to work in. Bernard of Chartres clearly taught her “we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants.” If you have no references of any sort – she claims – it is much harder for you to understand reality and work your way up towards your dreams, just like it’s impossible to build a solid house with weak foundations. And when you stare into the sparkling eyes of this bold, lusty woman and hear her passionate and ardent voice, you can sincerely believe she is telling you the truth.