Monday, May 30, 2011

Tell It Like It Is: Franca Sozzani Shapes Vogue Italia

“Fashion is fashion and art is art. You create one work of art and it goes down in history. It is not a product that has to sell millions. But fashion is.” So spoke Franca Sozzani, Editor in Chief of Vogue Italia. It is this kind of thinking that allowed Sozzani to transform the magazine from a predictable catalogue into one of the world’s premier fashion publications.

It was standing room only at NYU’s Casa Italiana as Vogue Italia took center stage. Sozzani spoke candidly of her triumphs and missteps in her 23 years at the helm of Vogue Italia. Joining her in the discussion were Grazia d'Annunzio, US Special Projects Editor, Vogue Italia, Eugenia Paulicelli, Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature, co-Director of The Concentration in Fashion Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Dr. Stefano Albertini, Director of Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo’.

Sozzani described the state of Vogue Italia when she took the reins in 1988, “It was a fashion catalogue. The same designers were presented every month, page after page, always in the same order.” Sozzani shook things up and created something very different. “It was hard for the first 2 years. The designers weren’t happy because they weren’t getting the same level of attention and stories as before. The advertisers who liked the catalogue format left the magazine altogether.” It wasn’t until the February, 1990 issue that featured Madonna as a modern Marilyn Monroe that Sozzani’s vision was vindicated. The cover created much needed positive buzz for Vogue Italia and its new style began to catch on.

One of Sozzani’s priorities is to present the magazine in a way that attracts attention. She explained, “To me, all fashion magazines look alike, especially with digital cameras and Photoshop. Everyone thinks they’re a fashion photographer. But there is more to it than that. We all use the same models and the same clothes. Fashion magazines look good, but flat.”

To make Vogue Italia stand out, she collaborated with renowned photographer Steven Meisel. “Steven appreciates women and knows fashion. He carries the history of fashion in his head. He gives an identity to the magazine.” Since his arrival in 1988, Meisel shoots 12 covers a year for Vogue Italia, a rare honor in the capricious fashion industry.

Sozzani deliberately emphasizes images in the magazine because it is a form of universal communication, not dependent upon whether a reader understands Italian. “At the same time,” she declares, “the magazine is not a photographer’s portfolio.” She keeps her eye on the delicate balance between artistic freedom and product marketing. She describes fashion as “artsy” rather than as art. “Fashion is fashion and art is art. You create one work of art and it goes down in history. It is not a product that has to sell millions. But fashion is.”

Sozzani has never been shy about presenting her point of view in Vogue Italia. This has placed the magazine at the forefront of social issues. One of these is race. Sozzani told the story of watching a runway show where she found the models indistinguishable from one another; all of them tall, blonde, wispy, long-haired and White. “The only one who impressed me was Kedebe from Ethiopia, so beautiful and alive.” Sozzani decided to dedicate an issue to celebrating Black beauty, using all Black models. “The biggest problem I had was convincing those around me that it was a good idea.” The July 2008 issue took 6 months to complete and was published with 4 different covers, each featuring a different model. “This was the first time we had to reprint an issue. Usually there are always some left over that you have to throw away. But this one had to be reprinted to keep up with demand.” Since then, Sozzani has seen an increase in the use of Black models by agencies and in runway shows.

Certain aspects of the fashion industry clearly disturb Sozzani. She admires past Super Models who exhibited a healthy body, like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. The ever-decreasing ages of current models presents a different image. “These girls are 14, 15 years old. They are not women. They can’t wear women’s clothes or move like women. They move like kids, teenagers.” Nevertheless, these underdeveloped bodies are dressed, made up and photographed like grown women and presented as the way grown women should look. This came to a head when Sozzani discovered that hundreds of pro-anorexia websites and blogs encourage young people to engage in anorexia as a lifestyle choice. To combat this, Sozzani established Vogue Italia’s Anti-Anorexia Campaign. The Campaign supports various organizations that help victims of this condition to regain their healthy bodies and perspectives. There is a petition on Vogue Italia’s website to close pro-anorexia sites and blogs.

Vogue Italia’s website,, launched in February, 2010 and currently draws 1,000,000 unique visitors a month. Rather than competing with the magazine, both formats seem to be growing together. Magazine sales increased 27% since September, 2010 and 21% since January 2011. One reason for this is probably Sozzani’s “Editor’s Notes” blog. Her frequent posts allow people to connect with her and get to know her. She has recently compiled her blog posts (in Italian) in a book called “I Capprici della Moda” (“The Whims of Fashion”).

Recently the site launched PhotoVogue, a place for young, aspiring fashion photographers to show their work. Currently, over 1600 photographs can be accessed in these online portfolios. This allows an otherwise unattainable level of connection with gallery owners and agents. Vogue Italia is planning to host an exhibition of the best 100 photographs.

Six years ago the magazine held its first young designer contest, which has since become an industry highlight. Hopeful contestants must already be selling at least a small amount of pieces in 1 or 2 stores. Finalists are judged in Rome, but the judges are from all over the world. Winners need not be Italian, but they are expected to keep production in Italy. Sozzani is very proud of the fact that all of the finalists over the past 6 years are currently employed in the fashion industry.

Franca Sozzani’s point of view is strong, clear and courageous. She brings depth to an industry often skewered for its superficiality. She’s a breath of fresh air.

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