Franca Sozzani: Fashion’s Rebel With a Cause

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In the aftermath of last year’s BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Franca Sozzani did more than ruffle feathers. She drenched them in oil. For the August 2010 issue of Vogue Italia, the audacious fashion editor interpreted the crisis by dousing model Kristen McMenamy in crude. Body splayed on a polluted beach, McMenamy gasped as oil dripped from her Alexander McQueen glove to her Dior fox-fur coat and, clad in Alaïa and Miu Miu, quivered and coughed over 22 more pages. A caption explained that this survivor “keeps her skin golden thanks to Self Tan Face Bronzing Gel Tint.”

Critics lambasted Sozzani for glamorizing tragedy and dismissed her as an opportunist. Just over a year later, sitting in her office in Milan, she remains unapologetic — and feels more than a bit misunderstood. Banalities about skin bronzer aside, “the spread had a positive message,” she says, petting her sleeping West Highland terrier. “Don’t push nature too much, or she will rebel against you.”

Rebellion has become Sozzani’s calling card. It’s helped her transform Vogue Italia from a domestic trade publication into the world’s most influential fashion magazine, despite its relatively small circulation of 140,000 (compared with the 1.3 million readership of the more commercial American Vogue). Other editors view it as the barometer of which models and photographers will become household names, and newsrooms warm up the presses whenever Sozzani champions a cause — or takes a misstep. Earlier this month, she suggested that Dior rehire John Galliano after a French court convicted the designer of anti-Semitic speech. And in August she sparked a global race row by running a feature on hoop earrings titled “Slave Earrings.” It traced the origins of the jewelry to “women of color who were brought to the southern United States during the slave trade.” Readers called it distasteful and racist. Sozzani attempted to defuse the controversy by blaming poor translation.

Language presents other challenges too. “Italian is only spoken in Italy, so our images have to be very strong to attract attention,” she says. Cue Linda Evangelista pretending to go under the knife for an edgy issue titled “Makeover Madness,” and Iselin Steiro in a black leather skirt holding a matching machine gun for a spread on “Homeland Security.” The topical, anything-goes attitude works: in the first six months of 2011, sales of Vogue Italia jumped more than 20% year on year, and traffic to its website, vogue.it, more than doubled to 1.86 million page views per month.

Despite her status as Europe’s leading fashion czar, Sozzani says she never saw herself as a career woman. After completing a degree in philosophy and Germanic language and literature, she married at the age of 20 and imagined a life of playing golf and raising children. She left her husband after three months. “I thought it was time to do something good with my life,” she says wryly. In 1976, Sozzani landed at Vogue Bambini as “assistant to the assistant to the assistant.” In just four years she rose to become editor in chief of LEI, Italy’s top fashion magazine for young women, and by 1988 had nabbed the top spot at Vogue Italia.

Her defiance shined early. Rather than following the magazine’s tired template — one article on each prominent Italian fashion house — she made room for foreign designers and put Yves Saint Laurent on her first cover. “I didn’t respect the idea that couture should be Italian,” she says.

These days, the magazine’s niche readership — high-end fashionistas and arty intellectuals — gives Sozzani the freedom to experiment. She uses that power for good. “Franca sees the bigger picture. She always has done,” says Anna Wintour, Sozzani’s legendary counterpart in the U.S. “She completely and utterly understands that Vogue is about much more than editing a magazine every month, but that it has to play a vital part in setting the agenda for the fashion industry.”

In July 2008, Sozzani directly challenged the standard racial composition of Western fashion magazines and runway shows. Her now famous “Black” issue featured only black women and articles related to black lifestyle. Industry wisdom suggested consumers would turn their backs on all the black faces. But the magazine sold out within three days in Britain and the U.S., and became the magazine’s best-selling issue of all time after Condé Nast reprinted 60,000 copies.

But championing beauties like Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell seems a cinch compared with Sozzani’s latest curveball: plus-size women. In February she launched Vogue Curvy — an arm of vogue.it staffed by plus-size bloggers who offer fashion tips for the full-figured. A month later Sozzani started a petition calling on governments to take down proanorexia websites. Then, in June, she plastered three Rubenesque models in lingerie on the cover. In a 20-page spread called “Dream Woman,” they remove their bras while sipping champagne, smoking and straddling furniture. The goal was to show that “curvy girls are sexy, more sexy than the skinny girls.”

As usual, controversy followed. Some critics suggested that larger women were — with the exception of the June spread — being relegated to online purgatory. Others have called Sozzani a hypocrite for selectively championing the fuller figure while pouting waifs remain the stock-in-trade of Vogue Italia and fashion magazines everywhere. Sozzani is nonplussed. “You cannot make me responsible for everything that happens in the fashion world,” she says, admitting that she too is bored of “sad-faced” models who all look the same.

At 61, Sozzani shows no signs of slowing down or playing it safe. She writes a daily blog — the most popular part of vogue.it — and among other things has asked why fashion editors dress so ridiculously at runway shows, analyzed whether people are born vulgar or grow into boorishness, and mused on Italy’s appalling youth unemployment rate. Ask her about Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s indiscretions, and Sozzani takes a deep breath. “It gives the impression that Italy is one big casino,” she says, explaining that Italian female contempt for Berlusconi is “not about being a feminist.” It’s about a nation’s standing in the eyes of the world. “We have fantastic, involved, artistic women,” she declares, setting a none-too-shabby example herself.