Lunch with the FT

May 31, 2013 6:55 pm

Lunch with the FT: Franca Sozzani

The most influential woman in Italian fashion is also known for tackling issues such as racism and drugs. Over beef carpaccio, the Vogue editor tells Vanessa Friedman how the country’s recent election ‘left me speechless’
Illustration by Patrick Morgan of Franca Sozzani©Patrick Morgan

The most influential woman in Italian fashion is also one of the smallest. In fact, when she enters Cipriani Downtown, the Italian restaurant that is effectively a New York outpost of Harry’s Bar in Venice, I don’t even see her until she is just in front of me, saying hello in a surprisingly throaty voice. Yet twice during our lunch various fashion folk stop by to pay obeisance, and just after she sits, two complimentary Bellinis materialise on the table. Word has got out that Franca Sozzani, the 63-year-old editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue, is in the house, and a lesson in soft power is on the menu.

Sozzani is celebrating her 25th year at the helm of Italian Vogue, which makes her one of the two longest-serving editors of any Vogue ever. The other is US Vogue’s Anna Wintour, who was hired the same month as Sozzani. However, while Wintour was elevated to artistic director of Condé Nast US this year, Sozzani has been editorial director of Condé Nast Italia since 1994, and also has direct responsibility for L’Uomo Vogue and Vogue Gioiello. Though Italian Vogue’s distribution of 120,000 is small when compared with US Vogue’s 1.3m, it has an outsized influence that is, ironically in the age of the end of print, growing.

Thirty per cent of the readership is non-Italian, while the website has 1.86m users, with half the traffic coming from outside Italy. Alone among Vogue editors, Sozzani has a daily blog, which she writes herself. The blog, on, has taken on everything from eating disorders to the Italian government and the fashion world itself (recently deploring its tendency to gossip and spread rumours about who is taking over what house).

In some ways, her magazine’s circulation has worked to Sozzani’s advantage: instead of trying to please all the people all the time, she can please mostly herself, most of the time. In the Condé Nast universe, where star editors carve out specific identities, Wintour is the string-puller, manipulating the fashion world from behind her curtain; UK Vogue editor Alex Shulman is the reporter and real woman; and former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld was the provocatrix; but Sozzani has become the activist – though you’d never know it to look at her.

When we meet, for example, she is wearing a full-skirted black Alaïa dress and flat leopard-skin smoking slippers. I have seen her on the fashion circuit for years, and have never known her to succumb to the trend for the power jacket or engage in the my-shoes-are-higher-than-yours competition. Along with her hair, which is long and blonde, centre-parted and worn loose in waves, this tends to emphasise her delicacy (probably deceptively, probably to her advantage), as do her signature antique diamond chandelier earrings. Once, at a fashion show, I was seated across the runway from her, and the male editor next to me looked across at her and her older sister, Carla, the owner of Milanese concept store 10 Corso Como, and sighed, “Those women are so extraordinary! Like Modiglianis.”

. . .

He is not the only one to think so: at Cipriani in SoHo, the waiter seems similarly mesmerised and loath to leave our table’s vicinity but, instead of ordering, Sozzani waves him off. He deposits a plate of toast and breadsticks and disappears with a few backward glances. Sozzani picks up a breadstick, snaps off a chunk, and explains how she got here (which has nothing to do with the town car idling outside).

“I ask myself, ‘Why would someone buy Chinese Vogue?’” she says. “That’s easy: they read it to find out about that market. Fine, but why would anyone buy Italian Vogue? They wouldn’t – only Italians read Italian. And I love Italy and am very happy to be Italian but I always knew we would have to speak to the rest of the world, and the way to do that was through images. That it was the way to get attention: to push concepts through pictures that other countries would not do. Today, all our language is visual, and that seems normal. But when I began ... ”

That was in 1988, when Sozzani became editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue. Before she arrived the magazine was, she says, “a catalogue of Italian brands. And very well-organised. Every month you start with the Armani story, then the Krizia story, then Versace, then Ferragamo ... but I changed everything: the graphics, the photographers.”

Sozzani helped launch, and still works with, such names as Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber and Paolo Roversi. It didn’t go over terribly well in the beginning. “I had a very tough first two years,” she says. “Italian Vogue had all these little local companies that used to advertise and they didn’t understand what was going on at all. But the international brands knew, and they were interested.”

Lunch with the FT: the book

Angelina Jolie

As part of celebrations to mark the Financial Times’ 125th anniversary this year, Penguin is publishing Lunch with the FT: 52 Classic Interviews. The selection of encounters features, among others, Zaha Hadid talking to Lucy Kellaway, Angelina Jolie (above) with Matthew Garrahan, Michael Caine with Peter Aspden, Jimmy Carter in conversation with Andrew Ward, George Soros talking to Daniel Dombey, and Nouriel Roubini with Gillian Tett. The book is available as a hardback and ebook.

Sozzani is in New York briefly to see her son, photographer Francesco Carrozzini, and to attend the Met Ball, and then she has to go back to Italy before going to Africa, where she is making stops in Nigeria and Ethiopia, albeit not for fashion stories. In 2011 she became a goodwill ambassador for Fashion 4 Development, an organisation loosely linked to the United Nations that looks at ways the industry can help the developing world. This grew out of her work with special issues, which have become something of a global Vogue trend, but unlike US and UK Vogue, which have standardised these into the “size issue” and the “power issue” and the “age issue”, Sozzani takes on political issues: racism, in the black issue (2008); sustainability, last month’s earth issue of L’Uomo Vogue; drugs, the rehab issue (2007); and plastic surgery, the makeover issue (2005).

Sozzani’s special issues are one-offs, and though they are often controversial and, early on, caused a lot of concern at Condé Nast headquarters about potentially alienating readers and advertisers, they have become collectors’ issues: the black issue was reprinted twice in the US and once in France and Germany.

A Vogue editor taking on big causes may seem like an oxymoron, and opens her up to accusations of dilettantism but Sozzani doesn’t seem particularly bothered. After all, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg have appeared on the cover of L’Uomo Vogue and been interviewed inside by Sozzani, so if they don’t mind ...

“I don’t think I’m a writer, though,” she says, sipping her Bellini. “In the same way I don’t call myself a humanitarian. I would never pretend to those labels. I’m like a normal person with curiosity. Here’s what I think: fashion isn’t really about clothes. It’s about life. Go into the street, and you see it: everyone can afford fashion on some level, everyone can talk about it. So what else can we say? We can’t always be writing about flowers and lace and aquamarine.”

. . .

At this point, we are 45 minutes into lunch and haven’t even cracked the menu, though I have ploughed through a few breadsticks. I finally break down and suggest we order. Sozzani scans the list of offerings for about 10 seconds and then asks for the beef carpaccio, while I select the tuna tartare. She picks up where she has left off.

“When I got involved with Africa, I realised you can’t start with fashion,” she says. “You have to start with water. This is the first problem. It’s the one case, where you have to start out thinking small: in other words, with the most basic aims. If you start immediately thinking big – how to create global industry – you won’t be able to do anything.”

On the other hand, she also points out, “There is so much money in Nigeria, and nowhere to spend it. We flew to Lagos, and waited 30 minutes to land because there was no space for a private jet; it was all occupied. But here’s what happens: they do business and then go to Dubai to spend their money. I told the president, ‘You need places people can go.’”

Sozzani is part of a generation of Italian women who have ended up in fashion almost by default; her contemporary Miuccia Prada is similar (Prada took over her family company around the same time Sozzani took over Lei, an Italian version of Glamour). Raised, along with her sister with whom she is very close, in Mantua, northern Italy, Sozzani wanted to study physics but “my father [a mechanical engineer] thought that wasn’t right for a woman, so I studied philosophy.” She speaks Italian, French and English, plus a smattering of Russian and German. She married immediately after university but divorced after three months. Her sister, then working in fashion magazines, “saw an ad in Corriere della Sera for an assistant at Vogue Bambini and applied for me. I thought it would be something to do for a few years. I never really took it seriously at all.”

Nevertheless, she says, it was a good training ground: she worked for the editor and his wife and learnt an enormous amount about management, including “never give up; I was almost fired so many times.” In 1980, aged 29, she became editor-in-chief of Lei. Eight years later she landed at Vogue. Along the way she had her son, published a few books and received various honours, culminating in the Légion d’honneur. She has never remarried, though rumours circulated that she had secretly wed Ugandan oil magnate Charles Mbire last year. She took to Twitter to deny it, writing, “Despite all problems, trash papers exist also in Africa.”

One of her recent campaigns has been closer to home: identifying and supporting the next generation of designers. Like other Vogues, she has created a competition to discover and showcase young designers but, unlike most other such initiatives, hers is international with designers from China, Korea, Africa and France involved.

As she says when our food arrives: “The designer of Balenciaga is now Asian-American, not French or even Spanish. How can we make these distinctions? I don’t think someone is good or not because they are Italian or French or whatever. It has nothing to do with nationality.”

As if to underscore her point, Giambattista Valli, an Italian showing on the couture schedule in Paris, materialises beside her in the Manhattan restaurant to pay homage in the form of air kisses.

. . .

After Valli takes his leave, I suggest that there seems to be a problem with young designers breaking through the fashion establishment, especially in Italy, where the big names have been dominant for pretty much as long as Sozzani has run Vogue.

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She points out that, of all Italian designers, Donatella Versace has been most supportive of new designers, signing them up to work with her on her Versus line and promoting them. The last such alumnus was Christopher Kane. “But then he wanted to do his own thing, which is correct,” says Sozzani. “The question is, ‘Who is going to let them do their own thing? Who is going to support them?’ If you have a good business, you are rich. So why shouldn’t other designers spend their money on this?”

It seems to me a brand such as Prada would be well-placed to create an “Italian” group of new designers. Sozzani nods. “It’s true, Miuccia’s old assistants are very talented: Alessandra Facchinetti, [now at Tod’s], Stefano Pilati [formerly of YSL, now creative director of Zegna]. It’s good training to be an assistant – it was for me. But I think they [Prada] had a very bad experience when they owned Jil Sander and Helmut Lang. It scared them.”

Sozzani is slicing smoothly through her carpaccio, and it occurs to me her meal is not unlike her blog: thin but with a meaty texture. As I ponder the beef, a very tall young woman dressed all in black runs in from the street and starts chattering in Italian. It’s Bianca Brandolini d’Adda, Dolce & Gabbana’s muse. After they kiss, the socialite goes, and Sozzani again picks up her thread. “I tell schools they should really offer a language course that would teach designers how to talk to industrialists and producers. Designers are always saying, ‘Ooh, but he doesn’t understand me.’ They need to learn.” She pauses, leans forward. “I think we can teach them, no? There are benefits to experience.”

Not all Sozzani’s campaigns have gone well. For example, a shoot in her August 2010 issue, influenced by the BP oil spill, featured model Kristen McMenamy in black clothes covered in what seemed like oil. Critics accused her of glamorising disaster, and she had to go on assorted media to explain herself. When a blog is controversial, Sozzani says: “We always leave all the comments up. I think it keeps us closer to reality.” She is, she says, “obsessed” with her blog. “I go to bed thinking about it and I wake up thinking about it. It’s relentless. You can’t ever stop. It gives me no peace.” At the moment, though, she is thinking about what to do for her next special issue. “I’m trying to find an idea but it’s not so easy to find a big idea. Just the way it’s not so easy to find a great designer.”

The waiter appears and asks if we want coffee; we both order cappuccinos, which arrive with a complimentary plate of cookies.

I ask if she wants to tackle politics, which seems a pretty ripe subject in Italy. “It’s true,” Sozzani says. “The election left me speechless. But it feels a bit better now. People seem to have some hope that something might change ... For me, none of this was ever about power. It’s always about creativity.”

This apparently makes her remember she is on the clock to create, and she leans back and sighs, “I have to go write my blog now.” Leaving, she is trailed by a cloud of Italian from the maître d’. I realise I am still hungry – my tuna tartare was not that filling – but when he brought the bill, the waiter also made off with the uneaten cookies. Later, looking for something else to chew on, I check to see what Sozzani has written in her blog. There’s a piece on the Met (she had fun at the ball), a bit on breakfast with Korean pop phenomenon Psy, and one entitled: “No to Carbon.” Despite the fact I know Sozzani is about to get on a lot of aircraft, or maybe because of it, that’s the one I want to read.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor


Cipriani Downtown

376 West Broadway, New York 10012

Beef carpaccio $29.95

Tuna Tartare $27.95

Large San Benedetto $11.95

Cappuccino x2 $12.00

Total (incl tax and service) $105.11

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