The first time I saw her, Franca Sozzani was sitting in the front row of a fashion show with her sister Carla, both staring straight ahead as calm as statues in the confusion and fuss around them. No, not statues, but 15th century paintings.
With their long wheat-coloured hair tumbling down their backs in waves, they could have been in a painting by Jan van Eyck or Masaccio. They made the confusion around them seem even more intense by their stillness and their beauty, which was not about transitory glamour but a reflection of an inner certainty about something more spiritual than the latest ’look’ worn by the fashion ladies on either side of them. It could only be described as innate style.
That was a long time ago, when I lived in Rome and worked as a design assistant, and when I asked back at the atelier who the two women were, I was told in tones both shocked and awed – the first because I didn't know them, the second that I was sitting in the same room as them – and I learned they were the Sozzani sisters, considered two of the most important people in Italian fashion. To be honest, I was in awe of Franca Sozzani for a long time after that. She seemed so poised, so complete and so entirely in her own world, which I learned later was the world of Vogue Italia, the magazine she edited from 1988 until her death. During that time, she sculpted Vogue into her image of what modern women needed from a fashion publication. And it was by no means all about beauty and fashion. It assumed an intellectual involvement in her readers which her pages satisfied and challenged.
Born into a prosperous middle-class family in Mantua, Italy, Franca was educated in convent schools and then the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, in Milan. She had wanted to read physics but her father, an engineer, would not agree. Straight out of college, she married, possibly as a form of revenge. The marriage lasted for three months. Travel to India and London followed before taking a job at Condé Nast’s Milan office as a secretary. She soon worked her way up and became, in her words, an assistant’s assistant at Vogue Bambini, the only Condé Nast publication devoted to fashion for children. In 1980, Condé Nast introduced a new magazine based on the American publication, Glamour, and she became its editor, along with the editorship of a magazine for men, called Per Lui, founded in 1982.
Magazines devoted to fashion for children and men were untried ground and, despite small circulations, basically conceived as vehicles for advertising revenue. To emphasise their difference from Vogue Italia – which had low circulation compared with British and American editions – Sozzani began to experiment with how information was given to the reader by fashion and style magazines. She introduced an episodic approach to stories, giving them a unified spirit by making them not just the four or six page spreads still common today, and by allowing photographers to take bold approaches in order to fully tell a story. And she employed only those who understood that the story was as important and even more so than the clothes: men like Oliviero Toscani, Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber were, within reason, allowed as many pages as it took. In this, she had realised that pictures spoke more fully than words. As she once said, ‘Who learns Italian but Italians?’
Franca Sozzani always felt that, despite the frequent frivolity of so much in fashion, a magazine reflecting such a vital and exciting industry needed a strong personality and also something to make it truly different, such as Diane Vreeland’s ‘Why Don’t You…?’ column that Harper’s Bazaar had in the 1940s. With great courage and foresight, she called in the legendary fashion figure of Italy, Anna Piaggi, and gave her two pages per month to explore whatever she thought interesting at the time. Called Doppie Pagine (Double Pages), a selection of which was published in 1998 by Thames and Hudson with the title Anna Piaggi’s Fashion Algebra, their layout and message soon became, if not the heart and soul of the magazine, the monthly ‘must see’, especially for young followers – by no means all of them fashionistas – who loved their pictorial panache, wit and style.
Franca was always bold and independent in her judgements. She took risks that few other editors would dare to take and she was always right. A 2008 special edition using only black models and featuring four separate covers became an instant collector’s piece. It was reprinted twice, and sold out very quickly each time. She was a realist, who really thought about the things that were interesting to intelligent women. She talked a story over with a photographer about the most arresting way to approach it and then left the challenge to him, on the understanding that the buck always – always – would stop at her desk. And they produced groundbreaking stories, closely related to readers’ interests and even fears: women having corrective plastic surgery – always wearing the latest looks – and even domestic violence, unheard of then in the glossy world of high fashion. As long ago as 1954, Jean Cocteau highlighted the need for journalists to “vanquish the inflation of mediocrity”. He was largely crying against the wind, as modern journalistic standards only too frequently show. But Vogue Italia displayed a pictorial panache that spoke clearly of the values so often lacking in other magazines.
Franco Sozzani was a true original, a rarity in those who wield power, and her grace and judgement will be hard to replace. Tough with her staff, but always supportive, she summed up the paradox of the role of an editor when she said, 'when you make a mistake, they call you immediately to complain; when you do something they like, they send the stylist flowers.’ She had the courage, humour and realism to cope with that and much more in her professional and private life, which is why her place in the pantheon of fashion’s great and good is secure and impregnable.
Photography: Vittorio Zunino Celetto.