All about my mother: growing up with Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “All about my mother: growing up with Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia” was written by Aaron Hicklin, for The Observer on Sunday 27th November 2016 08.00 UTC

Franca Sozzani’s earliest memory takes place at home. Her father is coaxing her to overcome her fear and jump from a dressing table. It is the only way she will learn to be strong, he tells her. So Sozzani jumps. That jump is real, but it’s also a metaphor, and it comes conveniently early in Franca: Chaos and Creation, a new documentary in which Sozzani’s son and only child, Francesco Carrozzini, attempts to unravel the origins of his mother’s fierce independence and her soaring magazine career as the long-time editor of Vogue Italia.

That he doesn’t entirely solve the conundrum is no impediment to enjoying the film. Sozzani is a thoughtful, sometimes stubborn, sometimes droll subject who broke with Italian convention by annulling her first marriage after three months and running off to see the world – first to India, and then London in the late 1960s when it felt like the centre of the universe. Later still she would hitch around the US, with an itch to get out into the world that served as a catalyst for her magazine career.

“In London you really smelled the freedom, it changed my way of thinking completely,” Sozzani recalled during a recent visit to New York. We were sitting at the back of the Bowery Hotel, and the sun glinted off the mane of golden hair that rolls over her shoulders and down her back (she says she is terrified of ageing, but appears to be managing it exceptionally well). Late 1960s London left a singular imprint on Sozzani. “In London everybody was different – that was beautiful,” she says. “Nobody wanted to look alike. In a way this kind of freedom gives you even more creativity.”

Blonde ambition: Franca Sozzani and Francesco Carrozzini at a fashion show in 1994.
Blonde ambition: Franca Sozzani and Francesco Carrozzini at a fashion show in 1994.

As she talks, Sozzani’s son, and the director of this curate’s egg of a documentary, offers small murmurs of assent or dissent depending on the subject. At other times he is absorbed by his mobile phone. Although he was spurred to make the movie by the death of his father, who he barely knew, Franca: Chaos and Creation belongs wholly to Carrozzini’s mother and her relentless drive to succeed. “I always thought my life was predetermined to be a normal life – house, children, golf,” Sozzani says in the movie. “And then I decided that this was not the life I wanted to have. I couldn’t stay home with the kids and make spaghetti.” The fact that she is recounting this to her only child is part of the movie’s central conflict. Carrozzini grew up in a single-parent household in which the single parent was frequently away. Even as he insists that she’s a terrible cook, you get the feeling he would have liked the odd bowl of spaghetti.

Many people are driven to succeed, but for a mother to prioritise career over family in 1970s Italy was an anomaly that marked out Carrozzini from his schoolfriends. Several decades later, in 1992, Hillary Clinton would deploy similar language to defend herself as First Lady-in-waiting (“I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfil my profession”), and the fact that we’re still arguing about whether and how mothers can find a work-life balance is a big part of what makes Sozzani so refreshing. For her, work is life.

In the documentary we see mother and son watching old home movies. “You never took me to the park like other kids,” Carrozzini says, more curious than accusing. “I never took you to the park, period,” she replies. “Not even with a stroller. I even missed your school’s elementary graduation because I got back home the day after.” If there is regret, it registers as barely more than a flicker. Where Carrozzini is frequently sentimental, Sozzani is decidedly not. “She’s very much about the future, and I’m a huge nostalgic,” he says. “This is literally the thing that differentiates us the most.” It’s also, perhaps, the animating principle behind Sozzani’s editorial instincts. “It’s not that I don’t think of the past, but it’s a waste of time,” she says. “If you’re stuck in the past, beholden to it, then your creativity is stuck there, too, because you don’t give yourself a chance to evolve.”

Shock tactics: an image from Steven Meisel’s 70-page Makeover Madness story.
Shock tactics: an image from Steven Meisel’s 70-page Makeover Madness story. Photograph: Steven Meisel

It’s been just over 50 years since Vogue Italia was first published, and Franca Sozzani has been the magazine’s editor-in-chief for more than half that time. She arrived in 1988, the year – the same month in fact – that Anna Wintour became editor-in-chief of American Vogue. Since then, each woman has spawned a cult following, while pursuing very different paths. You could say that Wintour’s Vogue is the magazine no fashion house can afford to ignore, while Sozzani’s is the magazine that no fashion house wants to ignore. One is insistently commercial, the other ceaselessly creative.

There are 21 international editions of Vogue, and most cleave more or less to the formula that Wintour has established. “I don’t think you can say anyone else has more power than Anna,” says Sozzani. “She represents America, and she represents the biggest power you can have as an editor. At the same time my choice was about creativity, so we really made separate choices but with total respect for each other.” The two women are now friends, but Sozzani says it took some years to get to that point. “We are both very determined and relentless,” she says. “We have a great sense of family in terms of our children – and she’s British, so she also has a sense of humour.”

‘We have a great sense of family in terms of our children’: Francesco Carrozzini as a baby.
‘We have a great sense of family in terms of our children’: Francesco Carrozzini as a baby.

As a rule, Sozzani says, she gets on better with men. “I like things to be clear, and with men that’s usually easier. The women I’m closer to, like Anna, are women who are very straight.” She feels the same way about Donatella Versace. “She always fights, and she pays for her mistakes, but she’s willing to take risks. Gianni [Versace] was the opposite in many ways, very temperamental. One day he could say something and after five minutes change his mind completely. Donatella is very reliable, and much more focused.”

Every magazine editor knows you cannot please all the people all the time, but few have appeared quite as sanguine as Sozzani about pissing off so many people so much of the time. If she sees a fire, her instinct is to run to it. War, violence, terrorism, drug abuse, environmental catastrophe – all are grist for Sozzani’s fashion mill, an oil-and- water mix that frequently gets her into trouble.

Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast International, admits she initially pushed the magazine too far out of the company’s comfort zone. “I said if you keep going in this direction, I might have to fire you.” Sozzani persuaded him to give the transition time even as the magazine’s older advertisers fell away. Meanwhile, she was granting photographers greater and greater latitude to do as they pleased. At one point in the film the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy pops up, randomly, to say that Condé Nast believed they were hiring a businesswoman with a plan, before adding with a smirk, “But she’s crazy!”

‘If you keep going in this direction, I might have to fire you’: Condé Nast chairman Jonathan Newhouse with Franca Sozzani, Naomi Campbell and Donatella Versace in Dubai, 2013.
‘If you keep going in this direction, I might have to fire you’: Condé Nast chairman Jonathan Newhouse with Franca Sozzani, Naomi Campbell and Donatella Versace in Dubai, 2013. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

What Condé Nast wanted, says Sozzani, was “girls jumping, laughing”. What they ended up with was stories like Steven Meisel’s 70-page “Makeover Madness”, a riff on cosmetic surgery that featured models in various “before” and “after” poses, and some in mid-operation. There are bloody bandages, liposuction tubes, syringes and scalpels. It’s as if the screenwriters of Ab Fab had managed to insert Patsy and Edina into the acme of fashion, illuminating the artifice of the beauty industry in one fell swoop.

For a woman who grew up anticipating a life of bourgeois boredom, it’s telling that Sozzani has no compunction in skewering the world she escaped. “Some of the people I know very well told me: ‘I thought this was disgusting, this issue, with all this blood, it has no respect for women,’” she recalls. “I don’t understand that point of view. Women decide to have plastic surgery, and it’s a choice. It’s not like it’s an imposition from somebody else.”

In deep water: from Steven Meisel’s Water & Oil story.
In deep water: from Steven Meisel’s Water & Oil story. Photograph: Steven Meisel

Another Meisel story, this time from 2010, conjured a Deepwater Horizon-style oil spill, and featured models as mermaids washed up in slicks of oil. The story was eviscerated on social media, a factor Sozzani never had to consider when she started, but every attack on her taste or sensitivity appears to leave her unmoved. “I’m very stubborn when I have ideas,” she says. “When pursuing them I prefer to make my own mistakes, and not because they tell me it’s wrong.” Her instincts have sometimes let her down – a graphic fashion story highlighting domestic abuse, again shot by Meisel, served to trivialise the issues.

“In Italy, every three days a woman dies, killed by a relative, husband, boyfriend,” says Sozzani. “Probably the fact I credited the clothes was a bit too much. At the same time, to make a statement I have to use the tools I have. My tool is a fashion magazine.” She recalls being told at journalism school that photographs must serve the text, an axiom she has since turned upside down, not least because Italian speakers, by and large, are limited to Italy. Language is no barrier for a photo story.

Of course the stories that flirt with the news are only part of the formula she has developed. To pore over a fashion editorial like Tim Walker’s whimsical contributions to the magazine is to lose yourself in a bedtime story that is one part PL Travers to two parts Kenneth Grahame, in which you might stumble on a wrought iron bed suspended from an oak tree, or find yourself looking into a stately home overrun by horses. Often it seems the clothes are there to propel the story more than the story is there to sell the clothes.

The more fantastical the better: Franca Sozzani looks over a new issue of Vogue Italia.
The more fantastical the better: Franca Sozzani looks over a new issue of Vogue Italia.

For Sozzani the more fantastical a fashion story the better. She worries that the relentless focus on commerce – collections being sold as they are being sent down the runway – is diluting fashion’s potency. “People want to dream,” she says. “They want to take a journey, a trip in their imagination, and that’s not simply about buying a dress.” At the same time, she thinks that luxury fashion is designed for young women but only affordable for the middle-aged. “So you see women of 55, 60, nude – wearing a transparent dress as if that’s normal,” she scoffs.

Neither is she impressed by ready-to-wear lines that have made fashion generic across the world. “It’s a kind of conformity, it’s the antithesis of fashion,” she says. “Creativity is about doing anything you want – in London in the 60s nobody wanted to look alike, but today everyone does.”

The same might be said of fashion magazines, or at least the mass-circulation titles, and it’s the fact that Vogue Italia is not interested in conforming that separates it from its competition. For the photographer Paolo Roversi, Italian Vogue is a self-portrait of Sozzani. “It reflects her,” he says in the documentary. “She takes what she needs from each photographer to build this self-portrait.”

Because of their relationship, the conversations between mother and son in the movie can be feisty, but also honest. “I don’t know how you had all this success,” Carrozzini tells Sozzani at one point, “because I don’t think you’re that smart.” She laughs off his impudence, but later the two wrestle with the movie’s most palpable absence. Carrozzini wants to know about his father, a man he barely got to know before he died five years ago.

It’s during a routine taxi ride, the backdrop for many of the interviews, that Sozzani tells him matter-of-factly that his father was married to another woman when he was born. “I can’t even remember her name,” she says. “Ah well,” replies Carrozzini. “It’s always good to learn new things.” They never return to the subject.

“He was not a bad person, he was just messy,” says Sozzani later as we say our goodbyes at the Bowery Hotel. Does she want to share her life with anyone else? She considers the question, and then says, “I never compromise, and in any kind of relationship you have to compromise.” Perhaps that is why she is so successful in the world of magazines, where compromise is a hindrance.

What does she think is the single greatest asset she brings to her work? “I add the dream,” she cries, the light glancing off her arresting blue eyes. And then again, for emphasis: “I add the dream.”

Franca: Chaos and Creation will be released early in 2017

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