12-Dec, 21:31

19:47, December 23 238 0

2016-12-23 19:47:14
Remembering Franca Sozzani: A Worldview That Mattered

Ever since the news arrived that Franca Sozzani had died at age 66, I have been wondering what the longtime editor of Italian Vogue would have made of this particular geopolitical — not fashion — moment.

What she would have made, for example, of the election of Donald J. Trump and his beauty pageant of administration appointees, the fall of Matteo Renzi in Italy, the rise of the far right in France and the attack in Berlin.

What she would have made, literally, of it all: what special issue or narrative photo shoot, what brands (Versace, Gucci, Dior) might have been involved, what photographers (Weber, Roversi, Meisel, Lindbergh) and what kind of outcry would have ensued. How inappropriate for fashion to comment on such serious matters! You are trivializing major issues by giving them a veneer of glamour! Get back in your glossy box! How dare you! How…

Because she would have dared. She always did. It was her thing.

In the 28 years that Ms. Sozzani reigned at Italian Vogue, she redefined the job of editor as one of activist, grappling with topics like race, domestic violence, plastic surgery, drug addiction and the BP oil spill. People didn’t always like it. Advertisers were skittish; her boss, Jonathan Newhouse, the chief executive of Condé Nast International, once considered firing her; and she was often criticized by various talking heads. But she believed that fashion — an industry often dismissed as frivolous and one whose value is traditionally considered its “escapism” — not only should have a place at the political table, but also deserved one.

That it did not have to settle for being “the dream,” but that it could be more. That it could be as relevant to the dominant social and cultural and economic conversation as any other discipline. That it could use its pretty cover to sneak up on readers and force them to confront subjects they might otherwise choose to ignore. She expected more out of fashion, and she wanted fashion to expect more out of itself.

As a result, while she didn’t look like a revolutionary, a provocateur or a towering figure in the fashion landscape — she was small, often among the smallest people on any front row, with the kind of romantic beauty that inspired the British fashion critic and historian Colin McDowell to compare her to a Modigliani and the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy to a Botticelli — she was, ultimately, all of those things.

Like another seminal style character who died this week, China Machado, the first nonwhite model to appear in Harper’s Bazaar, Ms. Sozzani did not fit into any traditional mold and she did not play by the rules. She rewrote them.

She did it in her personal life, and she did it in her professional life. She was a single mother who had a child out of wedlock and always supported herself at a time when such atypical family arrangements were rare in Italy. She was never particularly interested in fashion or even magazines (she studied philosophy), but her first job was at Vogue Bambini. And when she finally got to the top of Italian Vogue in 1988, she refused to think her reach was limited by language, geography or the way things used to be. Instead, she built her arguments out of photography, understanding that in an increasingly visual world, it would take her beyond the parochial and into the global debate. She made her magazine matter in a way it never had before.

As she told me during an interview I did in 2013 for The Financial Times, “Here’s what I think: Fashion isn’t really about clothes. It’s about life. 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.”

So she didn’t. She had a blog she wrote herself, though she never claimed to be a writer, in which she discussed a range of topics, such as Kanye West, carbon emissions and her work in Africa as a good-will ambassador for Fashion 4 Development. When cranky comments were posted, she left them up. She wasn’t immune to criticism, but she also never let it force her to back down from something she believed. It is worth noting that, along with Botticelli, Mr. Lévy also compared Ms. Sozzani to a character out of Stendhal.

In September, a documentary on her life by her son, Francesco Carrozzini, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and she told me that she had been nervous about it. She hadn’t wanted to appear on film, talking about herself, but she agreed because her child asked her. Then, when she saw a cut, she thought, “I was crazy to do it.” She was worried about the way viewers would judge her choices. “But it’s O.K.,” she said finally. “What’s the worst thing that can happen? They say, ‘I don’t like it?’”

At a time when so much of what designers and magazines and stores do has become a numbers game calculated by market research and page views and what sold well last season, her example argues for the opposite. She took risks. They didn’t always end well. But more often than not, she was proved right. The “black” issue of 2008 (designed, not coincidentally, at a time when the United States was preparing to elect its first black president), which featured only models of color, sold out twice — the first time in the United States and Britain in 72 hours — and has become a collector’s item. In 2012, she got the implicit endorsement of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations when he appeared on the cover of an issue of L’Uomo Vogue entitled “Rebranding Africa.”

All of which is why I would have loved to have seen how she would have addressed the current state of things. How she would have challenged our eyes and our minds. It is doubtful that whoever replaces her at Italian Vogue will feel quite the same impetus to provoke. But that person shouldn’t have to. If Franca taught us anything, it was that it isn’t the responsibility of one magazine or one editor to address — or dress — the world. The onus of comment, written in pictures or on the page, belongs to us all.