A cross between a Botticelli and a character out of Stendhal. That is how the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy once described Franca Sozzani, the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia who passed away last Thursday at the age of 66.
Born in Mantua in 1950, Sozzani moved to Milan to study literature and philosophy. A marriage that dissolved in a matter of months left her with Francesco Carrozzini, her only son, and a desire to “do something good with my life,” as Hamish Bowles, editor-at-large of American Vogue and close friend of Sozzani, recalls her saying. Stints at Vogue Bambini, Lei and Per Lui, all Italian publications, shaped her career in fashion and ultimately propelled her to the role of editor in chief of Vogue Italia in 1988, a position she occupied until her passing.
Her long tenure at Vogue Italia solidified the magazine’s reputation as a stylish provocateur in a world of blind adoration to haute couture. The relationships she formed with emerging talents like Mario Testino, Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel at Lei and Per Lui carried over to Vogue Italia, where the budding talents became household names and artists in their own right.
The magazine was a hotbed of controversy; if American Vogue is the well-behaved, polished kid and Vogue Paris still stuns as a leather-clad femme fatale, then its Italian counterpart is the enfant terrible of the Vogue family. An uncompromising volume featuring only black models along with articles denouncing racism in the fashion industry earned Sozzani both praise and criticism in 2008. Subsequent issues confirmed Sozzani’s penchant for using the Vogue platform to amplify social themes—in 2014 she pushed for a spread on domestic violence that appeared under the title “Horror Story”—and open conversations about women’s bodies—the June 2011 issue, dubbed “the curvy issue,” featured a cast of plus-sized models under the headline “Belle Vere,” the true beauties.
This past year proved to be a difficult one for Sozzani, who gradually stepped away from the spotlight to take care of her health. Only a handful of friends and family members knew of the rare form of lung cancer that made her attendance to fashion shows and galas a complicated affair. Nevertheless, she traveled to London three weeks ago to receive the inaugural Swarovski Fashion Award for Positive Change, which recognized her work as global ambassador for the UN World Food Program, as well as her support to the European Institute of Oncology. The following morning, she hopped on a train to Paris with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to attend the Chanel Arts et Métiers Fashion Show at the Ritz hotel and congratulate her friend, Karl Lagerfeld, the artistic director of the French house.
“Her fierce and unwavering support will never be forgotten,” wrote Wintour in her farewell post as she remembered the last days she spent in the company of her friend.
“She demanded the highest level of performance from those around her, and they gave it. Like all great editors she had an understanding of the business realities, and her grasp of these realities enabled her to drive Vogue to the highest level,” said Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast International in his own tribute to Sozzani.
Yet the most enduring eulogy comes from her son Francesco, who made his directorial debut this year with “Franca: Chaos and Creation,” a documentary about the enigma he calls his mother. According to the movie’s website, Carrozzini’s film, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last September, “gives us a behind the scenes glimpse into his mother’s creative process as well as a peek into her vulnerabilities both past and present.” Carrozzini himself admitted that his father’s death prompted him to memorialize the life of his mother.
“Franca: Chaos and Creation” will premiere in New York City early next year. By the time it hits theaters, it will have become a son’s homage to his mamma and Sozzani’s own inadvertent swan song, but above all, it will remain a testament to the brilliance of a woman who dared to make the world of fashion a little more uncomfortable, and perhaps a little more memorable.
Photo: Franca Sozzani on the ‘magenta carpet’ at Life Ball 2013 in Vienna, Austria (Manfred Werner / Wikimedia Commons).