Franca Sozzani & The Substance of Style
"Fashion is not only about a piece of fabric. If you think about all the [fashion] movements we have had in the years, they came from a situation that's social, economical and political. So why should we not reflect our time?"
- Franca Sozzani via The Telegraph
In a world in which fashion messaging can be so confused, and consequently so confusing, Franca Sozzani was an unflinching voice of reason – someone who intimately understood both the essence and power of fashion. She was one of the people (in fashion and outside of it) whom I most admired, and in the wake of her passing, it's clear I'm not alone.
What set her apart was a relentless interest in thoughtfully examining the role of fashion in society. She never settled for the watered-down, stripped-away definition of fashion that would have us conclude fashion is only to wear a pretty dress or carry a certain bag. In fact, perhaps her greatest contribution was to steer firmly away from that perspective, in effect rejecting the notion that fashion is in any way trivial, or that its place isn't among those issues that matter. With that operating assumption in place, she used the magazine as a platform to provocatively address a number of substantive, controversial issues, many of which her critics would say fell outside the stereotypical purview of a fashion magazine. Below are a few of those instances when she stretched the limits of what a fashion magazine could publish or would publish in order to make an unapologetic statement about fashion's role in the world at large.
Makeover Madness, July 2005: Plastic surgery
In this issue, Sozzani shed some light on our relationship with appearance in a society that idealizes perfect beauty, including the steps we take to alter how we look through plastic surgery. The issue aimed to:
...Provide a snapshot of a society that is increasingly obsessed not so much with curable illnesses as with physical appearance, bra size and sexual performance. But what if the secret of happiness were something else entirely?
- via Vogue Italia
State of Emergency, September 2006: The war on terror
At the 5-year anniversary of September 11, Sozzani ran a story that made a statement about the Iraq War and post-9/11 society we were living in, with its ever-increasing security and enhanced policing. A few of the images were evocative of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in which detainees were tortured and abused. For a fashion magazine to take images of torture and style them, ultimately in the interest of selling clothes, was perceived as distasteful and offensive by many.
This is fashion photography appropriated in the interests of the politics of torture and abuse. By fusing high fashion with the so-called war on terror, the photographs do more than simply give readers cheap thrills by their act of aesthetic transgression. The photographs endorse the very taboos they violate...In these fashion photographs, we see how those images of torture have been translated into consumer products. Torture has not only become normalised, it has been integrated into one of the most glamorous forms of consumer culture - high fashion. In our current moral state of emergency, torture imagery has become fashionable.
- Joanna Bourke via The Guardian
Yet, was Franca Sozzani trying to glamorize or consumerize torture or was she making a commentary about the world we get dressed in? And what were her alternatives? To keep a fashion magazine in a corner, covering only its narrow slice of the world, oblivious, or worse indifferent, to the problems of the world at large?
The problem with clothes nowadays, is the same problem with magazines – they're all the same. Nobody is willing to be courageous it seems, and head in their own direction. Not everybody may like what I do with Vogue Italia of course, but who cares?
- Franca Sozzani via Forbes
A Black Issue, July 2008: Racial diversity in fashion
It all starts with a question...With the Black issue for example, I asked myself, "How come there are millions of models coming from a country like Ukraine, but there are no models coming from the entire continent of Africa?"
- via Forbes
In "A Black Issue" Sozzani was captivated by the lack of racial diversity in fashion at a particular moment in history: the US election of the country's first black President. In the issue, which became Vogue Italia's all time best seller, every model featured editorially was black, turning industry standards on their head. Despite its success, the issue was criticized, including for the fact that the models appeared to still fit normative Western ideals of beauty, including specifically their hair.
Black models? Sure. But there's not a "natural" or "kinky" in sight, indeed, barely even a mop of curly hair. This is black girls-as-white girls: all aquiline noses, large eyes, oval faces (bar the standard exception of "unusual" Alek Wek), hair coaxed into silky straightness or carefully turbaned away in shot after shot. As for "black", it's more latte than americano. Just in case even these carefully selected beauties fail to actually sell the stuff, the hefty advertisement content uses white models, as does the free runway guide.
- Priyamvada Gopal via The Guardian
The magazine was also criticized for grouping black models into a single issue rather than advocating for a more fair inclusion of black models in the magazine's fashion imagery across the board. Again, Gopal:
To be non-white is to be constantly relegated to a "special issue", while the regular edition remains determinedly white.
The problem of a lack of diversity in fashion is real. Franca Sozzani used the platform at her disposal to make a statement about that, rather than accepting or propagating the status quo. Was she pushing boundaries to move the needle?
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.
- Franca Sozzani via The Financial Times
Water & Oil, August 2010: Environmental disaster
After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Vogue Italia published an issue addressing the matter by featuring models covered in an oil-like substance, choking, and otherwise lying lifeless. The magazine provides the following commentary on the issue:
Unforgettable images, created purposely to unnerve the viewer, capture the reality of the situation. And through the sun’s rays blackened by carbon, petrol, anthracite and graphite, [Meisel] depicts our collective dismay.
- via Vogue Italia
Of course, critics responded, accusing her of attempting to glamorize an environmental calamity:
Is it ever appropriate to use a distressing catastrophe as a vehicle to shill luxury goods?
- via Jezebel
Again, criticism centered on the notion that a fashion magazine shouldn't tackle substantive issues; that somehow the gravity of the oil spill was trivialized by sheer virtue of being covered by a fashion magazine. She defended the spread saying:
The message is to be careful about nature. Just to take care more about nature...I understand that it could be shocking to see...
Dealing with current affairs convinces our readers and people appreciate - despite the resulting discussions and criticism - that a fashion magazine "visually" deals with actual events. Why not? After all, there are films, artistic performances, theater pieces on violent events that surround us, why should a magazine be uprooted from reality, giving a stereotyped image of a glamour that is an end in itself?
- Franca Sozzani via Vogue Italia
Belle Vere, June 2011: Body diversity in fashion
Following Sozzani's commentary on the status of racial diversity in fashion, she dedicated an issue to addressing the matter of body diversity by featuring curvier models than we have come to expect from the pages of Vogue.
After the issue was published, Sozzani was invited to speak at Harvard University on the state of body image in fashion as linked to eating disorders and body image issues among young women. She said:
...The current inclination to embrace a female beauty standard that exalts thinness has devastating consequences on many adolescents’ eating habits. And this is where fashion comes into play, alongside models, fashion magazines and everything regarding aesthetics. What lead us to establish that thin is beautiful and that thinness is the aesthetic code we should follow? Why the age of supermodels, who were beautiful and womanly, slowly started decreasing and we now have still undeveloped adolescents with no sign of curves? Why is this considered beautiful...[and] what will it take to change the mentality according to which thin is beautiful...
- via Franca Sozzani's blog
Fashion can be used to send messages. You use the way you dress to give a message to someone else.
- via WSJ
Horror Movie, April 2014: Domestic violence
...why don't we give that message again, especially that the horror of life is bigger than the one that you can see in the movies. This is really a horror show, what we are looking at and what we see every day in every newspaper around the world is how fragile the woman still is today, and how she can be attacked, can be abused, can be killed.
- via The Independent
In this issue, Sozzani addressed head on the issue of violence against women with quite a visually shocking spread. Vogue Italia writes:
Saying NO to violence against women enables us to be, in our own way, useful. And to convey, as our civic duty, a message against barbarism. It doesn’t matter if we run the risk of causing a general uproar with the media or arousing criticism; or if we are accused of exploiting pressing issues just to push our way in newsstands. What is important for us is that at least one of the dozens of women suffering violence every day can feel our nearness. And that those who follow us may feel stimulated to take action, condemn, and support women in trouble. And that they all see that all of us at “Vogue Italia” are on their side: by utterly and radically condemning all types of violence. This awareness urges us to make some noise. In our own way. Until we become, why not?, a true manifesto.
- via Vogue Italia
Of course, the shoot, with its overt depiction of violence against women, was bound to provoke a reaction, and consequently, promote a dialogue.
The spread is called "Cinematic" — domestic violence as filtered through the lens of cinema as filtered through the lens of fashion editorial. How could the result of that not be trivialized? And...what justification is there recirculating the (already widespread) editorial trope of women looking beautiful and passive as they're stalked and threatened and hurt?...If Sozzani and co. really wanted to send a message and stand with survivors, they could have released a statement declaring that the publication will never again feature editorials that glamorize violence. Why bother pretending that you're attacking the status quo when you're just blatantly reinforcing it?
- via Jezebel
So what can we conclude from reviewing the body of work Franca Sozzani has left behind? I'm left feeling she was a trailblazer, even a genius, whose medium was fashion but whose message was fundamentally human. I'm left with a deep sense of respect for a woman who fearlessly refused to accept a trivial place for fashion in the world.
The thing is, perhaps Franca Sozzani recognized that whether she took on the issues or not, fashion has to find a way to get past the patina of triviality that imbues its every move. If she steered clear of taking on important issues, she would simply serve to propagate the idea that fashion isn't capable of being substantive. By deciding instead to tackle substantive issues in a fashion magazine, she subjected herself to countless claims of insensitivity and trivialization. But through that controversy, through the emotional response those images elicited, she created an opening that promoted the very dialogue a fashion editor is responsible for creating. What a rich fashion legacy she left behind; what a bright future she made possible.