Franca Sozzani, whose golden curls and sweet smile made her look like a Botticelli painting, is now – after her brave, year-long struggle with a rare kind of lung cancer – up there with the angels.
The Editor of Italian Vogue, whose reach was so much wider than fashion, has died at age 66 after 28 years at the helm of a magazine that included such daring visual explorations as her photo-shoots of bodies writhing in an oil slick and an extraordinary premonition of faces and bodies re-made by plastic surgery. She was fearless in pointing up the imbecilic ways of the industry, but also tireless in encouraging rising fashion talent and supporting international charities.
Her last public appearances were earlier this month when she received the Swarovski Award for Positive Change at the Fashion Awards 2016 in London and the following day attended her final show: the Chanel Métiers d’Arts presentation at the Ritz in Paris, where she was supported by her friend and admirer Karl Lagerfeld, by American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and by her son Francesco Carrozzini. His documentary about his mother and their relationship, Franca: Chaos and Creation, was shown at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.
Franca, Anna, and I started our major fashion roles in the same year: 1988. At a private lunch in Paris to celebrate our 25 years at our separate posts, Franca was, as ever, mischievous, witty, intelligent, and fervently committed to her work. Her slight frame belied a forceful mind and a sense of conviction in the many other projects she took on.
It was the same strength that she used to the end to believe in her recovery and to determine her attendance first in New York for the screening of Francesco’s film and then to fulfil the impossible dream of this month’s London and Paris trip.
On each occasion, the oxygen tank she was obliged to have by her bed or to carry on her voyages became an additional accessory, subsumed into her life like her cuddly dog or the hoops swinging from her ears.
Franca’s extraordinary story began in the cultural northern Italian city of Mantua, with studies in philosophy, literature, and language – an education she wore for the rest of her life as elegantly as her clothes. Her risible comments about her in-and-out marriage at age 20 were documented in her son’s movie. But from the time she began her career at Vogue Bambini in 1976, up to 1990 while her sister Carla opened the Milan concept store 10 Corso Como, Franca was wedded to fashion. She went on to head up Vogue Italia from 1988 and was given the title of Editor-in-Chief in 1994.
Her fierce loyalty to Italy and to exceptional and inventive fashion was documented in her collaboration with Steven Meisel, whose images of tarred models, like drowned birds from an oil spill, was as unforgettable as her other visual stories created with mindful and thoughtful photographers such as Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi, and Bruce Weber.
Franca never ceased to bring courage and controversy to a magazine that was intrinsically lightweight in its fashion subject. She gave it heft and power as no other editor has done.
“Franca was one of the greatest editors who ever made a magazine – and she was by far the most talented, influential, and important person within the Condé Nast International Organisation,” said Jonathan Newhouse, Chairman and Chief Executive of Condé Nast International in his announcement of the loss to his world-wide staff.
What made Franca so much more than a fashion guru? I remember asking her – crassly – why she had decided to do an all-black-model issue celebrating African beauty in 2008.
“Anyone could have done it, at any time – but I did it,” said the editor, who won a series of awards for this and other subjects she bravely and energetically took on. Her engagement with the on-line version of Vogue in 2010 was done with equal bravado, especially as the whisper-slim Franca included a “Vogue Curvy” element the following year, celebrating shapely figures.
Jonathan Newhouse highlighted Franca’s work as Ambassador to Fashion for the United Nations – a mission that took her around the world to bring support to Africa, Asia and regions beyond the usual fashion locations.
“In her UN role, she also joined the fight against hunger in poor countries and helped to raise awareness of the issue – along with raising money,” Newhouse said. “She carried out these activities with deep commitment and energy.”
This month’s Swarovski Award for Positive Change was given to Franca for taking on big issues such as “diversity, ecology and feminism” and also for “a tireless commitment to fundraising for local and international charities”.
At her death, she was creative direction of Convivio, the AIDS initiative launched by Gianni Versace in 1992, and also worked with the European Institute of Oncology. She was a Global Ambassador Against Hunger for the United Nations World Food Programme, with a focus on empowerment and education of women and girls; and she helped establish the Child Priority Foundation to help underprivileged children find educational opportunities.
But I think too of Franca nurturing young designers for the “Who is On Next” initiative to encourage rising Italian talent. I am reminded of the many days we met in Rome, she sitting at the head of the table, cajoling and criticising us and the contestants to get the very best out of the finalists.
Yet I also remember Franca as a friend, a woman with an extraordinary visual eye and exquisite taste, from her black swimming pool in Portofino to the curtains in her Marrakesh home, the finest swathes of cotton fabric wafting in the faint breeze – as light and delicate as Franca herself.