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She never wears high heels. She doesn’t carry a handbag. She loves Kim Kardashian. She thinks Botox is repulsive. Deborah Ross meets the controversial editor of Italian Vogue, Franca Sozzani
Franca Sozzani is the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia (“The world’s most influential Italian fashion and style magazine”) and I spent a day shadowing her during haute couture fashion week in Paris. It was a long day, a hard day, a tiring day, a famishing day – no one in fashion eats – but an enlightening day.
We attended “an appointment” with the designer Giambattista Valli and another with Alain Mikli, “créateur de lunettes”. Having never met a “créateur de lunettes” before, I found I was rather stumped for conversation, but I think I pulled it off. And then it was the Valentino couture show, which was fabulously glamorous and exciting, and Kim Kardashian turned up, in the tightest, boobiest, bum-squeeziest dress you ever did see. I knew her bottom was big, I say to Franca as we left, but not that big. “Is massive,” she confirmed. I also noted, at the show, that if you are too far away to air-kiss someone directly, you kiss your fingertips and offer a little, fluttery wave.
I tried this when I got back home (London, N4), when I spotted people I knew on the opposite side of the street, but they just looked at me as if I was insane. The lesson learnt here is that what works in high fashion may not work elsewhere. You just seem mad.
We meet in Paris, at lunchtime, at the Hôtel Costes, which is one of those hotels that is so funky and fashiony that the reception is a bar, or the bar is reception, or there may just not be any reception. I certainly never find it. Eventually, I spot her. She is most striking; like a tiny mermaid doll, with crinkled, long blonde hair and azure eyes that match exactly the azure strap of her vintage Rolex.
I am about her height, 5ft, and, as an icebreaker – a good icebreaker, I had thought – ask if she finds it as difficult as I do to find clothes to fit, particularly trousers, with yards of material pooling at the ankle. “Not really,” is all she says, briskly. She is 64, untouched by Botox, which she finds repulsive. “It make you look like monster. Is not funny.” Do you mind ageing? “Is life,” she shrugs. “It happens.” You’re lucky, I say, to have such wonderful bone structure. I wish I had such bone structure. I’ve got a face like an edam cheese. She does not remonstrate. “Ah, yes,” is all she says. But your nails are terrible, I add, quite meanly. “I bite,” she says.
She is wearing a Giambattista Valli silk dress and tangerine, pointy-toed Manolo Blahnik shoes that are almost flat. She does not do high heels, she says, because “I cannot walk”. She does not carry a handbag, just a little pouch for her phone and keys. “I never carry handbag,” she says. “I don’t have make-up during the day. I don’t know what to put inside.” You’ve saved yourself a lot of money over the years, I say. “Yes,” she confirms. “I have saved myself much money. And now we will go see Valli and Mikli.”
Thank you, Franca, I say, for taking me with you today. If you are ever in London, I add, I will return the favour, and you can shadow me to Sainsbury’s then the post office, or it could be the other way round, depending on where we are in the day. One doesn’t want to go to the post office at peak times. She smiles, almost. I don’t think she is un-warm. It may just be that in an industry in which showing warmth is not valued, you can get out of practice.
We make for her limo. It’s only three steps from the hotel front but it is raining, so the driver collects her with an umbrella, which he holds over her as she does first step, second step, third step to the car. I decide to pay attention from here on in, as I would one day like my own driver with an umbrella. (Take that, N4!)
To my delight, I discover a dog in the back of the limo. This is Laszlo, her West Highland white terrier, whom I make to stroke, but I’m speedily talked out of it. “NO!” she cries. “HE BITE! DON’T TOUCH!” What, I suggest, if I let him sniff my hand first? “NO. I PREFER DON’T TOUCH! HE BITE!” She pulls him onto her lap while I cringe against the opposite door, avoiding his jaws. The traffic is gnarled. She speaks constantly into her phone. (Vogue Italia is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and she has an exhibition to organise, she later explains.) I am left to watch the raindrops glide down the windows, and to occasionally interject a question between calls.
Which is the greatest fashion house of all time? “There are so many. There are some that really last for ever, like Chanel or Hermès. Prada and Gucci. It is difficult to say one. The point for me is not to make a good collection. The point is to last the years.”
Can anyone be fashionable? Could I? “You can become fashionable but it does not mean you can become elegant. You can have much money to buy the most beautiful dresses but doesn’t mean is good for you. Elegance is not how you dress. Is attitude.” Could I acquire that attitude? “Some people they have and some people they don’t have.”
Do you ever buy your own clothes, or do the designers just unload a ton of free stuff on your doorstep every morning, as I’ve always imagined happens with magazine editors?
“It depend. Sometimes they ask me if I want, but I like to be independent.” Are you a fan of any of the high-street shops? “I like Uniqlo.” So do I, I tell her. “But is not about fashion. Is about basics you can mix with fashion.”
Oh. Gap? Do we love Gap? I’m always in Gap. I practically live in Gap. “Sportswear.”
Franca Sozzani has been editor of Vogue Italia since 1988, and writes an online blog every single day covering everything from the Italian government to eating disorders and creativity. (“A true creative doesn’t need to overdo it, but to show that creativity can be useful and can open new roads …”) I ask, when I can, if she doesn’t get fed up of it. If she doesn’t wake up some days and think: sod the bloody blog. I’m going to say Laszlo ate it. “Many times,” she says. “It is huge work. I get tired. But there is a community of people waiting for this blog and I do not want to disappoint.”
Under her stewardship, the magazine has proved extraordinarily influential. Though its circulation of 120,000 is small (US Vogue sells 1.3 million), its website has 1.86 million page views per month, with half the traffic coming from outside Italy, and Vogue Italia is famed for its controversial images. She has taken on oil spills (astonishing pictures of models as slicks), rehab, domestic violence, plastic surgery (starring a semi-butchered Linda Evangelista) and racism. In 2008, she published an all-black issue which sold out and had to be reprinted. I ask her if the head honchos at Condé Nast ever get on the phone and say: “Franca, what’s wrong with a nice girl in a floaty dress on a swing, or carrying a basket of sweet peas?” She says this cannot happen: “I am editorial director of the group, so I would have to call myself.”
We attend our first appointment with Giambattista Valli, the Rome-born designer who lives and works in a beautiful 18th-century apartment. He is, when we arrive, in a state of great excitement. “I show you something amazing,” he tells Franca. He retrieves a copy of that morning’s Le Monde, which is carrying a front-page photograph from his show of the day before. “For me, is big day,” he says. Apparently, Dior also had its show yesterday, “but I am on the cover. Dior is not on the cover. Amazing!” I give a little clap, I’m not sure why. I think that may be the other fashion lesson I learnt: when in doubt, clap.
Franca and Valli sit and catch up in Italian, so I mooch among his rails. Astonishing dresses. Dresses with vast feather trains. Dresses covered with fabric 3D daisies. They may be the most fabulous dresses I have ever seen, and must cost a bomb. May I have one, I call over. “No,” says Valli. Please? “No,” he repeats.
I mooch back and ask if they consider themselves visual people. “Yes,” says Franca. “I have always been a visual person. Don’t ask me for a name. I just remember people and how they dress and what they wear.”
Valli says he studied art and his trouble is he knows too much about art; that in fashion, knowing about art can only lead to suffering. Or, as he puts it: “Sometimes, to be too cultivated is limited in the contemporary fashion panorama.”
“I agree,” responds Franca. “Everything is going so fast people don’t understand what they are doing.”
“There is,” continues Valli, “no time for the digestion. Everything is skin deep. So if you do something a little more intellectual …”
“People, they don’t get,” Franca concludes, sadly.
This seems to make them gloomy, so I wonder if I should do more random clapping, to cheer them up, but then opt for changing the subject altogether. I am fascinated as to how they might deal with everyday life. So I ask if either of them cook. I’m already quite hungry (a croissant on the train at 7am; no lunch), and it’s probably what’s on my mind. Here’s how that goes:
Valli: “She can dress the table, but not the food.”
Franca: “I love to dress the table.”
Valli: “My grandmother say to me you just have to learn to do one thing the best. It’s enough. I have been living in Paris for 17 years, and I think I maybe ate 8 times at home.”
Me: “Your oven must be very clean.”
Franca: “I don’t like the smell of cooking in the house.”
Valli: “If it’s a summer holiday house, it can be nice to have that tomato sauce smell, but that is holiday.”
Franca: “That is different.”
Valli: “You don’t want all the smells.”
We watch Valli’s show from yesterday on his laptop. I do not have to do the clapping, as Valli himself does the clapping. I ask if they agree with Vivienne Westwood: that people should buy less, but buy better. Buy one good item rather than ten crappy ones. “Yes,” says Valli, “but people do not know what is the good thing, unfortunately.” He sighs dejectedly. Franca sighs dejectedly. I sigh dejectedly (don’t want to be left out). Then we leave, are umbrella-ed back to the limo, where she’s back on the phone so, again, it’s a matter of quickly getting questions in when I can.
Is Anna Wintour as scary as she looks? “She is very good mother. She loves her children.” You don’t ever get bored of clothes? Don’t you ever think: enough with the skirts, already? “Is always evolution.” What was your first experience of fashion? “My big love, when I was 17, 18, was Yves Saint Laurent and, later, Biba. I was crazy about Biba.”
Franca Sozzani grew up in Mantua, in northern Italy, where her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother did not work, but was chic. “She was very classic. Not so many jewellery, even in the evening. She was not wearing the make-up. Only lipgloss.”
Franca studied philosophy and languages at university, but did not expect a career. “I never thought to work. It happened because I got married at just 20 and I got separation after three months. I wanted to do independent.” You got married at 20? What were you thinking? “Probably, I thought we have beautiful party. I knew I didn’t want to get married any more, but it was too late. I went too far. It was decided. I thought it was a way to be independent. I was too young.”
Her first job was at Vogue Bambini, and she rose from there. Later, she briefly married again, and had a son, Francesco Carrozzini, now 31 and a photographer based in New York. You married again? “I think maybe I think another beautiful party,” she says.
She has, I discover, houses in both Milan and Paris, travels extensively, and I get the feeling she is through with men. Do you like to go out socially? “I no like to go out if it isn’t for work.” Are you ever lonely? “Yes.” I don’t quite know how to respond to that. There’s a silence, until I eventually say: well, who’d want you, with your terrible nails? She laughs, which may mean I’m getting somewhere. I’m not sure. Her big love is Laszlo, whom she bought on impulse, and adores. It’s her first dog “and I did not know I could care for a dog like this”. He sleeps on the bed? “Of course.” I am minded to ask if Laszlo wouldn’t be better tempered if he wasn’t cooped up in a car all day, but don’t want to show myself up. He’s a dog in the fashion world. This may just be how it is.
We visit Mikli, then it’s the show, with all its clapping and fluttery finger kisses. Valentino himself is there, as well as Kim Kardashian, who, it turns out, is a friend of Franca. “I went to her wedding.” Tell me, tell me! Tell me, now! “Nice wedding.” She is a big fan of Kim. “She is a nice girl and she knows how to behave and move. She’s an intelligent girl. Some people do not agree but they do not know her.”
We watch the show, which involves models stomping the runway like dead-eyed corpses. That’s what I think I saw, anyhow, but I may have been hallucinating, from the hunger. Still, I say to Franca afterwards, no black girls? Why? “I don’t know.” There must be a reason, no? “I don’t know.” Come on, I say, you’ve devoted an issue to this subject, so you must have thought about it. Is the fashion industry simply racist? “No,” she says. “Not at all. Lazy. Not racist. Absolutely not.” Possibly, if you are an image-maker, the image is everything, and the rest just gets rather lost along the way.
To the limo again, as she has kindly offered to drop me at my hotel. The limo glides. The raindrops slide down the windows. Laszlo eyes up my throat. It’s 8pm and I’m exhausted. “I’m exhausted,” I say. “The couture is not so tiring,” she says. “The prêt-à-porter. That is tiring.”
As we part, I thank her, then dash to my hotel room where I make for the minibar and mainline the peanuts and then the Japanese rice crackers and then the Pringles and then the cashews – I end up with snack dust all over my chin. Other lesson learnt, and it’s an important lesson: eat before you go …
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