Originally published in
February 2013
Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani is determined to put Africa on the fashion map – even if it means ruffling a few feathers
When L’Uomo Vogue produced its May/June 2012 issue, Rebranding Africa, its editor-inchief Franca Sozzani was criticised and praised in equal measure. Divisive points included the challenging subject matter, the choice of interviewees – among them Didier Drogba, Lira, Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga and Marcus Samuelsson – and for putting a South Korean, UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, on the cover. The New York Times applauded the issue for highlighting the fact that “the continent is entering the fashion arena, with the quality of its handwork, artistic creativity and its potential for economic growth bringing Africa literally in vogue”. UK newspaper The Guardian commended on the choice of cover star as it “not only made us take notice, it suggests that L’Uomo Vogue’s dedication to rebranding Africa isn’t just a token effort”. Yet popular blog Africa Is A Country savaged the issue, commenting: “With Ban Ki-moon as its new face, Africa is (a) boring and uncool, and (b) a stubborn problem to be managed by foreign technocrats. No change there.”
Sometimes when I see pictures from the runways of Africa I think, ‘Who cares?’ I’m looking for design that can work on the global stage

Sozzani is no stranger to controversy and this was by no means her first foray into Africa. It was for her tackling of big issues relating to the continent (more on that later) and her activerole as UN Goodwill Ambassador for Fashion 4 Development (a global campaign promoting sustainable development and economic independence through fashion) that we included Sozzani among our inaugural ARISE 100 list, featuring dynamic women around the world who are helping to promote modern Africa.

Arriving at Condé Nast’s Milan office, the surroundings are subtly impressive. Glass partitions are scribbled with messages from fabulous visitors such as Renzo Rossi and Anna Piaggi. Iconic images from the magazine’sarchives – of Gisele Bündchen, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett – hang on the walls. Sozzani arrives with her pet dog in tow, hands the leash to a colleague and welcomes me into her spacious office. She is warm yet business-like and although her MacBook Pro pings constantly with incoming emails she pushes it aside to talk. A lot, and with gusto.

“We are all responsible for what is happening in Africa because the world ignored it for such a long time. Now there is oil, China is investing and there are tourist places such as Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa, so suddenly everyone is paying attention. But I remember when I did the first issue on Africa four years ago and there was nothing,” she begins. She is referring to the November 2008 issue of L’Uomo Vogue, featuring interviews with Forest Whitaker, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michelle Obama reflecting on Africa – profits from sales went to charity. “This time we wanted to show that Africa has grown up, that it’s a completely different story from before.”

Sozzani has travelled extensively around the continent, and to research the Rebranding Africa issue she spent a month at the start of 2012 visiting Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana and Burundi. One of her most memorable meetings was with the (now late) president of Ghana John Atta Mills.“He was so calm and gentle,” she recalls. Yet she berated him because the country’s textile industry has diminished: “I asked him why Ghana used to have 30,000 people employed in textiles and now it’s only 2,000. China buys Ghana’s good cotton, prints on it and then sells it back to them. It’s not legal but they do it anyway.”

She similarly took Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan to task on a visit to Abuja.“I told him the problem with Nigeria is that there is religious unrest in the north and security issues in the oil-making regions make the world scared. But it’s such a big country and it’s not all like that. So you have to create a different image. In Lagos they should build a beautiful street with shops and hotels and restaurants. Something like Rodeo Drive, where rich Nigerians can shop instead of spending their money abroad, and which can give local people work. As he left, his minister said [of me]: ‘It’s true; dynamite comes in a small package!’”

Sozzani saw for herself the glamorous side of Lagos at a party hosted in her honour. “I have never seen so many young, well-dressed people in my life. And I thought if I could show in some way that this is Nigeria, people will change their mind about it. That is why we did the issue in such a positive way, to show this other side of Africa. The energy doesn’t only come from the oil. The energy comes from thenew generation of designers, writers, actors,singers and poets, who are all so passionate.”

As for Ban Ki-moon, she stands firm on his inclusion in the issue. “From the first moment he became UN Secretary-General he put Africa on the humanitarian agenda and he’s very focused on women and children.” As is Sozzani. In Uganda she piloted a scheme togive water purifiers to schools and is working to get the purifiers produced in Africa too.

Sozzani has also spent a great deal of time in Africa getting to know the local fashion industries. In Ghana, veteran designer Kofi Ansah introduced her to his students. In Lagos she was impressed by ARISE favourites Lanre Da Silva Ajayi, Ere Dappa and Tiffany Amber. In South Africa she met with African Fashion International’s Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe and Merchants On Long’s Hanneli Rupert. And in Kenya she consulted with Kiko Romeo and picked up a bag by Adèle Dejak, which she now carries whenever she travels: “It’s so chic that people always ask me if it’s Burberry but I say ‘No, it’s African.’”

Sozzani selected several brands for the Discovered In Africa range on retail site Yoox.com and is establishing collaborations between African artisans and big names such as Duro Olowu, Roberto Cavalli and Alberta Ferretti to create fashion lines under the Fashion 4 Development umbrella. Yet she takes a tough-love approach to the African fashion industry as a whole. Even though Vogue Italia put its name to Ghana Fashion And Design Week in October it does not mean that Africa is ready to compete, she says.“Sometimes when I see pictures from the runways of Africa I think, ‘Who cares?’ The clothes don’t look African or European. I’m looking for design that can work on the global stage, that is not too ethnic but has a sense of its own tradition. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality – I only want to present the best to the West.” Here goes the billion-dollar (and much mooted) question: Will there be a Vogue Africa any time soon? “First we need to create business in Africa. I’m not just talking about advertising; we need shops, restaurants, life. If you don’t give people all of that first, Vogue Africa is like giving them the cherry without giving them the cake.”

It was African model Liya Kebede who first inspired the hugely successful July 2008 all-black issue of Vogue Italia. “At that time all the models were Russian – beautiful, skinny, long hair – but you couldn’t tell them apart,”says Sozzani. “It was Natalya B, Natalya C, Natalya D. Then Liya came out and she was like a queen. So I thought, ‘Let’s dedicate a whole issue to black beauty.’” Kebede appeared on one cover and three other versions featured Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell. Inside a rollcall of black models included Alva Chinn, Kiara Kabukuru, ChanelIman and Tyra Banks.

The issue sold out in three days in Britain, Germany and the US and became the bestselling issue of all time. The magazine’s usual print run is 120,000; this issue had a reprint of 60,000. It did not, however, sell especially well in Italy. Sozzani’s home city, Milan, has a reputation for being more racist than the other fashion capitals, something she denies. “In Italy we don’t have so many black people. It’s not in our tradition. In London everyone is used to it, in New York of course, but not in Milan. It’s not a problem; it’s just an evolution. We are not a multi-ethnic country, not yet.”

Sozzani went on to establish the Vogue Black website in 2010, to champion black models, celebrities and journalists, and continues to feature all-black editorials in Vogue Italia, such as Black Allure in the February 2011 issue and A Tribute To Black Beauties in May 2011. She also promoted fuller figured women in 2011 by putting plus-sized models in lingerie on a cover and launching the Vogue Curvy website. To some, her efforts are seen as marginalising those who don’t fit into a size zero, Aryan ideal of mainstream fashion. Her response? “I honestly don’t care,” she says, smiling mischievously. “Sometimes you can’t be soft in your message, you have to be tough. So instead of doing 10 pages of black models I’ll do an entire issue. To show people that being curvy isn’t a problem I’ll put sexy girls with boobs and hips on the cover. Then people gasp.”

This response is characteristic of her unapologetic appropriation of fashion as a weapon for tackling social and cultural issues. In 2005 she took a stance against plastic surgery with a cover and fashion shoot featuring Linda Evangelista being dissected and bandaged. And as a reaction to the 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Kristen McMenamy was shot collapsed on a polluted beach covered in crude oil. Just two examples of her rebellious approach at Vogue Italia, which since taking charge of in 1988 she has steered from being an also-ran into one of the most influential magazines in fashion. Less commercial and more niche than its US counterpart, her Vogue takes risks, stirs updebate and defines the spirit of the moment.

“The title has seen big changes since I took over,” she says. “I had no choice. Italian is not an international language so the only way to talk to the world was through the images. I push very hard on the images. That’s why sometimes they are very strong or controversial, because I’m sending out the message that Italian Vogue exists. When I established the title, then I could do something like the black issue. People were scared, asked me if I was sure, but I said I would take responsibility for what I was doing. It wasn’t about making a fashion moment; I wanted to change the status quo. And I wanted to help Africa in a certain way. And I’m against plastic surgery, especially on the face. I just try and look at the life that we live and find a way to talk in my own way through the images.”

At 62 years old, Sozzani has always walked it like she talks it. Born in northern Italy, she studied philosophy and German at university and married aged 20 – yet left her husband three months later because “I thought it was time to do something good with my life,” she told Time magazine (which this year named her among their 100 All Time Fashion Icons). She began her career at Vogue Bambini in 1976, moved to Lei in 1980 and then Per Lui in 1982, before joining Vogue. She became editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Italia in 1994 and was instrumental in creating the phenomenon of the supermodel. Her visual language, shaped through collaborations with Steven Meisel, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh, has forged fashion for almost 25 years.

Sozzani embraces new media, editing Vogue Italia’s website and writing a daily blog. Does she approve of the blogging phenomenon? “Blogging is a spontaneous movement and it’s funny to see bloggers at all the shows,” she says. “It’s more pluralistic but most of them are only making anaesthetical statement so they won’t go on.”

A day after we meet, Sozzani flew to China for a three-week trip. Her blog charted her travels, from Shanghai Fashion Week to visiting poor rural regions with Save The Children and the WHO. The trip was a follow-up to the month she spent in China working on October’s L’Uomo Vogue, The China Issue. This time she wasn’t trying to rebrand a region but digging beneath its image. “I was getting fed up of China being portrayed as the new Mecca for money. So I did the issue without talking about the richest person in China, or the biggest socialite. No, I only interviewed designers, architects, writers,singers – all these fantastic people who show China is not just about money,” she says. “The Cultural Revolution destroyed history in China, that is why people are so projected toward the future. Europe has so many beautiful things but we always look to the past. This is a very good lesson I learnt in China: what’s back is done, we must always go forwards.”

With Sozzani celebrating a quarter of a century at Vogue Italia in 2013, it will be hard for her not to reflect on her time at the top of Milan’s fashion dynasty, one that is also afamily affair – her sister, Carla Sozzani, owns the concept store 10 Corso Como and her son, photographer Francesco Carrozzini, shoots for her regularly. So will Franca Sozzani still be atthe helm, cracking the whip and causing trouble in another 25 years? “No darling,” she says, laughing, and getting up from her desk. “No!”