As editor in chief of Vogue Italy, Franca Sozzani is one of the most influential people in the fashion world, and the person responsible for nurturing the careers of countless designers and photographers. She spoke with K Magazine about how the Empower Talents initiative came together, what makes Italian fashion strong and her efforts to make fashion truly sustainable.
What inspires you most about fashion now, especially Italian fashion?
I think that fashion is a “happy island” in a country with a lot of problems! That’s what inspires me. There is still a strong desire to create. This season, everyone gave so much more. Almost every house did better than last season. It shows that we’re not going to let the current situation get us down.
There aren’t a lot of dreams left, but fashion is one.
What’s the importance of the ‘Made in Italy’ label?
It’s a guarantee of quality. We have production, factories, artisans, handicraft – we still have that industrial-artisanal tradition. That is our heritage. Here, just as everywhere else in the world, we’re losing the artisan’s craft. But we still have specialties in every region from south to north, and behind that there are stories of family. ‘Made in Italy’ is what made Italy great.
How do you see the current fashion landscape?
Personally, and it’s not just because I’m Italian, I believe that in Italy we have two great strengths: creativity and production. Not many places in the world have such a concentration of really strong brands. That is our great asset. I’m completely in favour of groups who go “shopping” for brands in Italy, because I find that a brand’s evolution is more important than whom it belongs to. Gucci and Bottega Veneta are perfect illustrations of this – each, at some point in its history, was almost dead. What happened [with PPR/Kering] is incredible.
Beyond that, what we always need are young talents. I won’t even say ‘designers’ because you have to give them time to grow. It’s the same with photographers. People say to me “How wonderful to have found Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh, Bruce Weber…” But that’s not it. They weren’t big in the beginning. They had time to work.
Is fashion too focused on the next big thing?
The thing is, not only do you have to find the talent; you have to invest in it if you believe in it. Sometimes you invest well, sometimes not. Whether it’s a young designer or a photographer, it’s exactly the same process. I’ve been taking care of young designers [through the Who’s On Next prize contest] for seven years now. First it was a commitment, because I thought it was important. Then it grew into a passion. We don’t give prize money. We give the winners work experience, advice, production possibilities, an accountant. There are eight or ten winners a year, so now we’re seeing fifty or sixty of them with their own line, or else a career as an artistic director in another house. It’s really satisfying to do something that’s not an end in itself: we don’t just award a trophy and throw a party and watch everyone go home happy. We give them something to grow on. And that is what lets them help others around them to grow as well. It’s a ripple effect.
I wanted to help create an incubator because I can see very clearly the good and bad sides of media exposure. There’s too much tendency to chase down the new, and then move on to something else the next season. But I think that chasing scoops is the wrong way to do things.
You have to help people grow, you have to invest, you can offer a tutorial, or be the teacher.
In speaking with François-Henri Pinault, it was just obvious to us that we needed to do something together. The group is doing incredible things for young talents: Letting Sarah Burton take over Alexander McQueen was an act of courage and confidence. That is so important, because how else can you watch them grow? Stella [McCartney] is another example of success. Bottega Veneta too, in terms of the brand and also design. All this is proof that you have to have confidence in people.
How did the Empower Talents program take shape?
With super-human speed! Really, it was beyond belief. Kering has a super-efficient team, and so do I. It took no more than a month from our first conversation to the moment everything was in place. It wasn’t easy, but it was fast. We had already discussed other initiatives. I had recently presented a sustainable farming project at the Brazilian Embassy: Gucci is the first brand in the world to use this leather, which is produced by cattle that do not endanger the Amazonian forest, and the CO2 footprint is much lighter. We’d also met at the Green Carpet Challenge. I had just published an issue of Uomo Vogue on eco-responsible fashion, fair trade and sustainability. [François-Henri Pinault] and I were on exactly the same page. We said, “We should do something.” And we did!
The 23 internships we’re creating with Empower Talents are not just about styling, design and creativity. It’s also about what makes a good CEO, a good product manager, a good product, good distribution. Otherwise, it does not work. It’s all a chain. This is our mission.
How important is sustainable, ethical fashion?
It’s hard to latch onto the notions of sustainable and ethical, because I think there’s still this idea that if something is ecologically correct, the colours are bad and it has to look old, ugly and unfashionable. Which is not at all true.
Moreover, sustainability is the foundation for timelessness.
Being ethical is about respect. As a Goodwill Ambassador, through Fashion for Development I’m very involved in improving conditions in Africa and countries like Bangladesh. Both François-Henri and I are totally committed to women’s rights and responsible development. We believe that for women to have dignity, they need work. For their work, they need a living wage. Sustainability is not only about the ecological aspect. It’s about continuity and what we give back. At Vogue Italy, we were the first to do a ‘zero CO2’ issue. It takes a lot of work to convey the message about what makes something sustainable, and what makes it ethical. If there is no control over women’s quality of life, and if it’s not sustainable, we’re not getting anywhere. These initiatives have to last. It’s a big question for the new generation, but it concerns everyone around the world. If women have work, a project becomes sustainable. Otherwise, it’s a charity.
What are your goals as Goodwill Ambassador ?
I’ve been fulfilling this role for three years, and I expect to continue for a long time. But like I said in a recent speech: We’ve accomplished a lot. But it’s not enough. What I am doing now is not totally sustainable yet. We are trying to develop activities in Africa, but we still treat those countries like producers, not like creators. We bring them things to produce. But if my plane goes down one day and I am no longer around to convince designers to produce there, those women – we’ve created jobs for nearly 1,000 in two years – what will they do? If they don’t earn a salary, their children will not go to school. They have to grow where they are.
What’s different about today’s young generation?
They’re all just getting started; in that sense the story is the same. They work for a couple years, they start to get attention, they have one good show, some good press and then all of a sudden it goes to their head. But that’s not just what happens to young designers – it can happen to editors, journalists, everyone.
Andy Warhol said it 30 years ago, but today it’s really, really true: everyone wants a moment of fame.
The thing is, with new media it can happen practically overnight, and vanish just as fast. It can create a dangerous illusion, and then people can’t handle it and they quit before they’ve really started. I prefer to mentor just a few, but to watch them grow. It also has to be said that there were far fewer designers before, so they obviously caught more attention. Today, you have to be really strong to catch people’s attention. But the basic story is the same. It’s the means that have changed.
Has new media tipped the world into fashion overload?
I think that new media is fantastic because it means that anyone anywhere can know what’s going on, and everyone can participate. The problem is that there is so much out there that people get confused. There’s a lot of information, and very little good information. And I think that the only cure for that is to keep quality high.
At the magazine, I’m always saying that everyone can make mistakes. But even when I’ve done something I realized was less good, the quality was always high!
A while ago, came across all sorts of horrifying pro-ana sites and I launched a petition that 15,000 people signed. Then I went to the minister of health and said, these sites are horrendous, you have to shut them down. And she said no because it’s like an ocean behind the dam. Close one; another opens. Instead, you have to launch a counter-example. So I went to Harvard and spoke with some of the world’s top experts on anorexia and we are creating a network of bloggers worldwide who will say “if you have a problem, we’re here for you”. The root problem with anorexia and bulimia is solitude. People blame the mother, the fashion world, whatever. But research shows that a leading cause of those problems is solitude. You have to fight things in a positive way.
You have to disrupt the balance and mobilise people so they can find the good.
You can offer such superior quality that everyone is drawn to it. If you elevate the dialogue, natural selection does the rest.
What advice do you give to those who want to succeed in fashion?
The main thing is to believe in yourself. Don’t copy. I say that even to big designers: don’t copy. Be yourself. If you have something to say, say it – it’s the same for artists, photographers and writers. Keep your own personality. And if you’re not sure of what you want to say, then you have to accept that you cannot be a big designer. But you can be a fantastic studio design director. There’s not room enough at the top for everybody. You have to know your limits. It’s also important to take risks.
Everyone makes mistakes, I’ve made a thousand. But it shouldn’t be a big issue.
You can’t take it too personally. Why would a journalist be cruel just for the sake of it? There’s no reason. If there’s a bad review, you have to sit down and figure out why. And you can’t give in to fear. I can’t think of a single designer or photographer who has never been controversial. Versace was loved or reviled. Armani and Lagerfeld too. Not one of the big designers reached the top without living through that. You can’t please everyone all the time. And I think that’s fine.
Photos of Ms Sozzani with Azzedine Alaïa and Diane von Furstenberg by François Goizé