All about my mother: growing up with Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia

Franca Sozzani’s earliest memory takes place at home. Her father is coaxing her to overcome her fear and jump from a dressing table. It is the only way she will learn to be strong, he tells her. So Sozzani jumps. That jump is real, but it’s also a metaphor, and it comes conveniently early in Franca: Chaos and Creation, a new documentary in which Sozzani’s son and only child, Francesco Carrozzini, attempts to unravel the origins of his mother’s fierce independence and her soaring magazine career as the long-time editor of Vogue Italia.

In London in the 1960s everybody was different – that was beautiful

That he doesn’t entirely solve the conundrum is no impediment to enjoying the film. Sozzani is a thoughtful, sometimes stubborn, sometimes droll subject who broke with Italian convention by annulling her first marriage after three months and running off to see the world – first to India, and then London in the late 1960s when it felt like the centre of the universe. Later still she would hitch around the US, with an itch to get out into the world that served as a catalyst for her magazine career.

“In London you really smelled the freedom, it changed my way of thinking completely,” Sozzani recalled during a recent visit to New York. We were sitting at the back of the Bowery Hotel, and the sun glinted off the mane of golden hair that rolls over her shoulders and down her back (she says she is terrified of ageing, but appears to be managing it exceptionally well). Late 1960s London left a singular imprint on Sozzani. “In London everybody was different – that was beautiful,” she says. “Nobody wanted to look alike. In a way this kind of freedom gives you even more creativity.”

As she talks, Sozzani’s son, and the director of this curate’s egg of a documentary, offers small murmurs of assent or dissent depending on the subject. At other times he is absorbed by his mobile phone. Although he was spurred to make the movie by the death of his father, who he barely knew, Franca: Chaos and Creation belongs wholly to Carrozzini’s mother and her relentless drive to succeed. “I always thought my life was predetermined to be a normal life – house, children, golf,” Sozzani says in the movie. “And then I decided that this was not the life I wanted to have. I couldn’t stay home with the kids and make spaghetti.” The fact that she is recounting this to her only child is part of the movie’s central conflict. Carrozzini grew up in a single-parent household in which the single parent was frequently away. Even as he insists that she’s a terrible cook, you get the feeling he would have liked the odd bowl of spaghetti.

I decided that this was not the life I wanted to have. I couldn’t stay home with the kids and make spaghetti

Many people are driven to succeed, but for a mother to prioritise career over family in 1970s Italy was an anomaly that marked out Carrozzini from his schoolfriends. Several decades later, in 1992, Hillary Clinton would deploy similar language to defend herself as First Lady-in-waiting (“I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfil my profession”), and the fact that we’re still arguing about whether and how mothers can find a work-life balance is a big part of what makes Sozzani so refreshing. For her, work is life.

In the documentary we see mother and son watching old home movies. “You never took me to the park like other kids,” Carrozzini says, more curious than accusing. “I never took you to the park, period,” she replies. “Not even with a stroller. I even missed your school’s elementary graduation because I got back home the day after.” If there is regret, it registers as barely more than a flicker. Where Carrozzini is frequently sentimental, Sozzani is decidedly not. “She’s very much about the future, and I’m a huge nostalgic,” he says. “This is literally the thing that differentiates us the most.” It’s also, perhaps, the animating principle behind Sozzani’s editorial instincts. “It’s not that I don’t think of the past, but it’s a waste of time,” she says. “If you’re stuck in the past, beholden to it, then your creativity is stuck there, too, because you don’t give yourself a chance to evolve.”

It’s been just over 50 years since Vogue Italia was first published, and Franca Sozzani has been the magazine’s editor-in-chief for more than half that time. She arrived in 1988, the year – the same month in fact – that Anna Wintour became editor-in-chief of American Vogue. Since then, each woman has spawned a cult following, while pursuing very different paths. You could say that Wintour’s Vogue is the magazine no fashion house can afford to ignore, while Sozzani’s is the magazine that no fashion house wants to ignore. One is insistently commercial, the other ceaselessly creative.

There are 21 international editions of Vogue, and most cleave more or less to the formula that Wintour has established. “I don’t think you can say anyone else has more power than Anna,” says Sozzani. “She represents America, and she represents the biggest power you can have as an editor. At the same time my choice was about creativity, so we really made separate choices but with total respect for each other.” The two women are now friends, but Sozzani says it took some years to get to that point. “We are both very determined and relentless,” she says. “We have a great sense of family in terms of our children – and she’s British, so she also has a sense of humour.”

‘We have a great sense of family in terms of our children’: Francesco Carrozzini as a baby.

As a rule, Sozzani says, she gets on better with men. “I like things to be clear, and with men that’s usually easier. The women I’m closer to, like Anna, are women who are very straight.” She feels the same way about Donatella Versace. “She always fights, and she pays for her mistakes, but she’s willing to take risks. Gianni [Versace] was the opposite in many ways, very temperamental. One day he could say something and after five minutes change his mind completely. Donatella is very reliable, and much more focused.”

Every magazine editor knows you cannot please all the people all the time, but few have appeared quite as sanguine as Sozzani about pissing off so many people so much of the time. If she sees a fire, her instinct is to run to it. War, violence, terrorism, drug abuse, environmental catastrophe – all are grist for Sozzani’s fashion mill, an oil-and- water mix that frequently gets her into trouble.

Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast International, admits she initially pushed the magazine too far out of the company’s comfort zone. “I said if you keep going in this direction, I might have to fire you.” Sozzani persuaded him to give the transition time even as the magazine’s older advertisers fell away. Meanwhile, she was granting photographers greater and greater latitude to do as they pleased. At one point in the film the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy pops up, randomly, to say that Condé Nast believed they were hiring a businesswoman with a plan, before adding with a smirk, “But she’s crazy!”

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