Editor of Vogue's Italian edition celebrates black and brown women and fat ones, too

A magazine editor from a homogeneous country like Italy seems like an unlikely champion for diversity, but Vogue Italia is an insider's magazine, and where it goes, American magazines will follow.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010

MILAN - Franca Sozzani, the editor of Vogue Italia, has taken the lead on one of the most fraught topics in her industry: diversity. She did so in reaction to runways that, in the past few years, had turned strikingly homogenous as a steady stream of pin-thin, white models - most hailing from Eastern Europe - began to dominate the catwalks of New York and Europe. The result of the whitewashed runways meant that the women being funneled into magazines, cosmetics contracts and ultimately into our popular consciousness as archetypes of the feminine ideal were overwhelmingly white and often emaciated.

Under the prestigious banner of Vogue Italia, Sozzani now celebrates black and brown women, fat girls and obese ones, too.

Sozzani works out of a modest, book-strewn, brightly lit office overlooking Piazza Cadorna, which is dominated by a two-story sculpture of a blunt-tipped needle threaded with a loop of rainbow-colored yarn. Sozzani's magazine claims a modest circulation of about 120,000 to 170,000, compared with American Vogue's 1.2 million. But do not be misled by Sozzani's small footprint.

The seasonal moda donna collections are a citywide affair centered on Piazza del Duomo. Video screens, several stories tall, flash runway images to the public; wall-size speakers throb morning to night with the rhythms of a dance party, and live catwalk productions unfold in the urban center for the entertainment of anyone who happens by. Fashion is woven into the personality of Italy's industrial capital, where mom and pop businesses have blossomed into international brands and fashion week's evening bacchanals - which have attracted everyone from soccer stars to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - are as crucial to dealmaking as lobbyists are to Washington.

All of which means that Sozzani is an extremely important woman.

Her magazine rides herd over designers, pushes aesthetic boundaries and often offends. The cover of the August issue featured model Kristen McMenamy dressed as an oil-soaked bird. Sozzani described the photo as a commentary on the fragility of nature; others complained that it glamorized the BP oil spill.

Vogue Italia is an insider's magazine, and where it goes, American magazines will follow - albeit with far less nudity.

In July 2008, Sozzani published an attention-grabbing all-black issue of her magazine. She followed that with a tribute to Africa in sister publication L'Uomo Vogue. She developed a whimsical special-edition ode to black Barbie. And this spring, she launched Vogue Black, a Web site devoted to black models, designers, stylists and other players in the creative field. To feed the new Internet channel, she dispatched black photographers and writers to cover the recent collections in New York and Europe.

"One day I saw her and went over to say hello and she said, 'If I never see another black person . . .!' " recalls her friend Bethann Hardison, who is black, with a laugh. "You can only feel comfortable saying something like that because you're invested. You relate."

Sozzani also started Vogue Curvy, a site that focuses on plus-size fashion.

The Black Issue that launched her on this path was a way to talk about diversity in fashion, but also about diversity and acceptance in general. "The issue made, for me, a special point," Sozzani says. "When you talk about fashion, you are also talking about many things. . . . I wanted to give a message.

"Even young people are very conventional. They are very bourgeois, generally speaking. But they buy Vogue, people who would never buy other things. They discover it's not bourgeois discourse. It's art and life." And, perhaps, through fashion their view of life will be broadened and changed.

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