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Fashion statement

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; E01

IN 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.

Sozzani's activism, while modest in the great history of social upheaval, nonetheless is noteworthy because of the social climate in which this global industry is operating and because of the outsize role that fashion occupies in the culture at large. Questions about public and personal identity are at the root of a host of international antagonisms. Italy is wrestling with immigration phobia; France is busy banning the burqa; and the United States is analyzing its "post-racial," obese self. At issue in each case is how individuals define themselves in the public space and how they want the world to see them.

And within the porous confines of the fashion industry, race has, in the past months, inspired public protests, self-conscious self-analysis and debates about what constitutes racism and sizeism and what should be classified as ignorance.

In the midst of this storm of fretfulness and rebuke stands Sozzani, a diminutive, 60-year-old white editor who grew up in the northern Italian city of Mantua.

"She's creative, but she's also open," says Hardison, a former model and model agency owner. "There's a lot of creative people out there and they don't do this.

"She's a crusader," Hardison says. "She probably doesn't think so, but she is."

The Black Issue

As the editor of Vogue Italia - and the head of its Italian siblings that report on menswear and jewelry - Sozzani makes up one-third of fashion's holy trinity of Vogue czars. The others are French Vogue's Carine Roitfeld and Anna Wintour, the devil who doth wear Prada. Roitfeld enjoys the smell of cigarette smoke, lurks behind a side-swept curtain of brunette hair and favors pencil skirts, stilettos and tight-fitting jackets - a wardrobe that would best be described as painful.

The mythology surrounding the publicly inscrutable Wintour is such that few bat an eye when she arrives at fashion shows flanked by a rotating detail of beefy bodyguards. One of them favored a black-leather duster like a character out of "The Matrix." Another had a gold tooth. The most recent pair included a fire hydrant with a buzz cut and a Jean Reno doppelganger.

Sozzani travels from show to show without her own muscle. She is petite and waif-thin, with golden Rapunzel waves that reach well below her shoulders. Her features are strong and her eyes pale blue. She has an unhurried manner that calls to mind the phrase "comfortable in one's skin."

Told that she is photogenic, she observes that "sometimes I take a beautiful picture that I love. Sometimes, I see a picture of someone who looks like me but" - and she shakes her head in dismay over how a photo can go so wrong - "I think, 'Who is that?' "

Her style is unfussy, but by no means minimal. One particular afternoon in the middle of fashion week, she is dressed in an olive silk military-style shirt and a knee-length navy skirt, both by Lanvin. She prefers significant jewelry, low heels - today's reptile versions are by Manolo Blahnik - small clutch handbags and an iPhone.

Of her Conde Nast compatriots, Sozzani is closest to Wintour. The two have become friends over the years, and Wintour notes, quite simply, that "Franca is magnificent." They have worked together on the global orgy of shopping, Fashion's Night Out, as well as on finding ways to support young designers. In their tete-a-tetes, diversity on the runway is a topic that regularly comes up.

"Right now, it seems as though we are experiencing a wave of Asian models, and while there is certainly a strong African American presence with Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman, sadly we don't see as many African American models as we could," Wintour says.

The prestigious September issue of the American flagship featured actress Halle Berry on the cover and one of the fashion stories depicted a "We Are the World" multicultural mishmash. Still, its efforts at diversity pale compared with Vogue Italia.

"Franca's decision to take a stance on the issue of racial diversity is typical Franca - she does not tackle subjects in a low-key manner," Wintour says. "She wanted her readers to notice."

The Black Issue began to take shape during the fall of 2007 when Sozzani was struck by the homogenous aesthetic on the runways. "All the girls looked the same. The only one who stood out is Liya Kebede," who is black, Sozzani recalled. "Everything she wore I liked. I started to question myself.

"We cannot use only these girls who are the same," Sozzani says. "We go to the East Side and Russia. We go looking for tall, thin and blue eyes. But we have to scout in Africa, everywhere.

"I decided to do an issue only with black girls. People say, 'It's a ghetto.' But we do thousands of issues with Russian girls and it's not a ghetto."

There was grumbling and skepticism from cultural observers that the issue was a gimmick or that she was exploiting international interest in the American presidential election. "People accused me of doing it because of Obama and said that I was very clever," Sozzani says. "But I started the previous October, before Obama and Hillary Clinton began to fight."

Still, her timing proved prescient. When the issue arrived on newsstands July 1, 2008, Obama had wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Black Issue was distributed with four different newsstand covers, each featuring a well-known black model. Inside, a roster of relatively unknown mannequins was spotlighted, along with several veterans, such as Gail O'Neill and Alva Chinn. Plus-size model Toccara Jones - once a contestant on "America's Next Top Model" - posed topless.

The special issue turned into a collector's edition. After its initial print run of 120,000, it had to be reprinted for Britain, Germany and the United States, which makes up 40 percent of the magazine's readers.

"It was like Michael Jackson was coming to town in the fashion industry. People were scrambling to buy every single cover," says Michaela Angela Davis, a New York-based cultural critic.

"If you put Vogue in front of anything," Davis says, "that brand means something in the hearts of women."

For Sozzani, the Black Issue was only the beginning.

Launching Vogue Black

There have been no cultural pressures on Sozzani to broaden the embrace of her magazine or its Web site. Indeed, the Black Issue did not sell especially well in Italy. Some Americans complain that she created separate venues for women of color - and for larger women - instead of welcoming them more enthusiastically into the pages of Vogue Italia.

But what is the extent of an Italian magazine's responsibility for representing such women in its pages? Should their presence reflect their visibility in Italy? The degree to which they are high-end fashion consumers? Or is there some other matrix?

Although obesity rates are rising in Italy, only about 13 percent of women there are obese compared with 48 percent of women in the United States. And not so long ago, the few black faces on Italian streets belonged to the Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in the 1970s and '80s. Today, immigrants make up only about 7 percent of the Italian population and many of them, such as those from North Africa and Eastern Europe, have been met with hostility and distrust.

Recent stories have detailed the backlash against the Roma, whose large Gypsy camp in northern Milan is under threat from local officials. The Northern League, with its strong anti-immigration stance, thrives in the Milan area, where the only encounter a tourist is likely to have with a minority is along the stone streets of Via Brera, where black Africans sell knockoffs of Prada and Gucci handbags. The Northern League, Sozzani jokes, has a problem with anything south of Florence.

Acceptance of outsiders is "happening step by step," she says. "We are not a big country. We are not as rich as [immigrants] think we are. Probably they think they will find more than they find . . . but we all work with foreigners at home and in the office."

Sozzani was taken aback by the success of the Black Issue. The business opportunity was evident: A market was being ignored. But Sozzani did not want to be perceived as a dabbler, a cultural tourist.

"For me, it became a commitment," Sozzani said. "I talked to these girls. I promised to take care of them."

Before launching Vogue Black, Sozzani conferred with Hardison - tall, dark-skinned with close-cropped hair, a self-declared revolutionary - for advice. Sozzani has known Hardison since the early '80s when they met through the Paris-based designer Azzedine Alaia, who, as it happens, is known for his affection for black models. In 1994 Hardison helped black male model Tyson Beckford sign a groundbreaking advertising contract with Polo Ralph Lauren. In the past three years, she's aggressively rallied the fashion industry to question its own standards. "No one wants to be a racist. The people in this industry are not," Hardison says. "But the results of what they do are racism."

Vogue Black went live in February with Hardison as editor at large. Although it's headquartered in Milan, it clearly speaks to an American audience. The site opens in English in the United States, and many of the topics are culled from American popular culture. It mixes model profiles with street fashion pictures and short stories about creative types such as artist Kehinde Wiley. The reaction has been a mix of optimism, ambivalence and curiosity.

"It strikes me as strange, to be honest. Italy is such a small country and it's not particularly diverse," says writer Claire Sulmers, founder of Fashion Bomb Daily. "I wasn't sure where there was a shared common interest."

"I think she's trying to be a maverick," says Sulmers, who covered the spring 2011 Paris collections for the site. "I think they saw what a huge stir the Black Issue caused and felt this is how we can make our mark."

The idea of Sozzani, a white Italian woman, taking even partial ownership of black beauty might be a prickly one, given the negative emotions stirred when Essence hired a white fashion director this summer. The topic was so fraught that during September's fashion week in New York, some industry observers took to the streets in silent protest. And Davis - a tall, cosmopolitan black woman with a sandy-colored Afro - who was quite vocal in her criticism of Essence, hosted an hours-long panel discussion/community conversation/venting session at New York University.

During that town hall, moderators held up the October issue of Elle as an example of how white editors fail in their representation of black women and large women. Actress Gabourey Sidibe was on the cover and her image was derided as unflattering. Had she been the target of overzealous retouchers who lightened her complexion? Unskilled hairstylists who victimized her with a dime-store wig? Fatophobes who cropped her plus-size body out of the picture? (No, no and no, said Elle.)

For her part, Sozzani has mostly escaped criticism for insensitivity.

"She has a breadth of experience and knowledge," Davis says. "Franca gets it."

Can't please everybody

It's easier to turn a smaller boat than an aircraft carrier. Sozzani's third-floor office at Vogue Italia is tiny compared with the grand quarters from which American editors in chief typically reign. There is no fancy reception area, just a couple of nondescript chairs tucked against a wall in a corridor lined with rumpled gray carpeting and crowded with boxes and file cabinets.

The rows and stacks of magazines that fill the bookshelves in her office are a testament to the 22 years that she has ruled Italian fashion. And as she sits talking at one end of a large glass conference table, one can't help but notice the two unopened bouquets of flowers that lie forlorn in their brown wrapping paper at the other.

Vogue Italia doesn't have the commercial pressures of its much larger American counterpart. Its greatest strength is its nimbleness and its point of view.

"Italian Vogue magazine is an experimental magazine - that's the impression people have," Sozzani says. "I don't think it's experimental; it has a vision. It can't please everybody. I don't want to please everybody."

Still, Sozzani has decided that she will happily embrace anyone - black, brown, thin, fat - who sees the world as she does.

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