Agent Provocateur

Article excerpt

Byline: Jacob Bernstein

Hilarious, bombastic Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue, has shocked the fashion world-- and made a fortune in the process.

For the past six months, the fashion world has been consumed by speculation about who will replace the disgraced John Galliano at Christian Dior. Will it be Riccardo Tisci, the designer of Givenchy? Or Lanvin's Alber Elbaz? Or the ubiquitous Marc Jacobs? On a recent summer day in Milan, Franca Sozzani, the editor in chief of Italian Vogue, suggested a truly novel idea.

"Hire back John Galliano," she said with a little smile. She knew this might get her in trouble. After all, Galliano was fired after being caught on camera making anti-Semitic remarks at a bar and on Thursday was fined [euro]6,000 (more than $8,000) by a French court. "Look," she went on, "I understand their point of view. I understand they couldn't just say, 'Bad boy! We forgive you! Come back!' But it's really a pity. And I will never believe he believed what he said. I think he was drunk and alone in a bar. When people go crazy, they go crazy. It's a human case, it's not political or religious. He didn't kill anyone!"

This was dangerous territory for a woman whose magazine relies heavily on Dior (and its corporate bosses at LVMH) for advertising, but Sozzani, 61, is known for being a provocateur. In the 23 years she has been at the helm of Italian Vogue, she has operated the magazine as a laboratory for wild and often hilarious imagery that pokes at her own industry--a wry take you would seldom find in more earnest American fashion magazines.

In 2006 she ran a cover image of Linda Evangelista with her face wrapped in bandages, decked out in designer clothes. With the tagline "Makeover Madness," the spread inside, photographed by Steven Meisel, was a sendup of the plastic-surgery trend sweeping Hollywood and the fashion world. A year later, when there was news about a famous young woman landing in rehab seemingly every week, Meisel did a shoot for Sozzani sending all the models there, too. After that came entire issues devoted to black women and curvier women, each of which was the subject of controversy in the fashion world. Both sold like hotcakes.

"Franca's a fearless editor, and she has a great sense of humor," said Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue and a close friend. "In the United States, everyone's so worried about being politically correct, and Franca is part of a tradition that feels and understands that a magazine is a place where you can make a statement and rock the boat, and you don't always have to worry about whether it's the right thing. In fact, it's rather enjoyable when it's not the right thing." (An example of "not the right thing" might be a recent shoot for Italian Vogue inspired by the BP disaster featuring model Kristen McMenamy drenched in oil.)

The legendary art director Fabien Baron, who worked for Sozzani at Italian Vogue during her first years there, said, "If Anna Wintour is the Steven Spielberg of fashion magazines, Franca is Pedro Almodovar ... She's the most talented editor I've ever worked with." Donatella Versace said, "She's a true original."

For a long time, Sozzani pushed the envelope mainly from behind the scenes, but in the past year and a half, that's abruptly changed. She's appearing frequently as a judge on America's Next Top Model; she's tweeting throughout the fashion shows; she writes a zany, frequently laugh-out-loud-funny blog on the website of Italian Vogue in which she expounds on everything from the evolution of surrealism over the last 100 years to Kate Middleton's style (too much "low-cost fashion," according to Sozzani). "Male models are another issue," she wrote in an entry on the men's shows in Europe. "Perhaps without a solution."

Part of what makes Sozzani a true individual in her world is that, from time to time, she actually says something critical of the industry's most sacred cows. …