by Amy M. Spindler, September 1998 (United States)

This decade has produced the most powerful visual stimulation in history. A Japanese cartoon has sent children into seizures. Violence in movies can be so relentless that it inspires real-life copycats. And computer games can be so enticing that people lose themselves in them for days. But you wouldn’t know all that from looking at most American fashion magazines. Photographs are published like the tree that falls in the forest when no one is there: they are soundless. They cause no ripples. There are no aftershocks. The photography of Italian Vogue and L’Uomo Vogue crashes. It might not cause seizures, but it inspires copycats regularly. The magazine’s editorial director, Franca Sozzani, 48, makes mere fashion images seem like social commentary, and art — insightful and inciteful. «Hers is a much more industry-driven, avant-garde magazine,» Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue in America, said. «We’re avant-garde up to a point, but ours is a magazine really driven by the reader.» Italian Vogue talks less to the average reader than to designers themselves. «All the designers are saying to me, ‘I have to see what Franca says,’» Ms. Wintour said. «They really listen to her, and she values it and doesn’t abuse it. They really take her direction.» >After Ms. Sozzani published Peter Lindbergh’s photographs of supermodels made up like Sicilian men in February 1991, Dolce & Gabbana styled an entire runway show that way. The disenfranchised, icy images based on the work of Alex Katz in the recent Calvin Klein advertising campaign sprang from photographs Steven Meisel first produced for Italian Vogue in the July 1997 issue. After Ms. Sozzani published Peter Lindbergh’s photographs of supermodels made up like Sicilian men in February 1991, Dolce & Gabbana styled an entire runway show that way. The much-discussed Calvin Klein jeans campaign in 1995 that was criticized as inspired by child pornography sprang from photography Mr. Meisel had done months earlier for L’Uomo Vogue. Viewers who were upset by the Calvin Klein images were set off, no doubt, because they were used to sell a product and appeared in the mass media. Ms. Sozzani gets away with the same provocative imagery because she leaves readers with the impression, ~~when they~~ look at her magazine, that she is not selling anything. It looks so arty that no one guesses there might be a commercial motivation underneath. «She’s the most inspiring fashion journalist in the world at the moment,» Donatella Versace said. «She’s fearless. She doesn’t follow commercial reasons; she just follows intuition. She’s always looking for new talent. She’s the one who discovered Steven Meisel and put him in Vogue. She thinks of fashion as a kind of art you can see in the magazine.» Ms. Sozzani didn’t discover only Mr. Meisel, who had three pictures in a book when she met him in New York in 1979 and is now the most influential image maker in his field. During the same trip to Manhattan, after she had been named editor of Italian Glamour at age 28, she also found Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts and Mr. Lindbergh, who were starting their careers. «I met that bunch of photographers at the same time, and they’re still the most important photographers,» she said. Ms. Sozzani is in New York this week for an exhibition that celebrates 30 years of the Italian men’s magazine L’Uomo Vogue, which she oversees along with Italian Vogue. For the last 10 years, she has been making both magazines less fashion publications than galleries for the art of fashion’s best photographers. The theme of this month’s issue for the magazine’s 30th anniversary is how influential fashion photographers like Mr. Weber, Craig McDean, David Sims and Paolo Roversi see men. The men certainly are dressed in designer fashion largely chosen from the collections of advertisers, as is often the case in fashion magazines. But that isn’t the point of the photographs. «What’s good is once I finish telling photographers the idea I see, I let them be free to go on,» Ms. Sozzani said. «It’s like hiring an artist and saying, ‘Make a painting 2 meters by 2 meters by 2 meters.’ You can’t if you want the best they can give you. They know they’re free with me. There is a really good relationship with me because we really trust each other.» The exhibition, at Lehmann Maupin at 39 Greene Street in SoHo, will display the L’Uomo Vogue photographs until Sept. 20. «Franca really understands the creative mind, and she deals with the commercial photographers the way a galleryist deals with an artist, » David Maupin, an owner of the gallery, said. « I see the way she constructs her magazines each month. There are parallels with the way a gallery creates a group show or a curator puts together a group show.» >Over the years, photography from Italian Vogue has presaged the renewed interest in 1996 in the esthetics of the Bauhaus, like Prada’s clashing prints, the trailer trash esthetic that emerged with Courtney Love in 1995 and, to Ms. Sozzani’s personal distress, the revival of the mod 1960′s. When she was hired by Italian Vogue in 1988, she took her « group show » with her. And they have gone on to do some of their best work for Italian Vogue. Mr. Weber has produced some of the most charming, charismatic fashion photography ever made. And Mr. Meisel has created some of the most haunting and resonant. « Photographers, whether they’re taking pictures of fashion or war, want their own voice to come through in the images that magazines publish, » Ingrid Sischy, the editor of Interview magazine, said. «Franca Sozzani is one of those editors who gets this.» The first time Mr. Weber worked with Ms. Sozzani, he recalled, he made typical fashion-shoot small talk, asking the editor what she planned to do when their work, in Florida, was over. «She said to me, ‘I’m going to hitchhike across America,’» Mr. Weber said. «And I thought, that’s a person who’s pretty interested in things.» Ms. Sozzani works like a reporter, drawing out a photographer’s passions, Mr. Weber said. « She talks about what you’ve been doing, if you’ve been to the theater, the ballet, museum, met someone you liked a lot that you’d like to get to know better by photographing them, » he continued. « I always thought that was a great place to get started when you’re talking about pictures. » He recently traveled to North Carolina because he had always loved Carl Sandburg; he ended up photographing in Mr. Sandburg’s former home for Italian Vogue. «The key to Franca’s success is the freedom that she gives the people who work for her,» Tom Ford, the designer for Gucci, said. «She hires the best people and gives them an enormous amount of freedom. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t guide or direct them, but she lets them do their jobs. Its probably one of the freest magazines in the world. She also has a great eye for assembling a great cast of people.» «At the end of the 80′s, fashion became really old,» she said. «We wanted to give a message of being glamorous and happy. And we said the most glamorous and happy time was the 60′s. In October, when I went to see the shows, everything was the 60′s, and I said, what did I do? Because on the runway it looked awful. We did a big mistake. But at the same time, I realized how much Vogue was a reference for the first time.» >«We shot a lot of white shirts in those days.» - Franca Sozzani When she took over the magazines, she inherited a business run by the decree of the advertising staff. It was at the height of the most vulgar 80′s excesses, and Ms. Sozzani couldn’t find clothes that met her stringent esthetic criteria. So she had a woman photographed in a white shirt and blue jeans for the July/August 1988 cover. «We shot a lot of white shirts in those days,» she said. The Milanese fashion powers were not content. «We almost lost all the advertising clients,» she said. They became less content when, for her first couture issue, she put ~~Yves Saint Laurent~~ on the cover. It provoked a gentlemanly rebuke from the head of Valentino, Giancarlo Giametti, who had got used to seeing his outfits on the cover of that particular couture issue under previous editors. Ms. Sozzani recalled: «‘The first couture issue,’ Giametti said, ‘that’s my cover.’ Everybody was a little bit scared because they were use to having 10 pages each issue. Not just the big designers, but everyone. The smallest clients, as soon as they’d advertise, they’d get their Vogue editorial pages.» What developed instead was an unusual relationship where designers started looking to Ms. Sozzani for direction, including asking her advice on how to shape their ad campaigns. It gave Italian Vogue a power that few fashion magazines attain, and some would see as a conflict of interest. Italian Vogue wasn’t trying to inspire a woman in a department store; it was trying to inspire the designers who dressed them. «Italian and L’Uomo Vogue have always been something of trade publications, like W is now,» said Stefano Tonchi, who worked with Ms. Sozzani at L’Uomo Vogue and is the creative fashion director of Esquire. In other words, the magazines are perused with fervor by insiders to the fashion trade, who are not only educated in fashion but also indoctrinated. «Which is why W can be more provocative and interesting and on the edge than American Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar,» Mr. Tonchi said. What Ms. Sozzani did was stop linking her coverage to the collections in the instructive way most American magazines do. Instead, she politely invited designers to follow her. «Sometimes it works, sometimes not,» she said. «Sometimes were too early and we have to go back.» The pressures to produce a fat magazine with lots of advertising and million-mark circulation has put a heavy burden on the creativity at American magazines. The cover that sells best at the newsstand isn’t necessarily the most creative one; market tests dictate what the choice should be. Editorial spreads with the most progressive ideas aren’t necessarily the ones readers like best; researchers test-market the layouts and even individual photo. An odd thing has happened in America as marketing has intruded into fashion photography. Advertising has become more creative than many magazines’ editorial spreads. And many of those advertisers have been getting their ideas from European magazines like Italian Vogue. «Only 10 years ago, the editorial was more interesting than advertisement,» Ms. Sozzani said. «Today the advertisement is more interesting than editorial, because designers are creative people and they want to go on. They want to try. They want to be different. Sometimes its not good that the magazines want to be all the same. They’re scared to be different one from the other one. The designers can’t be the same. They’re trying to find their own way. And when you’re trying to find your own way there is risk, and risk is good.» Italian Vogue’s circulation is 130,000. By contrast, American Vogue’s is 1.1 million. In America, Italian Vogue sells 10,000 copies at the newsstand and 10,000 by subscription. «It’s pretty incredible when you think that it’s not even translated,» its editor said. Against those who would argue for the more accessible images of American magazines, with models sipping coffee or buying groceries in $3,000 dresses, Ms. Sozzani argues that it isn’t fair to readers. «A woman has to spend so much money to buy a designer dress, you have to give her a dream,» she said. «If you’re going to give her constantly reality, the clothes should be much less expensive.»