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Franca Sozzani
Franca SozzaniCourtesy of the filmmaker

Documenting the life of a legendary Vogue editor

After Franca Sozzani’s win at last night’s Fashion Awards, peek into the life of the formidable powerhouse who has edited Italian Vogue since 1988

Franca Sozzani has edited Vogue Italia since 1988. She was hired the same month as Anna Wintour, meaning she shares the title of longest-serving Vogue editor with the Brit. As editor-in-chief of what many consider the “best” Vogue, she has pushed the cultural needle with the release of every increasingly provocative issue. The “All Black” issue, released in 2008, featured only black models and – despite ire from some detractors – sold out in the US and UK in 72 hours. Another issue, which dealt with the BP oil spill, drew criticism for its apparent glamourisation of an environmental tragedy with an editorial shoot of a model covered in oil slick.

Sozzani lives to stir the pot. As the subject of Franca: Chaos and Creation, a new documentary by her son Francesco Carrozzini, Sozzani gets brutally candid through probing personal questions that only a child could ask his mother. The result is a fascinatingly personal portrait of the headstrong Italian. Unlike most fashion documentaries that clinically follow their subjects with minimal interaction, Carrozzini embeds himself in the narrative, uncovering secrets (he discovers on camera that he was conceived through an affair) and lionising Sozzani’s work through interviews with friends like Courtney Love and photographer Bruce Weber

Why did you initially want to embark on this project? 

Francesco Carrozzini: Well, it started very subconsciously in the sense that I was losing my dad at the time, because he was very sick. He was in the final stages of his illness. My mother came to visit me in New York for Christmas, and I realised that I never really spend time with her. We often don’t do that with our parents, so because in my mind I was losing my father, I turned to her, almost in the effort of capturing what was left of my parents. 

And it took you four years to make this film, right? Why so long?

Francesco Carrozzini: Yeah, it took me four years for many reasons. First of all because I almost abandoned the project three times.

Why?

Francesco Carrozzini: We had a bit of a rocky financial situation at times – these films have very little money and are very hard to make. Emotionally it was very difficult, and so it took longer than what it should have taken. When I look back, I think it was the time that I needed to make it.

So did your mother ever say, “I'm done with this, I’m not really feeling this.”

Francesco Carrozzini: Oh yeah, at least a dozen times! (laughs)

What did you say to convince her to keep going?

Francesco Carrozzini: I said, ‘This is something that really matters to me, and ultimately will matter to you as well, so please trust me.’ And she would have said no to anyone else but her son, I guess, so here we are.

“What I found out is that she, like every other human being, had to give up certain things, because you can't have everything” – Francesco Carrozzini

What did you find out about her that most surprised you?

Francesco Carrozzini: I think there were two sets of realisations: one is really harsh things, like that my father was married when he started seeing my mother, all things that I literally discovered on camera. I had no idea. So there are a few moments that leave people a little bit cold throughout the film. But I wouldn’t say I discovered anything about her, necessarily. I discovered something more about our relationship and why I am the way I am, and what she has done for me, and what she’s given up to be a mother, and also to find time to do the incredible things she’s done. Maybe what I (found) out is that she, like every other human being, had to give up certain things, because you can't have everything.

How did you get Courtney Love involved?

Francesco Carrozzini: Courtney is a friend. Courtney, specifically, was on the cover of the magazine in 1997 if I’m not wrong, and it did a lot for her at the time, to be presented in such a different light, because (Steven) Meisel did this crazy story where she was transformed into a Hitchcock character – and Courtney was everything but a Hitchcock character at the time. So I just thought of involving her.

There are a few moments in the film where your mum gets a bit flustered. Would you say she’s hot-tempered? 

Francesco Carrozzini: Yeah, that’s to say it politely. She’s a bit more than hot-tempered. (laughs)

Why did you choose to include the controversy surrounding some of the issues that Franca put out.

Francesco Carrozzini: That’s when the magazine took a step forward. Vogue Italia's always done something pretty unique, but with those issues Vogue Italia went to the next level, which started playing in a league of its own, and I think it was very important for me – and for her story to be understood – that that was included, because it really shows how you can start from a business, but then become more than that.

How does your mother deal with all that controversy?

Francesco Carrozzini: My mother has this incredible gift – which, fortunately, she passed on to me – which is that she doesn’t care. She cares zero about what people say, think, and especially she cares zero about the critics. I think she enjoys being controversial, truly.

You decided to insert yourself into the film and it’s really nice we get some precious moments of interaction between you and your mother, but I can imagine that would be really quite taxing at times. How was it for you participating in this film?

Francesco Carrozini: When I asked my mother, ‘So you really want to do this movie?’ She said, ‘Who’s going to play me? I think Tilda Swinton would be great to play me.’ I'm like, ‘Wait, I’m talking about a documentary.’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, but still. We’ll have someone else read with my voice because I hate my voice.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re totally right. I would never want to be part of a film like that.’ The film turned out to be the total opposite. When I see myself on camera, it became like it was not me anymore. It was very tough in the beginning but then after it was super easy because, again, I didn’t think that was myself.

I read your mother didn’t want to include the one of the vintage clips of her dancing the twist?

Francesco Carrozini: (laughs) Yeah. That was early on when she was way more controlling than what she ended up being. I won many battles so I let her win that one.

How different is it working with your mum compared to working with, say, your ex-partner Lana Del Rey on the music video for “Ultraviolence”?

Francesco Carrozini: I tend to work with people I’m involved with. Whether it’s love, parents, or friends. Of course, it’s very different if I were to put my fingers in a famous pop star’s mouth as opposed to trying to explore a relationship with my mother. But at the same time, your emotional involvement is what makes me feel really accomplished at work. And so I try to see everything. Any work I do – it tests them in a relationship. It’s easier when it’s people you know well or you’re involved with but even when I do a sitting with a celebrity or an artist, or anyone that I photograph, it’s always like, that picture says something about our relationship. Not only about them or how cool they are, or how well they wear their clothes. Sometimes it’s more obvious to them or less obvious, but I cannot work well otherwise.

That’s a blessing and a curse, I’d imagine.

Francesco Carrozini: 100 per cent. I want to tell you how difficult both examples you brought up were. Very firm women, very creative and very accomplished. Not very easy.

I heard that you filmed Ultraviolence on a phone. Is that true?

Francesco Carrozini: We filmed Ultraviolence on a phone. We were on vacation in Portofino. It was off at the start together. We just started dating three months before, probably.

What do you think your mum took away from this whole experience?

Francesco Carrozini: I think my mum finally understood that her son is now a formed adult and not that kid anymore. I felt very respected by her and the premiere event was a confirmation of complete respect. Not only because half the audience are supporters and people that love us and respect us, but because when you get to see people laugh, cry, several times throughout an hour and 20 minutes of film, you really realise that you move them. I think for my mother to realise that I was able to do that with the audience by through telling the story kind of made her look at me in a different way now.