Issue 2: Franca & Carla – A Fashion Dynasty

Issue 2: Franca & Carla – A Fashion Dynasty

Written by Jules Wright
Photography by Thomas Zanon-Larcher

Ponystep speaks to the powerful Sozzani sibling duo - Carla; the creator of 10 Corso Como, publisher of Edizioni Carla Sozzani and a former Conde Nast editor; and Franca, the legendary Editor in Chief of Vogue Italia, author and curator.

From the start, this interview seemed somewhat doomed. We had failed to meet in Paris during couture week in July as Carla Sozzani had committed herself to Alaia’s show, Franca’s obligations to Vogue Italia were too numerous, photographer Thomas Zanon-Larcher was tied up with shoots and I was desk bound in London. Finally all was possible in Milan and set for Monday 18 July. We flew on too full a plane in the early afternoon – wet and grey in London, a dull summer Sunday – and arrived at 4pm to a sweaty, wet Milan, a slow drizzle and muggy heat and a stifling cab ride to an “art” hotel. No environment entirely suited my graceless July cold. A quick call to Carla announced our presence and set the scene for our imminent arrival at 10 Corso Como to check out locations for Monday. “Had we not had her text?” The interview and photographs would be tonight after 8pm as Franca would be back from Portofino and tomorrow it would be hellish for everyone if interview and photographs had to be squeezed between meetings. It was a squeeze, but it was happening… Relief all round.

10 Corso Como is like its owner – imaginative, intelligent, wide-ranging and welcoming. It includes a gallery, restaurant, bookshop, designer shop and three- roomed hotel and has been created over twenty years by Carla and her partner, artist Kris Ruhs. It is an international bench mark for urban style and originality. You slide into 10 Corso Como through an inauspicious gate and enter a walled garden, reminiscent of the delights of Marrakesh. We arrive and immediately head for the gallery to spend some time looking at Sozzani’s finely tuned edit of the 2011 Prix Pictet. Carla came through to meet us. She is fine boned and fair, with long blonde hair tied loosely back. No make-up, a lightly freckled face and warm eyes; I know her and feel at ease. She is, as ever, generous in her welcome. She, of course, is working – bending with collaborators over text and images for the 20th anniversary publication of 10 Corso Como to be published by Edizioni Carla Sozzani. Taking in the walls – crowded with photographs by Weber, Newton, Beard, Turbeville , Ritts, Moon and Klein, we step over the piles of first editions of all the books one ever wanted on one’s shelves. We sit downstairs over perfect espressos, watching the clock and the setting sun and talk about the white corridor with the fluoros and the floor lamps in Carla’s office (and about how to make the most of the forthcoming portrait shoot). At 8pm and in near darkness, we head back up to Carla’s office to be met with a darkened corridor, locked doors and a bell. We ring and are escorted through the bookshop to the rear entrance of the office. Drinks follow, work winds down and staff leave; we re-arrange a table and clear the work materials to another desk. And then, to the tap tap tap of leather shoes – she’s here! Carla goes to meet her sister and Franca Sozzani is in the room, accompanied by Laszlo, her adored dog.

And so we begin – Franca is tiny too, elegant in black dress and pumps, extraordinary, striking eyes outlined in kohl, sun-tanned, long hair loose, flowing in a cascade of natural waves and curls. They are very fond of each other, these two women, jokes and teasing bubble up immediately. They both look deeply when they speak, eyes connected and penetrating, a vivid intelligence looks back at you.

Where do they come from and what helped make them two of the most important women in contemporary European culture and fashion?

Born in Mantua two and a half years apart to a successful electrical engineer and his wife ” who seemed to sit a lot and was always reading”, Carla is the elder of the two. Franca recalls her first memory of the five year old Carla – pushing her over, smashing her head and ending up in hospital – but Carla has no memory of it : “No, it can’t be true”. She on the other hand can vividly remember going to the hospital with her father to see the new baby who was bright red from the top of her nose to her forehead “and she still has that when she is angry”; ” and” chips in Franca, “so does my son – red from the top of the nose.” To both their father was a hero, a sweet, funny man but clearly also a risk taker. Unconventional.

We all grew up together. We spanned a range of ages, some younger, some older, but we were all caught in the same firmament of creativity – Franca Sozzani

Growing up in Torino, the girls went to summer camp in France and Franca, at just eight, asked to stay on to learn French. Her father agreed – “he was obsessed by languages” – arranging a school for her and leaving her there for a year and a half where she did indeed learn French and many other things besides; she had to be kept busy, if she wasn’t busy, she cried. Meanwhile, Carla so missed her sister that she drew her a picture and wrote to her every day. “Every day” confirmed Franca, “for the whole time I was away.”

Back in Torino Franca and twelve year old Carla attended different schools, while their father worked internationally and they recall stickers from Egypt and Africa on his exquisite travelling trunk. Like their father, says Carla, Franca is strong and decisive, while Carla has inherited his seriousness, his ability to think about things. Every Sunday they went to a different church – he wanted them to understand and consider different religions – while on Good Friday they followed the Catholic tradition and visited seven churches, not to pray, but to look at the architecture and contemplate the paintings. Both think of their parents as old – their mother was 35 when Carla was born and their father 42. They paint a rather cold, unemotional, distant woman. 99 shortly, she is also the subject of their jokes tonight: she has complained to both about the hotel she is in and that the restaurant is mediocre. This is not uncommon it seems; her birthday on 8th August must be celebrated but Franca can see no significance in 99 – 100 yes, but 99 no – and she won’t be around. “We’ll see” implies Carla. The little, giggling, misbehaving sister and the affectionate, doting, tolerant “grown up” are palpably present. More talk of mother reveals a woman who never praised, for whom nothing was quite good enough; although she was proud at arms’ length, she has never acknowledged either’s achievements directly.

At 18 Carla is finally out of her blue uniform and white apron and the clutches of the nuns. Academically able, she studies foreign languages at Bocconi University. The “brilliant” Franca follows a couple of years later, attending Catolica, where she studies philosophy and literature, thinks about an academic future studying Russian and German Philology and then throws it all up without completing her degree, gets married (“not to an academic”) and shoots off to New York for a three month honeymoon. Two months in she calls Carla, who heads to New York to be told ” it is all over with the rally driver ” and “don’t ever get married”. Carla never has. Franca comes back to Italy, takes up her studies again, completes her degree and takes 8 years to get an annulment of her marriage through the church, divorce still being illegal in Italy. In the meantime Carla is working for Condé Nast with significant success. She sees an advertisement for an “intern” and applies on Franca’s behalf. Franca needs to get a job and get a divorce. She goes for the interview and is offered it – Secretary to the Editor of l’Uomo Vogue – but says “I can’t take it. My father will kill me if I become a secretary”. They then offer her an Assistant job at Vogue Bambini and she takes it. By ’73 Franca is fortuitously (through someone else’s pregnancy) made Fashion Director of Lei magazine and it is during this period that the really important relationships with photographers such as Meisel, Lindbergh and Roversi begin.

I’d imagine myself as a woman with children who played golf. I was never driven. I never had anything mapped out. I believe in doing, not thinking – Carla Sozzani

Carla is doing well as Editor of Vogue Bambini until in ’74 she becomes pregnant to a married man. Her bags are carried downstairs to the concierge and she is thrown out by her parents. The next time she sees her father is in a solicitor’s office where she is given the keys to an apartment he had bought her (they don’t speak) and for a year silence reigns. Franca picks Carla up from the hospital and insists that Carla cover up the baby : “we are fair people – she’s dark – hide her”. They get back to the apartment and they don’t have a clue what to do with the baby but luckily an upholsterer is there and he uses his needle to make a hole in the teat and they manage to feed the child – Sarah. In ’79 Franca is made Editor in Chief of Lei magazine and promptly takes off to India. Months later Carla has to pick up Franca on a train back from Zürich – thin dress, sandals, almost shaved head, a waif who has had to beg the train fare from other passengers. She walks back into her job as Editor in Chief and this remains a mystery to everyone – she wasn’t sacked, she simply went back. By 1982, Franca has added Per Lui to her armoury of editorships and is living in her own apartment, also a gift from their father. Carla recounts how exciting this period was – she could be working with Mapplethorpe while Franca was working with Weber – it was an intensely creative period. As Franca reiterates: “We all grew up together. We spanned a range of ages, some younger, some older, but we were all caught in the same firmament of creativity.”

Then in 1982 Franca gets pregnant to her lover who lives in Germany, so both Franca and Carla decide to learn German. Languages in any event fascinate them and they have variously tried Russian and Arabic too – a cause of some amusement to them both. Carla is with Franca when her baby is about to arrive. She calls a taxi at 5 am. Unfortunately Franca has been too busy to attend ante-natal classes and has sent her secretary as her replacement. Later Franca, too embarrassed to turn up, has let the secretary complete the course. Delivered in a working class hospital by the consultant who had delivered Carla, with absolutely no knowledge of breathing techniques but certain she would be fine, she was surrounded by women who simply “dropped their babies”. She screamed as hard and as loudly as she could for 15 hours until finally her son Francesco was born. Carla nods and laughs hard at the memory of her sister’s self-induced anguish.

By 1986 Carla had been the Editor in Chief of various Condé Nast titles, becomes editor at large for American Vogue and launches Italian Elle in 1987. As Editor in Chief she produced three issues and was sacked. She was thought to be working within too small a circle of what now looks like the cream of contemporary designers and photographers. At this time she was also working closely and creatively with Romeo Gigli but she was driven by a desire to publish and print herself, leading ultimately to 10 Corso Como, Edizioni Carla Sozzani, perhaps also to the present especially creative relationship with Alaia Azzedine as well as the evolution of 10 Corso Como in Japan (with Comme des Garçons) and the brilliantly successful manifestation of it in Seoul. Franca however describes her own career as “career by chance”, “career by evolution “, “working demonstrated I could do something”. In 1988 she became Editor of Vogue Italia, making it without question a bible of innovation and a cultural record of the last twenty years, during which she enabled and developed the photographers who travelled with her from her days at Lei magazine – Roversi, Meisel, Lindbergh, Vadukul, Turbeville, Ritts. “I’d imagine myself as a woman with children who played golf. I was never driven. I never had anything mapped out. I believe in doing, not thinking.” Carla of Franca: “Thank God she is my sister” and Franca of Carla: “I like what she does. There is no blurring.”

Her admiration for Carla is vociferous and Carla brings it to a stop. What do they share? An ability to push creative people to be more confrontational, more refined and chic, more dangerous. As Franca says, “We can inspire and influence and give freedom and security and support. You need only look at the work of those we work with – it is different in Vogue Italia or at 10 Corso Como; when they work in other contexts the work is different, less exciting, less challenging.” “Will you stop work?” A chorused ” Never.”

In this world, family is strong. Sarah, Carla’s daughter, works for Franca at Vogue Italia, while Francesco is a fashion photographer based in New York who plans to become a film director. Both women, though, are rebels. They are both risk takers. They have played outside the rules. Carla has never married but had two long sustained relationships. Franca had a brief marriage. Both had children out of wedlock in a Catholic country. Both seemed to have thrown away conventions when they walked out of their respective Catholic schools and away from the nuns. The times and the context cannot be ignored either – Europe was in the throes of student revolutions and France, Italy and Germany were at the centre of these radical actions. The spirit of the times favoured independent and unconstrained thinkers and doers. The marketeers, global brands and economy were yet to exert a stranglehold on creative energy. And yet, they are also Visconti’s, Antonioni’s, and Fellini’s women. Their long hair, their femininity, their female strength and authority is deeply Italian, as is their tangible sense of love and loyalty to each other. These elements conspire to underscore their Italianness and reinforce a sense of tradition where family really counts. They are likeable, funny, self-deprecating, hard working and clever, really tough too I suspect, and for all their success they lack any sense of arrogance.

We disentangled the dog from the photographer and the photographer from the dog and were relieved that Zanon-Larcher had managed to stay on his feet, photographing throughout the interview. We’d ignored the escaped dog who’d headed for the bookshop with Franca and Carla in hot pursuit mid-interview. Now we took the photographs in the dark. Turned on the fluoros in the corridor. Used no hair or make-up. Let the dog slide up and down the slippery floor. Watched Carla and Franca giggle and whisper like two naughty schoolgirls who knew that Zanon-Larcher was Italian so confidences needed to be sotto voce. We ate together late under the vines of 10 Corso Como, together with Kris, and I liked it that they both had exactly the same thing to eat. They both hate Milan and Franca teased Carla about her regular weekly absences in Paris. Carla would live in Paris if it were not for 10 Corso Como. Franca might be in Istanbul or New York, but for now Milan.

What makes them tick? They help each other along the way of course. Somewhere there is the father – open, cultured, risky – and then there is the mother – austere, reserved, never pleased; there is the restraint of the blue uniforms and the white aprons and the nuns and then there is the example they consistently set for each other. There is also of course fate, being in the right place at the right time and seizing the moment. As the Swedish photographer J H Engstrom wrote “Memories mould our mind. Lodged inside us they shape the way we are, grounding us in the past and structuring our interpretation of the present.” Perhaps in these two surprising and inextricably bound stories lies this simple key.