Much in the way that the fashion exhibition has become de rigueur at prestigious cultural institutions, the fashion documentary is now a genre unto itself, warranting fashion-themed film festivals and turning previously unknown industry insiders into overnight sensations. It all started with The September Issue, RJ Cutler’s 2009 look inside the hallowed grounds of US Vogue, which cemented Anna Wintour’s status as the ultimate fashion editrix and made a previously little-known super stylist, Grace Coddington, a de-facto star.
Designer Valentino; former Vogue Paris editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld; and the late Bill Cunningham, the beloved street-style photographer from The New York Times – all have been immortalised (sometimes unwittingly as in the case of Cunningham) in documentaries. The past year alone has seen two high-profile fashion-focused productions come to a screen near you: The First Monday in May, about the Met Gala, organised by Vogue’s Anna Wintour for the Metropolitan Museum in New York; and the BBC’s Absolutely Fashion, a behind-the-scenes look at British Vogue and its editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman.
These films shed light on the inner machinations of a previously secretive and elitist industry that in recent years has become more willing to expose itself to the world at large. Before you even watch these films, you know what to expect: stylists and photographers dealing with some kind of drama on set; editors being chauffeured around to meet designers and celebrities; impeccably dressed young girls sitting at immaculate desks bedecked with iMacs; and an endless commentary from well-known designers and fashion personalities singing the praises of the subjects of these movies.
The latest fashion-centred production to hit screens is Franca: Chaos and Creation, an intimate portrait of Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia. When news broke earlier this year that the film would premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, those who have followed the career of Sozzani, who has been at the helm of the magazine for 28 years, were taken aback. Unlike her fellow editors at other fashion titles, Sozzani has always been extremely low key, avoiding the spotlight and letting the visually stunning – and often controversial – shoots that appear in her publication do the talking.
Sozzani is hands down the most fearless editor-in-chief of any fashion title, especially one whose masthead evokes high-octane glamour and polished beauty. The groundbreaking shoots and themed issues that she has engineered over the last quarter century in collaboration with photographer Steven Meisel have become the stuff of fashion legend. Domestic violence, plastic surgery, substance abuse, racism and environmental catastrophes are just some of the issues that Sozzani has tackled in her work, often leading to criticism that social commentary has no place in the pages of a publication such as Vogue. Sozzani believes that images speak louder than words and you only have to look at each issue of her publication – some of them feature 50-page-long fashion shoots where the clothes are barely visible and play second fiddle to the overall composition of the photographs – to see how Vogue Italia stands apart from everything out there, especially its sister titles.
While the film looks at Sozzani’s career and achievements, it is actually an intimate portrait of a woman who has managed to keep a sense of mystery around her in an industry where fame-seekers abound. The reason she let the camera into her life is that the man behind it was her son, Francesco Carrozzini, a young photographer and filmmaker, who made the film as a love letter from a child to his mother.
“The film began with a very personal thing, the death of my father five years ago,” explains Carrozzini. “I began to think that I wanted to interview my mother and keep those recorded interviews for me. It was the same thing that her father had done when he was filming her with an 8mm camera, creating home videos that we also used in the film. At the beginning she said, ‘Who’s going to play me?’ She thought that maybe Tilda Swinton would be her voice and for me maybe Colin Firth. Then like a rose, petal after petal, she slowly opened up and we managed to do a film that I think is honest and emotional and also tells a piece of fashion history that’s very important. I hope that students and young people see this film because you can read it in many different ways: the bond of a mother and son; the fashion theme; the idea of a woman against the system; the idea of a visionary woman. There’s a lot in this film and it’s a beautiful story.”
This is a film that only Carrozzini could have made. Moments such as mother and son bickering in the back seat of a car while being driven around New York, or of Sozzani revealing family secrets about Carrozzini’s father, are so private and spontaneous that it would have been hard for anyone else to be able to catch them with such honesty and directness. When asked whether she would have agreed to such a project if the director had been someone else, Sozzani is quick to say, “Never. I would never have done it for someone else. I was actually reluctant to present myself like this to the public. I don’t have the desire to show myself to the world. I have to be out there for my job but it’s because I earned it, not because I go around with a feather on my head or a tail on my back.”
Sozzani has strong opinions about what the role of a journalist should be and regrets how celebrity-seeking editors have given the fashion industry such a bad reputation. Vogue Italia, with its highly visual and intellectual approach to fashion, is the embodiment of Sozzani, both the editor and the woman: someone who doesn’t mince words when reflecting on the current status of the industry. In one scene, she reminisces about her father, who could never come to terms with the idea that his daughter got a degree in philosophy and literature only to work with pretty clothes, deeming fashion superficial and frivolous.
“Unfortunately, editors who want to become stars have ruined the image of the fashion industry and therefore people see only that stupid side of fashion. The public at large only sees this and they look at Instagram and see editors showing their ass at the shows and laugh,” she says. “The public doesn’t realise that behind every single collection or shoot is an incredible amount of work. It’s also at a level of vulgarity that is not what fashion is about because there are many intelligent people in fashion but people see only what goes on at the shows.
“If you noticed, for the last two years, I’ve stopped going to the shows from the main entrance because I want to avoid all that. Sometimes I get in from the car park because I don’t want to be photographed by four kids who put your photo online and you have to force a smile and pose for them. It’s ridiculous, but right now it’s all about appearance and people only care about that. There’s nothing wrong with being an opinion leader, but you can become one if you actually have an opinion, not because you put feathers on your head; also because next season there will be many new 20-year-olds that you will have to compete with, so it’s a race and you end up losing because it’s never ending.”
Sozzani’s honesty about an industry in which she’s one of the key players is quite surprising, but behind the steely image is a woman who had to juggle her role at the head of one of the world’s most influential publications with life as a single mother in the conservative and bourgeois Milan of the ’80s and ’90s. “The film is more about showing that behind this glossy world of fashion is in fact a normal person, who has a life, a sense of humour, makes fun of her son, laughs a lot,” says Sozzani. “When you work, you have to do your job so you can’t be nice to everyone, but in your private life it’s different.”
“I think I was able to capture who she really is because I didn’t hold back. It was an honest movie and my mother is exactly the way you see her in the film,” explains Carrozzini. “She’s funny, she’s nice, she’s a bitch, she’s mean, she’s extremely smart, she’s got an incredible sixth sense … She’s had a son who she’s loved immensely, an amazing job that she has devoted herself to, but unfortunately there’s always the other side of the coin and she didn’t have a happy love life. You can’t have it all. For me when the film can reveal all this, then I feel that I was able to convey who my mother is.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Carrozzini. The idea for the movie germinated more than four years ago and the director, who says that the film could have been his hara-kiri, shelved the project more than once before finally finding his voice after speaking with director Baz Luhrmann. “At first he was a bit confused about what to do with all this footage but then he met Luhrmann, who said to him, ‘Make the movie that only you can make because only you know your mother so well, so try to find a good mix between her private life, which you only know, and her career’”, says Sozzani, who saw a first cut of the film and wasn’t quite happy with it. “I saw the first cut and I wasn’t sure, so I sent him a very cold email, saying that it was very mediocre and for a few weeks I was very distant because I felt that if he was going to work on this, it had to be done well. He then started working with two very good producers in LA. I actually saw the final cut at the premiere in Venice, like everyone else. In certain moments I was shocked because I couldn’t even remember things, such as when I got angry, and I was a bit upset at first because I would have preferred if those parts hadn’t made it in the film, but then I realised that in every relationship there’s also that side. I was sitting next to Colin Firth and kept asking him, ‘Is it boring?’”
The film is far from boring and you don’t have to be a huge fan of Sozzani and her work to enjoy it, because at the heart of it is just a beautiful bond between mother and son – you almost forget about the fabulous dresses and the glossy images that pepper the footage.
The film is also a rare opportunity to see a figure such as Sozzani open up for the camera. While it was clearly hard for her to get out of her carapace and leave her comfort zone to expose herself, she did it for her son, who also took this project as an exercise in self-reflection and as a way to look back on his relationship with his mum. “My mother and I discovered a lot of things about each other doing this film,” says Carrozzini. “I already knew about her work but for this film I had to do two things: one was acting like a journalist, which is something that every documentarian has to do, and then I also had to do some kind of therapy because I was digging through not just my mother’s career but also her personal life. I feel that by making this film I made myself an amazing present. In 10-15 years this film will give me great emotions and I will have my mother with me forever. What I discovered with this film is not just that she loved me more than she did anyone or anything else and that she was a real visionary, but that there’s a very deep love that exists and it’s the one between a parent and her children. A love between a man and a woman or two women or two men is a love that will never have that depth. I didn’t know that as a son, but this is a kind of love that’s akin to God’s love, universal love. As a kid, you often think that parents have to be perfect, should never make mistakes and that they’re horrible because they split up and then one day you’re left alone, but that’s not how it works. This film for me has very deep value because I’ve done it as a son.”
If you’re looking for fashion drama and backstage shenanigans, the bread and butter of many of the aforementioned documentaries, this is not what you’ll get with Franca: Chaos and Creation. It’s much more than that, a beautiful exercise in empathy and self-discovery. That the whole thing is beautifully packaged (thumbs up for the soundtrack) and comes with its fair share of heady glamour obviously helps, but ultimately this is not what this movie is about – and that’s perhaps Sozzani’s greatest gift: the idea that fashion is not just about pretty pictures and pretty dresses. That if you’re smart and believe in the power of your ideas, you can truly take it way beyond that.