It seems fitting that the tiny cluster of journalists and photographers waiting for Franca Sozzani are seated in Sydney Town Hall's Treasury. The stately room's decor is replete with palatial features: etched glass windows, marble fireplaces, and a glistening chandelier that hangs above a makeshift stage. Sozzani, Vogue Italia’s editor in chief since 1988, is the guest of honour this morning, alongside the managing director of The Woolmark Company and deputy premier Andrew Stoner. When she enters the room, with entourage in tow, Sozzani’s delicate frame strides forward with quiet confidence. A thin black choker is tied neatly around her neck; a mass of wavy blonde hair flows down her back. She wears little makeup (perhaps none at all) and when she reaches the stage and sits down– smiling for television news grabs and succinctly explaining just why she’s down under – the chair she is perched on swallows up her small figure.
To put it simply, it is wool that brings Sozzani to Sydney. Superfine Merino wool, a material coveted in Italy for use in luxury apparel and sportswear; with a fibre diameter just one-third of a human hair. Designers crave it. Giorgio Armani has said it adapts with ease to every season. Alexander Wang is drawn to its environmental credentials, being biodegradable and easily renewable. Sozzani, an environmentalist and UN Goodwill Ambassador proclaims to an attentive audience that, “Wool is the future!” To compete with synthetic alternatives that are proving increasingly cheap and sophisticated, she argues that investment in the wool industry is essential, from ground level up. “Creativity has a price. You need research, you need people, you need to travel; you need to see.”
The Woolmark Company pegs itself as Merino wool’s global authority, connecting Australian farmers with international textile mills, informing designers of the latest in fibre research and development. Sozzani, as a spokesperson, does more than her part to raise awareness. She’s on every yarn-related list imaginable: a board member of the newly launched Australian Fashion Chamber and a final judging panellist on the International Woolmark Prize. She has dedicated the latest issue of L’Uomo Vogue (Condè Nast’s male counterpart to Italy’s fashion bible) to celebrating Australian creativity and the importance of quality wool. While the depth of her involvement can feel overwhelming – an unending checklist of events and uplifting speeches – Sozzani’s meta-plan is to facilitate the advancement of an industry, to impart the need for quality fabrications and embolden young designers in their work with natural fabrics.
After the press conference, we meet Sozzani at the Park Hyatt hotel. While English is not her native language, she speaks quickly throughout the intimate meeting, every sentence rippling with characteristic exuberance. As a fashion critic, she expressed regret at the impact of globalisation in facilitating international ‘sameness’ in dress and taste – Vogue Italia is arguably the most provocative and contemporary of its siblings. “I’m really convinced that uniqueness is real beauty,” says Sozzani. “When I see the fashion shows, in which there are so many beautiful girls, for me lately they all look alike. Beautiful but very similar ... When you have some special girl with a special face, you remember, you recognise; you know her name. This girl herself becomes the star.”
Sozzani moves deftly between topics: the fast-paced distribution chain of ready-to-wear after it hits the runway, the need for large brands to work harder creatively and why the Woolmark alliance is essential to her work. She is obsessed, it seems, with uncovering new, strong concepts that sit outside of trends. “Fifty years ago [The International Woolmark Prize] discovered two geniuses: Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. We all need to think that sooner or later this could happen again. We need to go on scouting, not stopping. Sometimes we are disappointed, honestly, by what we see. Sometimes we are happy and sometimes when you are in a jury you have many different tastes and need to compromise with one another. This is democracy.”
The process of unearthing newness takes time. It involves measured investment, slow deliberation and mentoring systems. It is costly. But to Sozzani it is important to imbue young people with faith in themselves and their ideas. “The young designers are the new blood, the new people, the people in which we have to invest,” she explains. “I honestly think that my talent has been to find talented people, not necessarily to be an artist … Sydney as a city has the possibility to grow even more in fashion. You already have great stores, a structure.”
As part of her whirlwind trip, the Italian matriarch spoke with fashion design students at Sydney’s University of Technology (many of whom were clad in DIY Sozzani fan shirts). There was a consistent thread that ran through her hour-long address: find a strong, singular direction and stick to it. Champion a cause through your work. Take time over the details. Forget black-inked rules stamped in glossy-paged fashion tomes – observe the world, form opinions and orchestrate a thoughtful reaction. “Fashion is not a void,” she says. “In every situation in which you live, you [must] be in touch with reality.”