Carla Sozzani’s natural state is one of calm although she has a rather full plate of responsibilities. Considered as one of the most influential cultural figures of our time, she continues to seamlessly shape the aesthetics of many people around the world—either by pushing her own obsessions or by suggesting a better version of how life could be. Sozzani is the gallery owner who, since 1989, has influenced the way we look at things; who embraced photography at a very early age; who envisioned the mainstay Milanese store 10 Corso Como, born from and sharing an address with Galleria Carla Sozzani—now Fondazione Sozzani—and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.It is her intuition and fierce determination that compelled her to come up with a fresh concept back then, and these two values keep her going today. Undoubtedly, she is a woman to learn from.
CARLA SOZZANI: Hello.
FILEP MOTWARY: Good evening. How are you?
CS: Good. How are you? I’m sorry for keeping you waiting.
FM: No, no, it’s fine. I am very pleased that we’re actually having this meeting after so many years of observing you during fashion weeks [laughs]. Finally, we can have a proper conversation.
CS: [Laughing] Nice to meet you, then.
FM: Nice to meet you too. Everything is a matter of timing, in the end. I want to ask you, Carla, what is your relationship with time? Do you think of time at all or not?
CS: Well, my relationship with time has been growing. Actually three or four years ago, with Azzedine Alaïa, we started a project about time. But time passes, though it was never an issue for me because I always live independently and look to the future. Ever since my sister passed away and my dear friend Azzedine passed away, undoubtedly there is a different way to look at time, definitely. If this is what you mean? Or you mean time in the sense of how I spend my time or… ?
FM: I didn’t want to get personal by comparing time with how time passes in relation to your grief. My question was more about your time, Carla, as in how you divide your day, for example, or how you enjoy spending it…
CS: Ok, that’s easier [laughs]. How do I divide my day? Well, you know, I never make a distinction between working and being on vacation because actually, I was privileged with all of the things I did in my life. I did what I liked to do and so, in that sense, I think I am, you know, my own boss… What they call “personal life”, I never really understood, because, for me, it’s all in one, my time is one, you know? There is no difference between them… the two. So, what do I do? I spend most of my time working and I enjoy it, which would be translated as being a workaholic by other people [laughs].
FM: Were Vogue and Elle really your first jobs at the beginning of your career?
CS: In fact, my very first job was with a local magazine called Chérie Moda which was a kind of… that was in 1968… was a kind of, how do you say, Burda or whatever, like that. It belonged in those types of magazines that were doing everything from reporting on haute couture in Paris and Rome, and sharing popular [sewing] patterns, to suggesting even children’s fashion. Actually, I was super lucky because I was there when I was at university, as by the late 60s it was impossible not to study. I went to work there part-time and I enjoyed it so much. Even after finishing university,
I still kept the job and I became an editor there. Frankly, it was a very good training school because I learned to handle many different aspects, not only about fashion but also food, design, the arts, for example. Suddenly it was not only haute couture but also street style. As it was 1968, it was a time when the mind was opening up and looking towards the future.
FM: Yes, it was a time of changes. So, I’m skipping the Vogue story and the Elle story and I’m going directly to Galleria Carla Sozzani, today known as Fondazione Sozzani. I am wondering what was the aim at the time when you decided that you wanted to open up a space through which to express yourself?
CS: After working for years in magazines, opening a gallery came as a natural next step. It was my way of expressing what I knew about design, art and photography, as at the time, these were the tools to communicate with others. You have to think that back in the 1990s there was no internet, no Google, there was no Instagram…
There were none of these kinds of things, so the communication was not something as direct as today. I felt that it was important for me to make that change. This exchange, sharing with other people what I thought was good, was my way of communication.
FM: I know how much you supported photography and how photography was perceived at the time. People didn’t really think of it as something serious, the same as they did not consider fashion exhibitions as something important until very recently. So how easy was it for you, Carla, to convince an audience? What was the biggest challenge?
CS: Well it was not easy—in fact, it took a long time, especially at the very beginning! You have to consider that I opened at a place that was located on the outskirts of the city, so you know, all the galleries, they were in Milan’s Brera or other, more established areas. When I opened mine in an empty garage in the location at 10 Corso Como, it wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Everybody thought it was so far away, though today it’s not so far away at all, but it seemed so back then. So, I don’t know, it was a challenge that I particularly enjoyed, it was a defection in order to transform. Although I didn’t want to transform an area, it ended up that the gallery transformed, perhaps, the whole landscape of Milan.
FM: How much time did it take for people to actually respond and start to knock on the door and enter the space and start observing? When was the moment that you first saw this exchange happening and acknowledged that your decision to take that step was something worth doing?
CS: Well, a year after the gallery was introduced, I opened a store selling fashion. So the gallery, I think, had, by then, brought enough to the whole place to become a destination. When later I opened the store, more and more people were coming, but I never thought or could really specify what I wanted to do exactly so I started mixing ideas. For example, I launched the café or I would mix books with jewellery and clothes, or gadgets. Now, such an idea seems so normal, right?
FM: Yeah, definitely. It’s very strange if you think that something so revolutionary at the time, today seems so normal. That there are so many spaces that perhaps feel entitled to that idea, spaces which today are perhaps even more well-known than the early steps you took, which is pretty unfair, of course.
CS: No, no, it’s okay. It’s fine [laughing].
FM: But it’s the truth. You’re right.
CS: Yes, it was something new then and it was my style, you know. It was my way of sharing with people, culture and commerce together.
FM: You sort of became a curator of your own space, which could resemble an act of liberation or the opposite. What were you looking for in a particular photographer’s portfolio to be featured in your gallery at the time, for example?
CS: At the very beginning I was very careful to have lots of very quite well-known photographers in order to attract an audience and make people believe in us. This was partly because photography was still not considered a form of art, so it was important to help it build the credibility it deserved. In the beginning, I had Horst exhibitions, Helmut Newton or Annie Leibovitz and slowly I started to introduce the works of artists that were unknown or less famous, photojournalists, and that’s how I established my method.
FM: Yes, so in a way, you are saying that there was a strategy behind it?
CS: Well, not really a marketing strategy, but it sold! When I opened a photography gallery in Milano, there was only one more photography gallery that was smaller and as it [photography] was still not seen as art, we were, at the time, far away from everything happening. Therefore, that was the reason why it was important to share the masters and their works at that time. An exhibition of a great artist seemed like something important. Like I did with the shop later, the gallery was a way of sharing a mix of art photography and fashion photography. Overall it has been a very interesting progression if you consider that since then we did almost 250- 300 exhibitions.
FM: Is this something that you have always practiced—expressing your appreciation for someone’s work openly?
CS: Oh yes, like Helmut Newton for sure, Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi… Actually, when I look back at the exhibition programme, I don’t think I did anything that I was not [already] convinced to do.
FM: So, one year after you started the gallery, 10 Corso Como opened. I’m wondering how different is your view of the company and your concept today? How was this idea of a concept store formed in your head and how, perhaps, ready did you feel at the time for such a step, that today has become a monolith in the industry?
CS: Working in magazines for 19 years, editing is what I know best. I was an editor and still feel like an editor, it was important for me to come up with something that was fulfilling. So when I was fired from Elle, at the time I was still enjoying mixing all the different ambiences that I mentioned earlier, things that actually go back to my primary experiences when I first started working. Putting together these different aspects in 10 Corso Como was also a way of seeing life itself, starting from the point that people shop not necessarily because they need it. Here I am also referring to privileged people. I came up with this idea of what I like to call “slow shopping”, to allow one to enjoy shopping, you know, to come here and buy a candle or buy a nice dress, let’s say. Most people enjoy this experience because it’s personal, you buy something for yourself, you spoil yourself, you buy a gift for a friend you love or whatever.
In addition, my view of shopping has to be a calm process, at least for privileged people—there is no rush to buy, for sure, no? It is like turning the pages of a magazine, when you discover something new on each page. You know what I’m saying?
CS: I wanted to create a community of people that would consider 10 Corso Como the gallery as a great store with designer clothes and books etc. as a place where they’d go and meet each other and share values and talk. So for a few years this little Galleria was a meeting place before everybody was on their phone. I’m very happy that I see super young people sitting in the cafe outside, talking to each other and not looking as much at their telephones as they used to.
FM: Is it challenging to, let’s say, maintain authenticity in what is available in your store, or not so much today?
CS: Well, it is a challenge. Many times I ask myself if I did it another way, would it be better? It’s always a challenge when you make your choice, but I like so many different things and I always like to edit. Although, in reality, I’m very attached to what I think is authentic.
In a sense, I don’t want to have an idea of what is to come. To me this is like a home, a place where I share values, we share ideas, not something I don’t believe in.
FM: And how does the dialogue between you and the shopper, or between you and the spectators at your gallery evolve with every new season? Every six months, the store or the gallery comes up with a new suggestion, a selection of items to be sold, a new exhibition, a new photographer or an establishment. I would say that a conversation emerges immediately with every new introduction. Is it easy for you to start an exchange? Is it easier now than it was in the beginning?
CS: It’s different people. I mean some have very common needs or views which I think is amazing, but after 30 years—2020 is our 30th anniversary—there are still some of the same people that come here and spend a weekend in the gallery with their friends, families or alone. Of course, you know, the new generation is also coming which is very encouraging to keep me going and I am happy to observe that they feel as confident within this context. This concept that I started three decades ago was based on the lack of communication, the lack of digitalism and I needed to have a direct dial. If we look at today, communication is number one in everything, there’s too much of it. The young people are looking again for the same thing [the reason] for which I started everything then, simply a place where they can meet and talk.
FM: This is very encouraging, what you are saying now.
CS: This is what has kept me going, especially for the last four or five years because there was a moment where I honestly thought, “Oh my God!” Now it is a moment when I feel the change and the timing makes sense. How much time can we spend on our phones, on a laptop without any human interaction?
FM: True, yes.
CS: And the fact that today the super young people start feeling the necessity to talk to each other, maybe look into each other’s eyes and not express emotions with just an SMS. If we start interacting [in person], we’d become allies of our own bodies. If [we’re] always looking at a screen, where can we go after that?
FM: So, for you there’s an importance in the social function of what you are doing? You see this as social?
CS: I think so. Yes, absolutely. I always did. I always thought this way.
FM: Where does your sense of business come from because this is also a very big business right now?
CS: I don’t know if I have a sense of business to be honest [laughs]. I am not sure because I didn’t have any kind of experience in that sense. I always welcomed the help of people around me.
FM: So, what about taste? Did you have a formative experience as a young girl along with your sister?
CS: Franca and I, we were very privileged with our parents. You know, I often think of that because they were taking us to museums all the time, to churches all the time, not to practice religion, but to discover the art there because, as you know, we are in Italy so every church is very impressively painted inside by the masters. So, I think we grew up with beauty, which helps, right? My parents were super strict… That was probably very
FM: And how does strict translate?
CS: Strict translates, for example… I often think, “Why?”, in regards to fashion, because for years before we were going to college and until the age of 18, we were both wearing a uniform, a blue skirt and white shoes, a shirt. And that’s what’s kind of strict. So, later when we would go out and buy Pucci and colours, I was so happy [laughs], but it was for a short time, you know. Our parents were married very late for the time, so actually, if you think back—right now I am 72 so add this on top of this—when they had my sister and I, they were already in their mid-30s-40s, which, for the time, was considered old. So, they were super strict in education, which I think was good in the end because it gave us discipline.
FM: Yeah. Is it important to have discipline in life, do you think?
CS: Well, I think in a way, yes. It gives you a frame of values, although sometimes you are not very happy with it at a young age. When my sister and I used to wear identical clothes all the time, that was hard [laughs]. Or when we could only have pocket money if we were good at school, so we were very good at school, of course. But later that led to great things, you appreciate things differently. Our parents were sending us to college in the summertime so we could learn, we could travel. We went to India together since we [my sister and I] were young. They were very open when it came to education.
FM: For some reason, this answer you just gave me makes me very emotional. Because I also believe in morals and I also believe in, you know, a beginning, a middle and an end to things. The fine line that separates things. I’m going back to editing and its importance in one’s life. What are the skills required or perhaps what pushes one to become an editor? To have a view of the possibilities that could make life better and look better.
CS: Well, yes. Because I mean, editing is a real pleasure. I don’t know what to say. I’ve spent my life doing books or simply choosing things and putting them together because it then communicates to the other people and I do believe this makes life better, no? Not only for myself, of course, but also for the people with whom these things are shared. It’s a very, I don’t know, it’s like, it’s a pleasure, no? To give is a pleasure. Being able to contribute with beauty is one important aspect in life.
FM: I think when you are in this process of editing your life and other people’s lives and choices, in a way, you are making the world better. What about decisions and what motivates us to take risks in life?
CS: I don’t even know if that is a motivation or something else. It happens naturally—I don’t even realize when it’s there.
FM: In the years that you have been an observer, let’s say, or a retailer or an editor, how has fashion changed and how have people reacted to fashion? Because you have been serving the industry since the early 70s…
CS: 1968 [laughs]!
FM: OK, since 68. So, you have seen a lot including the height of French couture in the 70s, the acceptance of Italian fashion in Paris with Ferré at Dior in the 90s, along with radical designers such as Gaultier, Montana, Mugler… You saw the Japanese fashion invasion, the Belgians taking over and all those really important changes the industry went through. You are still a very active leader in the business. How do people react to fashion today, let’s say? Does it have the same value as it had before?
CS: Well, it’s different today. I really have done a lot and seen a lot because in these 52 years, a lot has evolved. Then it was the first days of prêt-à-porter—until that certain point we only had haute couture or it was the other extreme, you know, cheap clothes. This was until 1967 when Yves Saint Laurent started ready-to-wear and he gave a reason to the people of the 70s and 80s, like myself, to remain enthusiastic, to buy clothes immediately instead of having to go through three fittings before a garment would finally be ready.
From that moment, fashion became, I don’t know, like when you get drunk from too much buying and wearing. Then came other things like people believing in magazines as these would suggest the hot looks, from shoes to the hairstyles. This didn’t last long either, especially after the Japanese revolution that brought enormous freedom and people started to mix [looks] like they still do today. From a business point [of view], we need to sell, but from a personal point of view, you realize you don’t need to own so much.
You must embrace the fact that your personality is more important than what you wear.
Now you can go to La Scala to a big evening wearing a t-shirt with a pair of sneakers, which then would have been unacceptable. I remember in 67, I was in London and I came back from holidays wearing a pantsuit and the administration there, they took away my university card because, as a woman, I could not wear pants [laughs]. I hope it’s not like you’re listening to a person that is 300 years old but it wasn’t that long ago. I remember it was May and I was 19-20 years old. It was insane! A year later, the youth revolution took over, you know, London, the liberation! Today, everybody enjoys freedom to [be in] whatever and wherever place they want, which I think is wonderful.
FM: Focusing on fashion, why we don’t have such strong signatures today?
CS: Well, because the world was much, much smaller compared to how big it is today and you really need a new organization and your shoulders to be very strong in order to face it all. To be a designer today, you first of all have to have something to say, you have to have a very strong point of view, you have to believe it and you have to be ready to take on the consequences of building your brand. There are not so many emerging designers as most are super young and try hard to make the big step, which is very difficult.
FM: Why are people so obsessed with fashion, do you think? Why is fashion such a fascinating matter?
CS: Well, I think as long as we exist, fashion will as well. I don’t know if you ever read Dialogue Between Fashion and Death by Giacomo Leopardi, the poet and philosopher; he wrote it in the 19th century? It begins with Fashion calling out to Death for acknowledgement, claiming they are sisters: “Do you not remember we are both born of Decay?” Death, with both failing sight and hearing does not recognize Fashion. So, she claims that they are bound as they “both equally profit by the incessant change and destruction of things here below”, that “our common nature and custom is to
incessantly renew the world.” Indeed, they keep regenerating each other, all the time.
FM: This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I’m wondering, since we are becoming more and more emotional in our conversation, does emotion matter in fashion today or not?
CS: Well, of course it does. Without it… It’s so nice when you get involved emotionally in something, even if… Well, actually, I prefer to get involved in fashion than going to a movie that makes me cry. Emotions are super important in pictures, in a photograph, in fashion…
FM: Is there, in the end, any mystery left in what makes a creation? And is sharing special or not today?
CS: Oh, we all need a bit of mystery, you know, because it will always be a part of creation, since it’s so personal, right? But this is not only for fashion, it’s also for art, for design, for whatever, beauty. Fashion is and should be a mystery.
FM: And is it important, do you think, to be desirable in fashion or in life? What does desire mean to you?
CS: Oh, desire…
FM: I love the word desire.
CS: Desire means when you see something that you are attracted to and which… But you know, we all have a different sense of beauty and that’s why it makes the world wonderful because… we are attracted to the same kind of things, but there are others that might be attracted to something that I totally don’t understand, yet I have to accept, right?
The interview was originally published in Dapper Dan Magazine issue #21 – season SS2020
Portrait – photographed by Paolo Zerbini, Vogue, September 2018
Special thanks to Stefania Arcari
Carla Sozzani (born 1947) is an Italian book and magazine editor, gallerist and businesswoman. She founded Galleria Carla Sozzani in 1989 and is the creator of 10 Corso Como art/fashion establishment in Milan.