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Franca Sozzani Wasn’t Afraid to Call Out Fashion’s Biggest Issues

The editor-in-chief’s covers will go down in magazine history.

Vogue Italia cover with Naomi Campbell Photo: Vogue Italia

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Franca Sozzani, who passed away on Thursday at 66, wasn’t the most famous Vogue editor-in-chief. But the magazines she put out under her 28-year leadership were some of the most memorable issues the industry had ever seen.

Under Sozzani’s tutelage, Vogue Italia became known as the fashion magazine to take on the industry’s biggest, most uncomfortable problems — and do it in a distinctly bold way.

In July 2008, Sozzani’s team unveiled a so-called “all black” issue of Vogue Italia, featuring Liya Kebede, Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn, and Naomi Campbell on a series of covers, plus about 100 pages of black models, all shot by Steven Meisel.

The New York Times reported that Sozzani was inspired in part by “the lack of diversity on the runways in recent years and the debate it fueled last fall [in September 2007] in New York.”

Side by side of two covers from the “all black” issue of Vogue Italia
Covers from the “all black” issue of Vogue Italia.
Photo: Vogue Italia

In July 2011, Vogue Italia took on the industry’s lack of body diversity with its so-called “plus-size issue.” The magazine put models Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine, and Robyn Lawley on the cover, clad in lingerie and lounging around plates of spaghetti. Sozzani also put a new "Curvy" section on the Vogue Italia website.

“Fashion has been always blamed as one of the culprits of anorexia, and our commitment is the proof that fashion is ready to get on the frontline and struggle against the disorder,” Sozzani explained at the time.

Cover from “plus-size issue” of Vogue Italia
The cover of the “curvy” issue of Vogue Italia.
Photo: Vogue Italia

Getting on the frontline, of course, opens you up to criticism.

Fashion has struggled to tackle its deep diversity problem, whereby models and shoppers outside the slender, white norm have been marginalized and ignored for decades. One way that brands and magazines have gravitated to recently is to just quietly become more inclusive. Target and Who What Wear’s collaboration launched with models of all sizes, with no “plus” distinctions to be found. Last year, Modcloth decided to nix its plus-size section online and just mix the plus-size styles into the rest.

But another way to address a lack of diversity is to specifically spotlight those who’ve been marginalized. Under Sozzani, that was the Vogue Italia way: to draw special attention to the kinds of beauty pushed aside by the fashion industry for so long.

For this, Sozzani faced criticism.

“To be non-white is to be constantly relegated to a ‘special issue,’ while the regular edition remains determinedly white,” writer Priyamvada Gopal noted in the Guardian at the time in reaction to the “all black” issue.

The Daily Beast observed that the “plus-size issue” had made the models “seem more like a novelty to be gawked at” than treated equally.

That approach still gets heat these days, as Glamour found when it unveiled its special plus-size issue this past March. “If the industry is really trying to be more inclusive, why can’t plus-size fashion be featured alongside every other size?” asked the Huffington Post. “Now that would be progress.”

To be fair, Vogue Italia also had its assumedly good intentions called into question when it made offensive gaffes of its own (a borderline racist “ghetto fabulous” fashion shoot and hoop earrings labeled as “slave earrings” come to mind).

But for problems that haven’t yet made their way to the forefront, calling them out can be an effective way to get tongues wagging — and dialogue happening. Since 2008, we’ve made some real progress; runways are getting more racially diverse, as are fashion ads, thanks to an infusion of exciting diversity from Gen-Z. Though there’s a long way to go with body diversity, models like Ashley Graham, celebs like Melissa McCarthy, and designers like Christian Siriano are speaking up louder than ever.

Making these conversations loud and central and important takes efforts of all kinds. Sozzani was never afraid of raising her voice through the pages of Vogue Italia and making sure we all started talking.