Franca Sozzani on ‘Haute Mess’: ‘A Racist Image, I Really Do Not Understand’

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Photo: Steven Meisel/Vogue Italia

Vogue Italia caught its fair share of flak earlier this month when the Steven Meisel–lensed, Lori Goldstein–styled “Haute Mess” hit the blogosphere, starring a series of nearly unrecognizable A-list models sporting outrageous outfits, elaborate hair weaves, drawn-on eyebrows, and mouths full of gold teeth, while pushing baby strollers, toting mini-backpacks, and making fish faces for their bejeweled iPhones. The magazine offered up one explanation for the spread, shot at Williamsburg's own Kelloggs Diner — "messy drag queens" (think RuPaul in Blue in the Face) — but not before a flurry of posts appeared on many fashion sites, asking readers if they thought the images were racist. Part of editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani's master plan? Possibly. It just wouldn’t be Italian Vogue-worthy if it didn’t rankle the people, right? We tracked down Sozzani last Friday after she returned to Milan a chevalier of France’s Legion of Honor to chat about the concept behind the cover story, what she thinks of her work being labeled racist, and if "Haute Mess" marks her most controversial editorial of all-time.

What was the concept behind the editorial?
Most of fashion all looks alike. It is really beautiful, but it is very similar in a way. You go to London, and everything has flowers. You go somewhere else, and everything is minimal. We wanted to make something quite extravagant. It's more to push people to be creative and extravagant. … Because I read everything in the blogs, but honestly, we just thought it was the concept of extravagance, of creativity, even something over-the-top, something that is not usual. If you want, you don't dress like that, you don't put on this kind of makeup, but it's just to make a fake, to go over-the-top, it makes you happy in a way, more alive, more colorful — sometimes fashion looks sad.

So you have been reading the blogs.
Yes, of course.

What do you think?
I think it's good that everyone sees what they wanted to see. As you know, I don't care as much what people think, because I think that every time that you try to change something, people [say something else]. I respect everybody’s opinion. … I think that the most encouraging way is to make a discussion and not to be completely, bored, you know? I think a boring magazine is always a boring magazine.

What do you think when you see that something you put together is being labeled racist?
A racist image, I really do not understand. I went through the pages so many times. Like when we did the Black Issue, everybody said that we did that on purpose because Obama was the person chosen to go to the White House, and if you just think one second, not more than one second, you can see that to make a magazine like what we did for the Black Issue, it takes six months [to do]. … People wanted to see an economical and a financial [decision], just to get more money, because we talk about Black Issue, it’s probably because the president is black. What do you answer? They don't know what it means to work at a magazine. That's it.

I’ve also seen the word classist being used, and comments about the opening model being pregnant, and the picture inside of another model changing a baby.
There are so many sick people around the world that you cannot — I don't care about them. I care about normal people. They want to read and see the normal way as we did. If they are sick, it's not my problem. I am not a psychologist. They should find somebody who could help them.

There was an interesting post on your own site that said one of the inspirations behind “Haute Mess” was messy drag queens.
It's one of, yes, of course. Today, there is not one world. Today, there is a different point of view for everything. It's many different kind of things going on at the same time. … When we did the [plastic] surgery [editorial with Linda Evangelista, back in 2005], it was not about the surgery, to say it's good or it's bad, it's just a moment in which everyone was talking about surgery. So even to pick a moment in which people are talking especially about some subject, that's why it becomes interesting. To be connected with the reality and real life and what's happening around you at the same time, you can make your own interpretation.

Another thing posted online were photos from a gallery of "Ghetto-Fabulous, Edible Hairdos," which looked a lot like the hairstyles from "Haute Mess." Did you see those?
I don't get the question, sorry. What's the question?

They were pictures of real women, taken a few years ago, with Skittles packages in their hair or basket-weave hairdos. They were probably the source photos, but they were also pretty close to the final styles. I wanted to know what you thought of those.
I don't know, I don't know what to answer. No.

What were the models' reactions to their looks?
What, the models? The models loved it. They thought it was so funny — like you go to a party and you play with your friends. Everything was much easier than with somebody who has some problems and wants to see it.

Why did you decide to shoot it at Kelloggs Diner in Brooklyn?
Because I like it.

Are you a regular customer?
No. [Laughs.]

Would you say that "Haute Mess" is among your more controversial editorials?
No. No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not. We have had very controversial issues, and this is not a controversial issue at all. Honestly, you have no idea what it means to have a controversial one. Controversial was the one we did in 2010 with Kristen McMenamy like a bird on the beach — that was very controversial. It was made to talk about nature and how it could suffer from what men do. We made it in a very ecological way, but they took it, like, why did you do something against BP? … It's not that I want it to be controversial all the time, it’s happened. … You can just take pictures like in a catalog so you will never be controversial, but that’s not my choice of life.

See "Haute Mess" in its entirety at Vogue.it.