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MILAN, Italy — No stranger to breaking the mould, Mantua-raised Carla Sozzani launched her 50-year career in fashion amidst the political unrest of 1968 in Italy, when a friend of her mother’s provided a job at a magazine while completing her studies at Bocconi University.
In the years that followed, Sozzani spent 19 years in editorial roles, which included becoming editor-in-chief of special editions of Vogue Italia, and American Vogue’s editor-at-large for Italy, before she was drafted in to launch Italian Elle as its founding editor-in-chief in 1987, where she stayed for three covers.
However, in 1990, Sozzani left the editorial space and founded a gallery in an empty garage in the location 10 Corso Como in Milan. Originally designed as an exhibition space, the venue soon encompassed a café, bookstore and boutique, becoming what is now considered the first ever concept store or, as Sozzani sees it, “a living magazine.”
Today, 10 Corso Como has stores in Milan, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and, last year, launched its first US store in the Seaport district of New York. The Milan store has also evolved to encompass a hotel.
Sozzani has collaborated with the late Azzedine Alaïa, who was a close friend, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, putting on exhibitions in the store for the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, David La Chappelle and Steven Meisel. In 2016, Sozzani also created a foundation for her personal art collection, Fondazione Sozzani, with exhibitions in New York and Milan.
Here, one of the industry’s most respected aesthetes shares her career advice.
How did your first experiences in the fashion industry inform your career?
In 1968, during the political revolution in Italy, my mother had a friend at a fashion magazine that covered everything from children’s cooking to [haute] couture and I started working there while I was finishing university. This was 51 years ago, but because the magazine covered so many topics, I gained a 360-degree view of so many different topics that we still talk about in fashion today.
It’s interesting to listen to other people’s opinion, but too much influence can block you from finding your own way.
I was always working hard and I have been extremely lucky to work with some incredible people, that also saw fashion from different angles. I was a magazine editor for 19 years, creating special editions of Italian Vogue, but I also worked closely with designers, so I got to learn about the business side of fashion too. Then when I opened 10 Corso Como, I put all my experiences together and collated my magazine experience into reality.
What lessons did you learn early on in your career?
There are so many things that I have experienced, so many mistakes I made. Once, I made the wrong decision on a colour on the cover of Vogue and I suffered so much for it, and for years, because when you’re young, everything becomes huge. But everybody makes mistakes and it’s not about making mistakes but learning from those mistakes that is important.
I was also fiercely independent, which I think it comes from my experience in 1968. I never got married, I always followed what I wanted to do, and I believed in what I was doing — I always believe in what I am doing now. It is important to believe in what you want to do.
How is fashion week significant to your career in retail?
I love to go to shows to find somebody I don’t know — to find something unexpected because that is what keeps fashion moving forward. To find a real voice, and something with integrity that speaks for itself, is precious. This is what I’m always looking for and retail can really help these young designers because they need a space to explore their ideas.
My passion for younger designers also came from my experience in editorial because very rarely would we look at the books of younger designers. It was then that I realised how unfair we were as editors, to leave out the young talents. So, when I opened the gallery, I started to do portfolio readings, we would lead and organise groups of people to perform too. It seemed like a natural thing to move into to give voice to young people.
What motivated your decision to move into retail?
When I was working in editorial, there was no internet, no blogs, nothing; and when I started my gallery, there was no Google. I wanted a way to communicate, to learn and share — and to make a destination where others could feel good, share views, talk to each other and make friends of all different ages or status — so I started my living magazine called 10 Corso Como.
When I was at Italian Vogue, it was purely a fashion magazine. So, I left for Italian Elle because I wanted to explore different fields, from music to theatre to design, furniture, culture, cinema. From fashion through to architecture, all these fields mix together and that is what inspired me to launch 10 Corso Como.
What advice would you give to individuals entering the retail industry?
I would never have thought of 10 Corso Como if I had not had my magazine experience. Your knowledge will be so much wider if you work in different fields. I’m a very curious person and you get this energy from creating in different fields, meeting different people — there are no boundaries. And the more you know, the more you want to know. That’s the driving force behind it.
Your knowledge will be so much wider if you work in different fields.
My experience in magazines was also very important to the editing process at 10 Corso Como, because I learnt you can’t please everybody — you have to make a choice. I think the advice I would give is to follow what you feel. It’s interesting to listen to other people’s opinion, but too much influence can block you from finding your own way. I think we need to make more room for ourselves and our own vision — it’s the only way to open yourself up and know who you are.
What changes have you seen in the retail industry recently?
The reason I wanted to launch 10 Corso Como was to communicate directly with people. But suddenly, everybody was hooked on technology and people were just on their phones, not even looking at each other. Then, in the last two years, I’ve seen a huge change again — especially in the youngest generations, who are moving away from using their phones as much.
Technology is fantastic — we all use it and it’s an amazing service — but it cannot substitute life. It’s nice that when younger consumers get together, they don’t have their telephones with them all the time. They need to connect to each other — they are looking for value and to share something that is more than a message or an emoji.
What is an essential skill for juniors working in fashion today?
I think craftsmanship is an essential skill because I believe we are losing the essence of art in fashion — and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. I think people need to understand the beauty of working with your hands, which in my opinion is more important than using a computer.
Today, this is also difficult because many people work for others and when you work for other people, it can be hard to express yourself — you have to get into the mind of someone else. As a result, it’s difficult for younger employees to find their own way and sustain themselves. So, it’s very important that people talk to one another to manage this.