Nov 30, 2010


The Black Issue began to take shape during the fall of 2007 when Sozzani was struck by the homogenous aesthetic on the runways. "All the girls looked the same. The only one who stood out is Liya Kebede," who is black, Sozzani recalled. "Everything she wore I liked. I started to question myself.

"We cannot use only these girls who are the same," Sozzani says. "We go to the East Side and Russia. We go looking for tall, thin and blue eyes. But we have to scout in Africa, everywhere.

"I decided to do an issue only with black girls. People say, 'It's a ghetto.' But we do thousands of issues with Russian girls and it's not a ghetto."

There was grumbling and skepticism from cultural observers that the issue was a gimmick or that she was exploiting international interest in the American presidential election. "People accused me of doing it because of Obama and said that I was very clever," Sozzani says. "But I started the previous October, before Obama and Hillary Clinton began to fight."

Still, her timing proved prescient. When the issue arrived on newsstands July 1, 2008, Obama had wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Black Issue was distributed with four different newsstand covers, each featuring a well-known black model. Inside, a roster of relatively unknown mannequins was spotlighted, along with several veterans, such as Gail O'Neill and Alva Chinn. Plus-size model Toccara Jones - once a contestant on "America's Next Top Model" - posed topless.

The special issue turned into a collector's edition. After its initial print run of 120,000, it had to be reprinted for Britain, Germany and the United States, which makes up 40 percent of the magazine's readers.

"It was like Michael Jackson was coming to town in the fashion industry. People were scrambling to buy every single cover," says Michaela Angela Davis, a New York-based cultural critic.

"If you put Vogue in front of anything," Davis says, "that brand means something in the hearts of women."

For Sozzani, the Black Issue was only the beginning.

Sozzani was taken aback by the success of the Black Issue. The business opportunity was evident: A market was being ignored. But Sozzani did not want to be perceived as a dabbler, a cultural tourist.

"For me, it became a commitment," Sozzani said. "I talked to these girls. I promised to take care of them."

Before launching Vogue Black, Sozzani conferred with Hardison - tall, dark-skinned with close-cropped hair, a self-declared revolutionary - for advice. Sozzani has known Hardison since the early '80s when they met through the Paris-based designer Azzedine Alaia, who, as it happens, is known for his affection for black models. In 1994 Hardison helped black male model Tyson Beckford sign a groundbreaking advertising contract with Polo Ralph Lauren. In the past three years, she's aggressively rallied the fashion industry to question its own standards. "No one wants to be a racist. The people in this industry are not," Hardison says. "But the results of what they do are racism."

Vogue Black went live in February with Hardison as editor at large. Although it's headquartered in Milan, it clearly speaks to an American audience. The site opens in English in the United States, and many of the topics are culled from American popular culture. It mixes model profiles with street fashion pictures and short stories about creative types such as artist Kehinde Wiley. The reaction has been a mix of optimism, ambivalence and curiosity.

"Italian Vogue magazine is an experimental magazine - that's the impression people have," Sozzani says. "I don't think it's experimental; it has a vision. It can't please everybody. I don't want to please everybody."

Still, Sozzani has decided that she will happily embrace anyone - black, brown, thin, fat - who sees the world as she does.



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