Vogue Italia Is a Hit in Black

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Black is back. Black is beautiful. Black may even be the new black. Certainly Franca Sozzani, long-time editor of Vogue Italia and one of Europe's top arbiters of high fashion, gave that view an enthusiastic endorsement when she made this month's edition of her magazine the first ever "Black" issue, featuring only black models and articles about black-related subjects.

Sozzani says she was inspired by the untapped potential of black models and by the candidacy of Barack Obama, and she clearly hit the market's sweet spot. After the original run of the July issue sold out in the U.S. and U.K. in 72 hours, Vogue Italia has just rushed to reprint 30,000 extra copies for American newsstands, another 10,000 for Britain and 20,000 more in Italy. The only complaints about the reprints might come from those currently trying to sell copies on eBay for $45 apiece.

Although the issue's success coincided with Obama's recent triumphant swing through Europe, Sozzani pulled the trigger on the idea back on Super Tuesday. Visiting the U.S. that first week of February, she says she experienced up close the enthusiasm generated by the first viable African-American candidate for the White House. "It's a sign," she recalls thinking to herself. "It's the moment."

Speaking by telephone from her Milan office, Sozzani explained that the original concept began to take shape while sitting at the runways of Europe's top designers. "I was at the shows, and of all the (white) models, there was nobody who struck me: not one name, not one face." Indeed, the only young catwalk star who really caught the editor's eye was Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede.

Kebede, along with Naomi Campbell, Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez, are the cover girls for four different versions of Vogue's Black issue, with the 100-page spread photographed by star shooter Steven Meisel. Sozzani says that black women stand out "because they are so elegant — it is an innate elegance." Most of the advertisements, however, feature white models, a sign that even a powerful editor can shake the industry's tree only so much.

Sozzani has turned Vogue Italia into one of the most respected publications in women's fashion, even though it's not among the top sellers (it has a circulation of 120,000 and is written in Italian). The magazine has caught worldwide attention in the past not only for its eye for fashion trends, but for features on terrorism, drug abuse and plastic surgery. Sozzani says she has always aspired to reach beyond Italy, and was quick to react when her colleagues in the U.S. and U.K. were missing this black fashion moment. "I've always wanted to bring the Italian sensibility to the world," she said. "By now, the planet is small."

Features in the current issue include interviews with director Spike Lee and Edmonde Charles-Roux, the editor of Vogue Paris who quit in 1966 when the publisher wouldn't use a cover of black model. (Sozzani, by contrast, says she had the full support of her superiors.) There is also a profile of Michelle Obama. Sozzani is impressed with both the aspiring President and his spouse. "Neither one of them follow the trends, but they each have their own style," she says.

Sozzani isn't the only one taking notice of the Chicago super-couple's fashion sense. Michelle Obama recently made Vanity Fair's best-dressed list for the second year running, while Italian designer Donatella Versace says the presumptive Democratic nominee was the inspiration for her Spring 2009 line, as the new "relaxed man" look. One question no fashion maven can answer: Will Obama still meet that description after the rigors still ahead in the campaign?