From Issue 61: Richard Gray Talks To Carla Sozzani On 50 Years of Fashion Gold
Carla Sozzani probably doesn’t have time to go back to her hotel and change for tonight’s event. “I’ll more than likely wear this,” she says, then pulls at a lovely black number from last winter. it’s one of may designer pieces Sozzani owns in an expansive closet that mainly consists of “The Three”.
That’s the three and the only three, something she calls her “triptych” – Comme des Garçons, Maison Margiela and Azzedine Alaïa. Sozzani has lots of Alaïa. “I’ve worn and mixed and sold the three for years.”
Sozzani is bright, fun and energetic. She’s curious and slight and has that “front row” thing that says power. Her sister, Franca, the former editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue, was just like her; they definitely looked like sisters, possibly twins. The fashion world lost Franca two years ago this December.
Carla Sozzani is in London because tonight – in just under four hours – she, and we, will be at the opening of the capital’s first Alaïa boutique. The three-story terraced shop on New Bond Street is the culmination of years of work by Sozzani, the team and, of course, Monsieur Alaïa. The two of them were the very best friends before the designer’s untimely passing last November. “This place was his dream,” she says. “He would be very happy now.”
The place is also good taste: lights by Marc Newson, bookshelves by Naoto Fukasawa and sofas by Pierre Paulin; it’s warm and clean. The store is a new beginning for the house, which moves forward with the past. Interestingly, the atelier back in Paris is staffed by the original 30 petites mains who worked alongside Alaïa. None has left.
Under his friend Sozzani, Alaïa’s legacy is safe. In 2007, she, Alaïa and his life partner, Christoph Von Weyhe, created the Azzedine Alaïa Association, which is currently applying for foundation status, with the aim of preserving the designer’s work and art collection, something Alaïa carefully sourced and gathered over 50 years. It also includes a huge library, dedicated to art and culture, which the association will open up for research. There are plans to sponsor scholarships for promising young fashion talent, too.
Both Sozzani and Von Weyhe are restless in their support of the legacy. Alongside Alaïa’s huge personal archive is the work of other designers who he admired and collected, too. According to those who have seen it, it’s one of the finest collections of 20th century couture and designer ready-to- wear in existence.
Adds Sozzani, “[Azzedine] started collecting fashion in 1968, when Balenciaga closed his maison. A friend of Azzedine’s back then said, ‘Let’s go! You don’t have money to buy any fabrics for your own stuff, but you can buy all those Balenciaga clothes for nothing – and then you can cut and make your own clothes.’ So Azzedine went to the sale and discovered all these beautiful things, kept them safe and then started collecting and collecting. Actually, the other day, we counted more than 200 pieces of Balenciaga.”
The collection also contains examples by Charles James and Madame Grès. “We were always talking about the future with Azzedine. All of us knew that we are not eternal. But for Azzedine, it was very important that all his work, and all the work of the people he had been collecting over the years, was preserved for the future generations, to share, to show, to teach!”
When it comes to the opening of new and beautiful places to shop, Sozzani is an experienced hand. She is the owner of 10 Corso Como, the boutique she opened in Milan 27 years ago, with sister sites in Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing – and with another opening soon in New York’s newly developed Seaport area. All are mimicked but never reproduced, and all have become places of culture and learning, fashion and art, but mostly of beautiful things and pleasure.
When Sozzani opened her Milan store in 1991, in a former garage found just off the city’s Corso Como at the top of a path of trees and metal grills, it changed fashion retail for ever. But back then, her busy Milanese customers weren’t as accommodating of her new approach to buying things “slowly” as they are now.
“‘I’m in a rush,’ they would say. When we opened the store, we had all these tills and chairs everywhere, and this very long packaging process. Now people see something they want and say, ‘I want it beautifully wrapped,’” she explains. “But it’s true! It’s what you want, it’s part of the process. Whether you’re spending a lot of money or not, it doesn’t matter – you are in a moment where you’re either pleasing yourself or you’re pleasing somebody you love. No rush, otherwise it doesn’t make sense.” Take your time, relax, browse, drink a coffee, look at the art, pick up a book, read. Smell a rare perfume and spray another. Maybe you’ll buy it, or maybe you won’t. This is no-rush, “slow shopping”. And clever commerce.
If Sozzani’s Corso Como store is about anything, it is seduction and an edit of very beautiful things, which she places in a very beautiful way. It sits somewhere between art gallery and best boutique, and it shifts the retail gear down from fast to slow. It’s calm in 10 Corso Como and also quiet. People pick things up and place them back down again and it’s hushed. It’s a bit like a local library for people who understand design and that the wellspring of all design is culture.
There was an ashtray in there the other week, a very beautiful ashtray and yours to take home. And a Serge Mouille lamp, one of the big totem numbers that belong in a converted loft space somewhere bijou, and rows of fragrance – the smell of this place – and all that Comme and all that Alaïa. Carefully edited design at this level brings out the pig in us. Says Sozzani, 10CC is a bit like a big cake: you want to take a bite. “Yes, it’s about the senses – you have to see it, you have to taste it, you have to smell it, you have to have an eye for it, you have to touch.”
But why shop at 10CC? As designers like the ones she has worked with for years to launch their own sites online, why shop there? “Well, firstly, our stores are a destination, so the people who shop with us believe in the editing. There is a constant conversation with the same people who have always shopped with us and new ones as well. This has been going on for 27 years. So [the customers] know that they’re going to have a different experience with us.
“They also know they’re going to find things that maybe they won’t find anywhere else, or if they do, they see them proposed in a different way because the atmosphere is different. They know there’s no pushing here, and they feel relaxed. There is no rush. And then they can sit in the garden, wait a while, have a drink and think about their shopping, then come back if they want, see an exhibition and enjoy life. It’s a destination, so you see it’s already a different kind of thing. I think that the best compliment I’ve had yet was when a customer said, ‘I feel good here.’”
She laughs. “You know, at 10 Corso Como we have so many birds,” she continues. “One morning I walked in very early and it was completely silent, except for this incredible birdsong, and there was a child walking around and I heard him say to his mother, ‘Mamma, this is a sacred place.’”
Sozzani stands at the vanguard of a new chapter in Milan’s global influence. She is a local shopkeeper on an international scale. And just as Milan now backs new initiatives with young designers through various support schemes and catwalk shows, and as the old and established designers help and advise the new and naive, it seems that the local fashion network, and the once-slow- moving system, have now come to chime with Sozzani’s Corso Como vision: that of next and now. And of a new and elevated taste level. If previously, money looked for clothes that telegraphed glitz and power in the city, a new and considered aesthetic is starting to change Milan, along with its shopping and fashion week.
“You know, I’ve now been working for 50 years,” says Sozzani with a smile. “I started as a young fashion editor in 1968, so I grew with my experiences, first with magazines, then 10 Corso Como, which is, you could say, my magazine as well.” Sozzani was famously fired from Italian Elle, the magazine she launched as editor-in-chief back in 1987, and then opened her 10 Corso Como gallery space in 1990, adding to it, bit by bit.
“For a while, I thought, ‘Should I go back to magazines?’ Editing was the only thing I knew, images were the only thing I knew, so I opened a small publishing company because I wanted to make books, and I opened my gallery. And from that point, everything started, from the gallery to the store and the food and the music. I was not a retailer. I learnt from my mistakes because I was – actually I still am – an editor.”
So editing the shop is like editing a magazine? “From the beginning, the idea was always to do a living magazine, to walk through the pages as you walk through the store. It translated into the physical, which has now translated into virtual as well. That’s what I was doing for 19 years, editing.
“It’s the only thing I actually know for sure. All the rest has been learnt. Editing is what I do because I’ve always done that. I never had a plan, I was not in marketing – it was a natural progression.”
Yet, in the ever-spinning world of retail, when “bricks and mortar” shops are closing down, when Brexit hangs over our heads like a very threatening Alaïa heel, and when taste, touch, smell, sight and sound are so interconnected in a shopping experience like the one found at 10 Corso Como, how on earth does Sozzani ever translate any of the above into retail’s “only hope” – the online?
“I don’t,” says Sozzani. “I have been thinking about this for a long time. It’s very difficult. It can visually be done online, through drawings and animations. But of course [in my version of retail], with the eyes you can almost smell. It’s similar to when you say you eat with your eyes – sometimes that’s true, too.”
Online is the retail golden egg for all shopkeepers. Some facts: Generation Z, those born between the mid- 1990s and early 2000s, now account for 25.9% of the US population and have never known a time without computers or a handheld, computer-like device. Nearly a quarter of them say they are online “almost constantly”. For this generation, shopping isn’t necessarily something you do in a shop.
But there’s hope. Recent surveys also suggest that Gen Z, and those immediately before them, Millennials, will always want to shop within bricks and mortar – but the reasons for that are surprising. They will use a shop as a meeting point and a place to socialise, somewhere to spend time and money, but they demand engagement, with dialogue and service. It’s this contemporary intermix, plus perhaps a bar and some interesting books, that will draw them in and keep them there.
In its very basic form, it’s having fun and playing dress-up with the most necessary product. And the place is full of that.
For nearly three decades, 10 Corso Como has been the home of immaculately designed handbags, shoes and ready-to-wear, all of which, in their own way, herald wealth. One of the beautiful Alaïa bags perched on any of the beautiful tables around the space is a “status-tell”. It says, “I have wealth and taste. I’m also successful.”Placed against glass flowers near whitewashed walls, not far from a sculpture by Kris Ruhs, even the best bag will be imbued with something of the gallery. This is artful seduction.
Then Sozzani plugs all the above into the “e-ther” – that great and powerful out-there that conducts trends and propagates hype, and when it works, can turn things into magnificence. It goes something like this…
Product – the latest collaboration sneaker – is worn and teased by the kind of fashion shopper who has hero status (and a huge Instagram following). This product then becomes hyped through association with the wearer. Conversely, the sneakers then stand alone, and you, as a shopper, have another reason to buy them other than because they’re cool sneakers. These sneakers, says the hype, will bring you hero status as well. You can buy these sneakers at 10 Corso Como.
This is season-blind drop-culture, something Sozzani and her team champion, particularly regarding menswear. The seasons at this level of the market still resonate, of course, but a weekly or fortnightly renewal feeds those hungry for (and addicted to) Sozzani’s special edit. She offers her advice to anybody with an eye for retail. It’s complicated, she says, hard work, too, but get it right and bingo!
“First you have to know what you want to do, and when you do, it’s important to stick with it, because if you start going here and there it becomes difficult. I was a journalist and then I got fired,” she says. “I started 10 Corso Como, I changed it along the way and the whole thing was an evolution. I guess you could say Corso Como is a constant evolution. Fashion, too.”
Photograph by Maria Ziegelboeck & taken from Issue 61 of Ten Magazine. Express, Celebrate, Identity is on newsstands now.