Franca, an ageless 66, was born in Mantua. Her father, a classic Italian patriarch, was an industrial engineer who did not approve his daughter’s early ambitions to study physics. She studied literature and philosophy at university in Milan instead, and married soon after, although she knew, as she later admitted, that the marriage was doomed before she walked into the church. (Franca would later confess that romantic relationships were the one weak link in her formidable arsenal of triumphs.) The couple divorced three months later, and the free-spirited Franca went to India to find herself—“I thought it was time to do something good with my life.” Time spent in Swinging London further nurtured her creative spirit.
At the same time, Franca became an indispensable part of the Italian fashion scene, a shrewd power broker with an unequaled reach to its designers and the manufacturers and industrialists who keep the industry’s wheels turning. She ensured, in the process, that her stable of photographers and editors were also working on lucrative advertising campaigns—which meant, of course, that her exacting standards of editorial excellence were reflected in the look of the magazines before one even reached the editorial content.
Her first issue, for July/August 1988, with the single cover line “Il Nuovo Stile,” and a sepia-washed black-and-white image by Meisel of the pillowy-lipped model Robin MacKintosh wearing a plain white Ferré blouse, signaled that she was not going to be playing by anyone else’s rules. Meisel has shot nearly every subsequent cover for her magazine. As she had at Lei and Per Lui, Franca soon created a powerful visual language for the magazine, drawing on the talents of a core group of photographers—Weber, Roversi, and Lindbergh among them—whose collaborations with her would set the bar for fashion imagery through the decades and launch and mold the great models of the age. “Before fashion,” she said, “I love images.” In the process, she turned Italian Vogue into a magazine powerhouse with a reach and influence far beyond its relatively modest circulation. By contrast, the first-person blog she launched five years ago discussed contemporary issues in an endearingly forthright and revealing way.
A maverick spirit, she turned her Vogue into a magazine that not only celebrated the power of the image, but also used fashion stories as a platform to discuss broader issues, and the obsessions of the fashionable world. Franca had a passion for, and a deep knowledge of, fashion and its history, but an ability to keep an amused distance from its modern day excesses.
She was fearless in her willingness to tackle provocative and controversial social and cultural issues through the medium of fashion shoots. (“Fashion isn’t really about clothes,” she said, “it’s about life.”)
Lightning rod subjects included domestic violence (“Horror Movie,” Steven Meisel, April 2014), and the contemporary obsession with plastic surgery (“Makeover Madness,” July 2005, a droll Meisel portfolio starring Linda Evangelista, Julia Stegner, and Missy Rayder, among others), and even the 2010 BP oil spill (Meisel with Kristen McMenamy washed up on the rocks and slicked with tar).
In 2008, she produced the Black Issue, its editorial pages, entirely shot by Meisel, exclusively featuring women of color. It contributed mightily to the dialogue about diversity in the fashion industry and became an instant collector’s item. “Franca doesn’t realize what she’s done for people of color,” her friend Naomi Campbell (one of four cover stars with 20 portraits inside the magazine) told The New York Times at the time, “It reminds me of Yves [Saint Laurent] using all the black models.”
She also owned an airy villa in Portofino, and in Marrakech she acquired a series of riads in the heart of the medina, creating a unique, rambling property out of the Arabian Nights with high-ceilinged rooms decorated in rich, spicy colors evocative of a Bakst decor for the Ballets Russes, its splendors offset by the contemplative calm of its De Chirico–esque courtyards with their arched loggias and verdant gardens.
Franca was especially close to her only child, Francesco. Like her, he studied philosophy, but spent recent years directing and producing a documentary about his mother. The result, Franca: Chaos and Creation (the title came from Weber’s description of the editor’s approach), premiered on a Friday evening at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, with a high-voltage guest list, and to great critical acclaim. As well as revealing the profound esteem in which Franca’s collaborators held her (Lindbergh even confessed to having enjoyed a decades-long platonic love affair with her), it also turned out to be a profoundly moving study of an unusually close mother and son relationship that was by turns playfully combative, conspiratorial, and loving, and founded on a deep mutual respect and reliance.
It was a letter of love from a child to a parent, and a remarkably evocative testament to the personality of this remarkable woman whose talent was matched by her fierce loyalty and her passion for life.