Emanuele Farneti, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue, discusses the unshackling of fashion from ‘seasons,’ the freedom he finds in prioritising concept over celebrity on his covers, and routes into big issues for an industry many turn to for escapism.
Farneti was appointed to his current role after the unexpected death of celebrated Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani in 2016. He had previously edited the Italian editions of Archictural Digest and of GQ.
This interview was published 1 June 2020.
DM: We’re cautiously resurfacing from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has perhaps been a time to take stock of what’s important; and many people, myself included, have been lucky enough to find the headspace for a bit of introspection. I wonder if you have as well, in your role as editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia. What is emerging important for you – for Vogue Italia?
EF: Yeah, it was a very interesting and challenging moment at the beginning of this situation. We had been working over the past couple of years to find the right tone of voice for the magazine, and at the beginning of this year it felt like all the pieces of this puzzle were finally coming together.
I’m already working very well with new creative director, Ferdinando Verderi, and we were planning a few editorial ideas for the first six months of 2020 – what we think would have been a good balance between Vogue Italia’s legacy and a new way to interpret the magazine, between fashion and the possibility to bring in other content, and in terms of using fashion to deliver messages.
We had some good coverage for the “Italian Beauty” issue, featuring Maty Fall Diba on the cover [a Senegalese-born woman raised in Chiampo, Italy], as we did for the issue helping Venice. At the very beginning of the pandemic – kind of by chance because it ended up feeling so timely – we had a CGI model on the cover.
Then, the entire world stopped for a few days. We were returning from Paris, I went to a house I’d hired outside Milan for two days... and I ended up staying here for months. (As Italians, we probably had the feeling the situation was serious before others.)
Editorially, we decided not to ignore that the world was changing – a call we had to make quickly – and gathered people to describe this new world starting from April, postponing the other content we had ready. Really it was really fast. I joke about it already: luckily, being Italian, we are very used to last-minute! We don’t plan things a lot in advance. So compared to other magazines that were already delivering their November issues, we were at an advantage.
DM: You were finally rewarded for it!
EF: Yes!... It was interesting, listening to all these ‘webinars’ that have been happening, I get the feeling that, actually, creative people were not in the headspace to actually create things during those two months. I remember an author saying that in those months, he hadn’t read a single book beginning to end, and he hadn’t work on his own. It was a relief for me. It sounds like a paradox, but having time and being more with yourself, doesn’t necessarily mean – for a lot of people – that they would become more creative.
DM: And, on isolation: I’ve been reading books and essays by Olivia Laing and Virginia Woolf and Rebecca Solnit, and what has emerged really is that there are two camps: people for whom isolation fuels creativity, or simply permeates it, and people for whom the opposite is true – who feel stifled and who need to roam and explore, somewhat aimlessly, to find inspiration. Perhaps that’s a conversation for another time, actually! But, tangentially, I’m curious: how did you, I mean Vogue Italia, approach the creative process of addressing this moment? [Vogue Italia published an all-white cover for its April issue.]
EF: There were a couple of things we considered. Of course, we researched what the other Vogues did during challenging times – so, World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, 9/11. It became obvious there were two possibilities: escapism or trying to join in on the conversation. British Vogue during and just after World War II was very inspiring to us – in thinking about whetherVogue had to be political or not political. [Editor’s note: British Vogue opted for the former; their editor at the time, Audrey Withers, referred to British Vogue’s female readers as “soldiers without guns.”]
The second thing we considered was... well, honestly, we are lucky for the legacy of Vogue Italia. I think they describe it on Wikipedia as “the least commercial” of the Vogues, which is a nice way to say it! We are little freer to play. Would others have been able run an all-white cover? What Franca Sozzani did in the last decade, with those five or six very famous covers she did with Meisel, opened the path to a balance between fashion and… the real world. [Laughs]
The priority is to be honest; the white cover was that, admitting that saying nothing was the most appropriate thing to do at that time.
DM: Day-to-day, we see brands making industry-changing decisions. I’m thinking of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, who has said he’ll drop seasons, reduce the number of shows to two, further breakdown the boundaries between menswear and womenswear. This will have a big impact on your editorial schedule, and also on your advertising; what are the considerations for you?
EF: It’s quite obvious that this will impact fashion magazines, too. Just thinking about the famous September issues – will they be as relevant as they were before if the calendar changes that deeply?
And also, this idea of merging womenswear and menswear will have a big impact, particularly in Italy, where menswear has a bigger relevance than elsewhere. As much as we understand why it makes sense for brands to have men’s and women’s showing together, I would not say that it’s good news for menswear, which will obviously get less attention.
What is interesting, though, is that before the pandemic… well,Vogue Italia is still running 12 issues a year, and out of those 12 issues, there were probably five or six of them that were still very strong and happening in months where fashion was very relevant – either for shows, or when people were buying. A couple of them were extremely weak – the beginning of the year and mid-summer – and then the remaining four or five were in between.
What we were discussing was not necessarily reducing the number of issues but maybe using them in a different way. All of us were pretending to do the same magazine in September, where we have 300 editorial pages, and in January, where we have 110 – and just squeezing or enlarging the same typology of ‘magazine’ that was making the big issues too big and not intense enough, and the small issues not big enough to express what you have to say. It was a kind of lazy approach.
We were considering whether it made more sense to use different structures for the magazine at different times of year in order to deliver different content. Something we were going to push forward in the second half of 2020 or in 2021.
What is happening now, it’s hard to say. If brands aren’t going to focus together at the same time of the year, this might even become a chance to spread the interesting content and attention across all 12 issues. It’s a bit early to say.
DM: The lockdown has also accelerated a number of trends, of course. The primary example is that we have all spent months living our lives almost entirely through screens. The digital life of magazines is more important than it has perhaps ever been. Was Vogue Italia prepared for that?
EF: Every time we launch and issue, there’s a discussion with the team about Calls to Action. In September, for example, we commissioned a number of meme artists, and in fact some of their fake covers where shared even more than the real covers.
Sometimes it happens spontaneously, as it did with the ‘No photoshoots’ fashion illustration issue in January, where people began to send in illustrations from all over the world. It’s more rewarding, of course, when you do have to ask people to do something! And you can amplify what you get. Of course, doing anything under the Vogue Italia it helps to amplify it.
Considering digital, it took me a while to figure it out, but I realised I had to change my mindset. I was born and raised in magazines and newspapers, where the typical attitude is that when you send something to print that content is gone, and you’re focusing on what’s next. While the opportunity we have now is that, when you find something working you should not consider it ‘gone’ as long as it’s still got traction on social media – maybe for two, three, four, five months.
Finding a way to have people within your team to keep ‘alive’ content that starts in print and moves to digital is something that is very interesting but also very difficult – because, of course, we do also have to focus on what is coming up.
(We are also starting to work with our platforms in different ways, to build communities, such as Vogue Talents and Photo Vogue.)
DM: I wanted to ask about Franca and her relationship with Steven Meisel, who shot so many Vogue Italia covers under her editorship – and obviously she found some benefit in that consistency.
EF: The more I think about the genius of Franca, I think one single photographer doing every single cover, it’s mind-blowing. The fact of not having to worry about the cover for 20-and-some years is among her brilliant ideas; counting on Meisel to deliver an amazing cover every month and being free to focus elsewhere.
For several reasons, this is not possible anymore. We still work with Meisel from time to time. And we know that working with those four or five big photographers that made Vogue Italia is important – Meisel, Roversi, Lindbergh… – but to mix those with fresh talent and blend them together. And perhaps at first we went a bit too far in that renovation, but at the moment the balance is quite good.
What is challenging, and can and should be improved, is making sure photographers are clear that the pictures they do for Vogue Italia are different that the pictures they do for other magazines – which is kind of happening. Unfortunately, the situation where you can have photographers working only for you, as you would have, isn’t possible.
DM: And, so is the alternative going for a lot of diversity?
EF: When I was researching for the white cover, I ended up reading about the Beatles’ White Album, which came after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – exactly the opposite. One packed with people and colour, the next totally clean. The rule of opposites kind of applies to what we do now – trying not to be predictable. And, I think I’m having the most fun with that. Sometimes you may like it, sometimes you may not, but you’re never getting what you expect.
It gives us a lot of opportunity to produce digital content that is very different, as well – for instance, if we had a celebrity on the cover every month, it would be about an interview with that celebrity, maybe finding slightly different ways to present it...
DM: ... rather than a concept.
EF: ... In our case, the concepts are so different, it’s fun to imagine the digital strategies behind them.
DM: Almost to return to where we began: fashion, at the level at which it’s presented in Vogue, is to many a form of escapism – a kind of fantasy land. Can fashion still be that in crisis? Or, what can it offer?
EF: As Franca used to say, “Fashion is much bigger than a dress,” and the more I work within this environment [the fashion industry] the more I understand that to be true, and that there is an opportunity to use fashion to reach a very large range of people and try to do that with meaning. Not to say that we shouldn’t do pure escapism once in a while – we don’t want to be pretentious or boring. But, it would be a wasted opportunity not to connect with people emotionally.
DM: Emanuele, thank you so much.