MILAN — Jaded is the word that least describes Carla Sozzani, whose energy and enthusiasm about fashion, art, design and nature is contagious.
During an interview in her luminous studio above her 10 Corso Como store, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, Sozzani talked about how moved she was by a sunset in Portofino over the previous weekend, whipping out her portable phone to show a photo she took. After all, “images have always been my thing,” said Sozzani, surrounded by photos of Man Ray and Helmut Newton on the whitewashed walls, art by Kris Ruhs and design furniture, such as a chair by Norman Cherner.
“I started this store with a photo gallery. There was nothing similar at the time, as photos were not considered art — but I was so sure they were,” she explained.
The gallery quickly evolved into an influential fashion boutique, where Sozzani’s own taste is reflected in every nook and cranny. She is a hands-on retailer, in charge of buying and editing fashion brands ranging from Balenciaga, Prada and Maison Martin Margiela to Azzedine Alaïa and Dries Van Noten.
“I’m here from morning to evening; this store is my passion, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to be so involved, and I love this place as my own home,” said Sozzani, who speaks in soft tones and often breaks into an engaging smile. “I’m curious — I like everything, there is always something new and beautiful. You must not be too blasé.”
Referring to fashion, she said designers should be given a chance, “even if you’ve already seen that dress, now you see it with different eyes. Even from well-known designers, there is always something, a flicker…this keeps me alive.”
Sozzani describes her store as a “bazaar” filled with objects that mirror her own curiosity. “Without curiosity, nothing happens — it’s at the basis of any discovery and evolution,” she noted.
The concept of the store hasn’t changed since the early days. “It’s a living magazine,” she said, which also explains the initial reasoning behind the boutique. Sister of Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani, the two women share long, wavy blonde hair, fair skin, a minute figure and a career in magazines. After a long stint at Vogue Italia, Carla Sozzani launched Italian Elle in 1987, but something was missing. “There was no Internet at the time and no direct contact with people. Perhaps today it would be different, but I felt strongly about it at the time,” she added, noting how she edits different categories for her store in addition to fashion, such as books and art.
“This is a destination, an inspiration and I like that. Customers or even just visitors are moved by the same thing. They wander in and ask what is new. There is a nice relationship, an exchange of ideas. I like to talk and listen. It’s enriching — but I’m the worst seller,” she said with a laugh.
While acknowledging the challenges of the economy, which have forced many independent retailers to close, Sozzani said, “it’s always been difficult.” However, she described her customers as very loyal, because their tastes are similar to her own. “It’s not purely about the purchase. Those who come here want the experience; they are drawn by my editing. Usually, those who come here know that what I sell has been chosen for them. It’s what I like and what they also like, hence their loyalty.”
But she now has more than the store. In 1998, Sozzani opened a restaurant as an alternative to the existing café, and a minuscule hotel with three rooms, aptly called 3 Rooms, in 2003. “It’s a home-away-from-home concept,” she said.
In 2002, together with Rei Kawakubo, she opened the 10 Corso Como-Comme des Garçons store in Tokyo. “I didn’t feel strong enough at the time to go about it on my own, so I decided on a cobranding project,” said Sozzani. Six years later, she unveiled a three-story 10 Corso Como store in Seoul, in a partnership with Samsung Group.
“There isn’t a marketing project mapped out in advance; it all grew by instinct and accomplished step-by-step,” Sozzani said of the expansion of 10 Corso Como, which is now a brand in its own right. Sozzani revealed she’s thinking of opening a 10 Corso Como in Shanghai in 2012.
The latest extension is a rooftop garden on top of the Milan flagship, of which Sozzani is particularly proud.
She describes her philosophy of fashion retailing as “slow shopping, a walk between art, music and flowers, and fashion, where all of our senses are engaged. It’s a privilege, and I want to enjoy that moment with no hurry. There’s music and armchairs. This is not a supermarket.”
In addition to the established brands she carries, Sozzani is always on the lookout for emerging designers and spoke highly of the Canadian-born Thomas Tait, who shows his “sartorial couture” line in London.
Sozzani lamented the fact that young designers in Italy “don’t have the desire to build their brand, and opt for working for big groups as creative directors.” Twenty years ago, it was different, she reminisced, as designers were willing “to suffer” to create their own house. “Think of [Rei] Kawakubo, [Jean Paul] Gaultier, [Giorgio] Armani, [Gianni] Versace. Of course it’s harder, with a structure where you have to pay people and fabrics, and the world is bigger. But what will the future of Made in Italy be?
“I believe you cannot express yourself entirely if you work for others,” she said. “Would Armani have dared to do the deconstructed jacket if he had worked for someone else? Would he have had the same personality and strength? He is a living treasure. Look at Alaïa, nothing curbs him. They believe in themselves and they are marvelous examples for others.”