VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 27: (L to R) Francesco Carrozzini, Livia Firth, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Iman, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett attend the third Franca Sozzani Award 2019 at the Belmond Cipriani Hotel on August 27, 2019 in Venice, Italy.  (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Eco-Age)

VENICE — It was Iman’s night, to be sure, but memories of Franca Sozzani were recalled by every guest gathered at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani here on Tuesday, ahead of the Venice Film Festival, which began Wednesday.

“Franca still succeeds in bringing us all together — I think it’s beautiful,” said Alberta Ferretti of the late Vogue Italia editor in chief, clearly moved. “She was a life coach, a special woman. Massimo also dropped everything and said he wanted to be here,” said Ferretti of her brother, executive chairman of Aeffe, parent company of the Alberta Ferretti brand and Moschino. As Iman arrived, stunning in a plum Valentino gown, he enthused about the model and activist’s “incredible and enduring charm.”

A charm that Iman turned on throughout the evening. As she received the Franca Sozzani Award from the hands of Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli and donned a pair of glasses to read her speech, she said to a round of laughter: “Tonight I have been asked how do you stay so young? It’s in my DNA but don’t fret, my sight is gone.”

Speaking with WWD about her friendship with Sozzani, with whom she had worked both as a model and on humanitarian projects, she said she believed “there is nobody in the fashion industry who did not have a strong relationship with Franca and as a black model she was a champion for us. I always say she was first a journalist and then an editor, because she showcased in the pages of a fashion magazine the ills of society, without making a big deal about it but trying to put a highlight on this and to educate people. That was her strength. I don’t think there is any black or white model or photographer who doesn’t highly regard her because she also respected the artists and always collaborated with them. We were not just someone to hire.”

Diversity and inclusion are current concepts, but she underscored this has not always been the case. “It was a shock to me because when I was a top model in the Eighties, there were more black models than six or 10 years ago. Bethann Hardison, Naomi and I first wrote to the CFDA talking about diversity because at one point there were no black models on the Prada, Calvin Klein or Celine runways, for example. Things had gone back but that changed by just talking about it and putting forth the idea of diversity. And I won’t call the designers racist as I don’t think there’s any racist designer, but there are more and more shows than ever so they hire casting agents who have become the gatekeepers and decide who will see the designers or not. Although I know and I can sympathize they are stressed for time, there is nobody who is busier than Pierpaolo or Tom Ford and they do their own casting, they see every model and so designers have understood they cannot rely on the casting agents and they started telling them they want to see diverse models. It’s so important for the models to be seen on the runway, it may be the only time editors will see them. It’s shocking in such a short period of time how really the fashion industry showed up to actually correct the lack of diversity.”

Closing her speech, Iman credited her parents for her “fury against injustice. We can do so much in life when we are shown how.”

“You cannot leave the choice to a casting director,” concurred Piccioli, after taking several photos of Iman posing on the Venice Canal, with a beautiful view of the city and its celebrated Piazza San Marco in the background. “I post only my own photos on Instagram,” he said.

The designer explained it took him four months to cast the group of models, mostly black, whether unknown or established such as Liya Kebede and Naomi Campbell, for his spring couture show in January because they had to reflect his vision, “not just because they were black.” The show, he said, wanted to “celebrate black beauty,” but it was also a way of “celebrating the work of Franca and her visionary [2008 Vogue Italia] Black Issue. Fashion tends to forget, but this is not right. We should give credit to her. There is an increased sensibility to this theme, but at the time, her statement was strong. Copies were sold out in 48 hours in the U.K. and we still talk about it globally. But she took on a serious topic without taking herself too seriously or parading it around. She used fashion as her own voice, I learned this from her and that fashion can say something that is social. The power of the image is stronger than any word. When 48 black models wear a classic couture collection, it becomes normal.”

Piccioli recalled that in his first campaign alone for Valentino after the exit of Maria Grazia Chiuri, he tapped Iman. “She and Naomi represent the dream of many black models that didn’t have the possibility to dream about the runways,” he said.

Sozzani’s son, photographer and film director Francesco Carrozzini, who in 2017 established the award to recognize women who stand out for their artistic careers and their social commitment and that was first bestowed to Julianne Moore and then on Salma Hayek, said this was yet another way to keep his mother’s memory alive. Carrozzini underscored that this was “an important time in her legacy” as this year the award celebrates the beginning and support of The Franca Sozzani Fund for Preventive Genomics at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard. The “Franca fund” was established in 2018 by Carrozzini, performing artist and investor D.A Wallach, and Harvard Medical School professor and physician-scientist Robert Green to accelerate the use of genomics.

“She belonged to that generation that said ‘I will go to the doctor when I’m sick’ — sadly it may have been why she died,” said Carrozzini. Sozzani died in 2016 of a rare form of cancer. “You don’t need to be afraid of your DNA,” said Green.

“I am very, very happy with Francesco’s choice of Iman for the award,” said Livia Firth, creative director and founder of Eco-Age. “Franca’s legacy is strong, she was revolutionary and she thought outside the box. Julianne and Salma are strong and fearless, but Iman is so similar to Franca in how she has always been at the forefront in fashion and ahead of her time, fighting for diversity. I have always admired her and it makes so much sense that she receives the award this year coinciding [with the Franca Fund],” said Firth, recalling how Iman, too, lost her husband David Bowie to cancer.

Firth, who also organizes the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, said she had discussed Iman’s attendance at the event, to be held on Sept. 22 at the La Scala theater in Milan. “She would like to come, we were talking about this today. Let’s see, her daughter is going to college…”

As guests including Colin Firth, Matteo Marzotto and Federico Marchetti, took their seats for dinner, Rupert Everett had the last say on diversity and inclusivity. “I am biodegradable, I have no carbon footprint, I am single, I don’t have children and I am going on a private jet with Harry and Meghan next week,” he quipped.

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