At Italian Vogue, a New Beginning

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In January, not long after returning from his winter holiday, Emanuele Farneti, the 42-year-old editor of Italian GQ, was chatting with a media friend when the subject of Italian Vogue, the powerful fashion magazine whose revered longtime editor Franca Sozzani had died at age 66 the month before, came up.

“They’ll just have to close it,” the friend said to Mr. Farneti. “No one is going to be able to follow her. There’s nobody.” Mr. Farneti made some noncommittal noises. Then he changed the subject. Because what his friend did not know was that he had already been offered — and accepted — the job.

“I understood why she said it,” Mr. Farneti said dryly a few months later in the lobby of the Hôtel Costes in Paris, drinking a Coke. He was in the city for the couture shows and was wearing a Prada suit, Church’s shoes (Prada owns Church’s) — and a Swatch.

“I wouldn’t have thought of me necessarily either,” he said.

Yet on Friday, after seven months of staying relatively under the radar, Mr. Farneti will be the host of the biggest party of Milan Fashion Week, a 1,000-guest bash in the industrial space once used for Gucci’s shows. The former Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci is creative director of the event, called “The New Beginning” in celebration of, well, Mr. Farneti’s beginning, with Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” as the theme and performances by Sky Ferreira and Primal Scream, among others. It will be as close to an official coronation as fashion can have.

At a moment when a formative generation of glossy-magazine editors is moving on — Elle, Glamour and British Vogue have experienced turnover at the top this year — Mr. Farneti represents the beginning of the next wave. It’s possible the stakes around him are even higher, because his predecessor did not retire or get fired, she died. Most of the industry hadn’t even realized she was sick, and the news was a shock.

Little wonder certain questions have been accessorizing the story ever since: Who is this guy anyway? And what’s he going to do with that job?

For a start, Mr. Farneti said: “I am not Franca.”

Well, duh — except he is referring not just to the blindingly obvious, but also the fact that he is about as different from Ms. Sozzani as possible: He is a different gender, from a different generation and a different professional background and has a different mien. His experience is journalistic and legal, as opposed to visual or fashionable. The woman he is succeeding, practically a brand in herself, was described as a cross between a figure from Botticelli and one from Stendhal by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Mr. Farneti is most often described by those who know him or work with him as low-key, and occasionally as bourgeois.

With his wings of brown hair and square jaw, his fondness for leather loafers without socks, Mr. Farneti looks like nothing so much as a G-rated Hollywood version of an Italian. He tends to blend into the woodwork. At the couture shows, he sat quietly in the front row. No one really came to pay homage, as they did with other Vogue editors such as Anna Wintour and Emmanuelle Alt. Paparazzi did not take his picture with celebrities. In his room at the Costes, he had one bouquet of somewhat sere-looking flowers from Dior.

None of this bothers Mr. Farneti, who has two children ages 8 and 6; a wife who works for a digital marketing agency; an apartment near the Alberta Ferretti headquarters in Milan; and two getaways: a house in the Alps and one on the Italian coast near Portofino. Also, a 15-year-old black Suzuki he rides to work.

He does not mind being underestimated. That should not be confused with being insecure.

“I think there are lots of different ways to be an editor,” he said. “It can be useful to embody a magazine,” as Ms. Sozzani did, “but it’s not the only possible way.” Besides, it is his very un-Franca-ness that probably made him the best candidate for the job. As Jonathan Newhouse, the chief executive of Condé Nast International, said, “I don’t think it was possible to replace Franca with an exact duplicate, and we didn’t try to do so.”

Besides, it is clear that if there is one thing Mr. Farneti understands, it is engineering magazines. According to Mr. Newhouse, “He is a magazine ‘maker,’ which is someone who cannot only edit a publication but can conceive and create a title from scratch, which he has done in the past.”

Though he comes from a long line of respected Italian jurists and investigative reporters, and studied law at Milan University, Mr. Farneti started his career in television. He quickly moved into print as part of the team that founded Italian GQ, and from there went into sports journalism, covering soccer (his favorite team is Juventus) before becoming editor of the local version of Men’s Health. That led to a job with Panorama magazine, where he was in charge of supplements, including Flair, a woman’s style magazine.

In 2014 Condé Nast poached him to run the Italian edition of Architectural Digest, which he did for a year before returning to GQ, which he also did for a year. Vogue is the third magazine he has remade in as many years.

Still, when Condé Nast called on Jan. 2 to ask if he would be interested in the fashion publication, he said he never considered turning it down.

“For me, not having grown up in the fashion system makes it interesting,” Mr. Farneti said. “I have to take advantage of the fact I am not 24/7 in the fashion conversation.” Besides, he knows fashion people; he is close to Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, has what he calls a “decent” relationship with Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, and has known Diego Della Valle, chief executive of Tod’s, since interning for him in San Diego in 1995.

But reinventing Vogue is a difficult task, even without the former editor lingering in most people’s memories. Glossy publications are in free-fall. Over the summer Italian Condé Nast announced that by the end of the year it was closing all the peripheral Vogues that Ms. Sozzani had run: L’Uomo Vogue (men’s), Vogue Bambini (children’s), Vogue Sposa (bridal) and Vogue Gioiello (jewelry). It was spun as a decision to focus on the core property, but widely interpreted as a sign that the business needed meaningful belt-tightening in the age of digital.

Mr. Farneti, however, said, “I believe in print.” One of his first decisions was to adopt a larger format page. Otherwise, he has moved slowly.“You don’t have to delete everything that came before,” he said. “That’s super arrogant.”

His relaunch cover for the July issue was a gesture of continuity: Shot by Steven Meisel, a photographer championed by Ms. Sozzani (he did all her covers until 2014), it had a vintage air.

When Ms. Sozzani took over Vogue in 1988, she inherited a decidedly parochial magazine with no real profile outside the country; her genius lay in understanding that to make Italian Vogue matter to anyone who was not Italian, she would have to communicate largely through photographs. She did so, and then added a dollop of activism on top, commissioning shoots that dealt with domestic abuse, plastic surgery and the BP Oil Spill. They were impossible to ignore, and her magazine soon became known as the most visually powerful of all Vogues. Though the magazine has a circulation of only 100,000, tiny compared to American Vogue’s approximately 1.2 million, Italian Vogue has an outsize influence: It is the kind of magazine that other magazine people buy.

Mr. Farneti understands this, but he has his own agenda. “The Apple people all say the worst thing they could have done over the last five years is try to think, ‘What would Steve have done?’ ” Mr. Farneti said, by way of explanation. His goal now is to make the magazine function as a platform to introduce Italian talent to the world.

“I want to put more Italian soul into the magazine, have it define this attitude toward life and beauty,” he said (despite this, one of his early moves was to name Luke Leitch, who is English, as an editor at large; he is not oblivious to the power of the accessible word). “I understand how hard it is for young talent in Italy to have a global impact.” Hence the September issue, which comes with a sticker on the front announcing “It’s All About Italy.”

“It’s a good idea,” said Stefano Tonchi, the Italian who is editor of W. “At this moment of globalization, if you want to make a dent you have to something unique and in a way local to offer the larger world.”

So far only two senior staff members have left the magazine, though Mr. Farneti’s management style has been an adjustment. “People were used to having Franca pick up the phone and solve their problems for them,” he said. He’s more into direct accountability.

For now, however, he has other pressing questions on his mind. Like what to wear to his party. “It’s a political decision,” he acknowledged, given the whole fashion world will be there, watching.

The solution: “a Zegna tuxedo.” Chosen because Ermenegildo Zegna is purely a men’s wear brand, which makes it neutral territory in the women’s wear (or sometimes women’s-plus-men’s wear) season. Plus, it’s classic Italian, of course.

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