Franca Sozzani, the powerhouse behind Italian Vogue, has made a singular mark on the world of fashion over the last 30 years. After serving as an editor at both Vogue Bambini and the influential Italian fashion magazine Lei, Sozzani took over Italian Vogue in 1987, and since then, has transformed the magazine into a platform for celebrating the power of the image and of photography. In the process, she has helped reimagine the medium of the fashion magazine as a kind of cultural lightning rod, and has consistently used both fashion and fashion imagery as a vehicle for tackling social, political, and even environmental issues.

Sozzani herself has served as a bit of a lightning rod, always capturing, recording, and at times preempting the zeitgeist. In the ’90s, she helped create the phenomenon of the supermodel with one of her closest long-term collaborators, Steven Meisel, and she has championed a tight-knit group of photographers such as Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh, and Paolo Roversi, working with them to develop a visual language for the magazine that continues to provide a mood board for the moment. Sozzani’s controversial 2008 “Black” issue, which featured only black models, was hotly debated and dissected both within the fashion world and beyond it, reigniting the conversation about racial diversity in fashion. In the aftermath of the BP spill in 2010, she published a story featuring model Kristen McMenamy wearing a fur coat and covered in oil. She has commissioned provocative studies of subjects such as the paparazzi and rehab clinics that have fearlessly taken on the obsessions, addictions, and crises of contemporary culture with a lightness and humor that only serves to magnify the message behind them.

Documentary film producer and sustainability advocate Livia Firth recently spoke with Sozzani, who had just returned to Milan after a busy Couture Week in Paris, about the risks and the rewards of being one of fashion’s great darers, her latest passion, and how her own relationship to fashion has evolved over her three-decade career.

LIVIA FIRTH: The first time that I came to your office, you reminded me a bit of a leopard with your eyes and your stance. You stared at me at first, trying to understand who I was, and you listened, but there was an intensity in your eyes, and I was quite scared. [laughs] But then by getting to know you better, I discovered a woman who was fun and mischievous and incredibly curious about everything. What do you think is the difference between the perception that people have of you—the public Franca Sozzani—and who you really are? Is there a difference between the two?

FRANCA SOZZANI: I make a difference. I think in a way there’s almost a choice, you know? I don’t think when you work you have to please everybody—you make a choice. It’s not like everybody who is in front of you has to become your best friend. You can be easy, you can be nice . . . But I always keep my guard up. Only when I know people can I open myself up, so sometimes I even get called shy. I need to protect myself from everybody. I see so many people all day, all demanding their own jobs, their own opportunities, so in a way, I make a distinction. I’m very difficult about opening myself up with people at first . . . It just takes time.

FIRTH: You are famous for being a risk taker. You did a “Black” issue, you did a “curvy” issue, and people call you a rebel. Do you think of yourself as a rebel? Or does this have more to do with having curiosity and a willingness to explore?

SOZZANI: I think I just do what I feel is good to do. Everybody can give me their suggestions, but at the end, the final risk is mine because it’s my name on the magazine. So I only do what I really feel. Everybody tries to influence you, of course: “Oh, this is the right moment to do this” and “This is the right photographer to choose,” and “This is the right model to have . . .” I listen, but I must go my own way. When you take risks, it means that you know every month people are there to judge you. Some months are good; some months are bad. When you make a mistake, they call you immediately. And when you do something good, they send flowers to the stylist. So this is a way to say that I want to do it myself. I don’t care if you like it or not. I do the magazine that I think is correct. If you like this issue, I am more than happy. If you don’t like this issue, you will like the next because we do 14 issues a year. So once in a year you will love, no? I’m very independent.

FIRTH: You are very independent. You’ve also had a long history of encouraging young people—you love new talent. In fact, you’ve actually opened the doors of Italian Vogue in Milan for two years in a row now to more than a thousand young people to meet with you and your staff. How did that work? Did each one of them have some time with you?

SOZZANI: It was very intense because you’ve got 1,500 people in two afternoons. So it was very fast. People would be very calm and cool, all very well dressed. They were coming to the Vogue office . . . But what’s strange is that everybody has a different question. It’s not all like, “How do you be a fashion editor?” or “I want to be an writer.” It’s like, “I want to take a good picture” or “I like this look—what do you think is good?” They come to you not to have an answer for their lives but to have an answer for that moment. I’m not the prince of China, so it’s not like they come and I say, “Oh, you will have a life in Vogue.” But when you try to support somebody, you know that you have to be careful of the words that you use. So in a very quick way, I’m like, “No, no, don’t do commercial. Go this way,” or “You are very good at doing commercial. Don’t be scared to do commercial. It’s not a bad word.” You know, it was different intentions for every person. And all these people today—they write, they see, and they follow the blogs . . . So that’s interesting.

FIRTH: Most magazines have different editors for online, but you are very much the core of both the print and the online versions of Italian Vogue. How do you think you have had to change the magazine with the evolution of the Internet?

SOZZANI: I thought Italian Vogue had always been considered the most experimental, avant-garde magazine. If I was going to use the same kind of language and the same kind of photos or images on the web site, it would be a disaster because Vogue has its own world, and it could be a little bit cold, you know? We don’t give what you call a service—you know, like, how to get your husband to do something or how to do well in school. We don’t do anything like that. It’s all about a vision, an aesthetical interpretation of a reality that you can sway. And I understood that this language could be a very wrong way to communicate with people through the Web site. So I decided to follow the web site and to change the language, keeping it visually as strong as the magazine but talking to readers, creating a connection with them, because sometimes through the magazine—through the news, the gossip, the parties, the fashion shows, the interpretations—you don’t make a connection. You need photo blogs in which the young readers can post their own pictures, or a challenge for young designers. Everybody is starting their own line now, posting their own pieces on the fashion blogs and in videos through the leading Web sites, so all these things are destined to make them closer to me. Otherwise, they might think that I am uptight, unhelpful, aggressive, and very vile because I don’t have this human way to talk to them or even an ironical way to answer their questions because I’m such . . . You know, I can be very tough in my answers, and that was good for the magazine because it didn’t mix focus points—it was to be extravagant, experimental, innovative. But the web site has made it more human. So the Web site is good for the magazine.

FIRTH: Through the magazine, you have also started to do your social work. Some people seem to think that the fact that you are engaged with social work and activism clashes with the ephemeral world of fashion. But fashion can be a very strong weapon to achieve a kind of social justice. Do you struggle to reconcile these two aspects of your work?