Although her career was brief, so striking and timelessly chic were Isa Stoppi’s looks that she is considered to have been Italy’s most successful model. Richard Avedon, who photographed her, as well as countless other sirens, placed her on an even higher pedestal. “Isa Stoppi,” he thought, “is the most beautiful woman in the world, with two lakes in place of her eyes.”
Those aquamarine portals, allied to a glacial but regal elegance, might seem to be an instant ticket to the cover of fashion magazines, but as ever her success depended on a large helping of good fortune and good timing.
In the early 1960s Italy was still in the shadow of France’s couturiers and its nascent fashion industry was finding its feet as the country recovered from the war. The photographer Gian Paolo Barbieri was also starting out in the business but he found it difficult to get models suitable for catalogues. Only a few designers, such as Emilio Pucci, staged runway shows, and those were largely small affairs.
Barbieri’s brother, Renzo, who had a keen eye for beauty, introduced him to Stoppi. She was then in her early twenties and in 1962 had represented Italy at the Miss Universe contest, staged in Miami. Despite this accolade, Barbieri thought she was still carrying what he described as “baby fat” and that the fringe she sported did her no favors.
The results of a swimwear shoot that they did together were unpromising but, he recalled, “I had realized that there was something magical about her that made me want to work with her”. His house guest was Pablo Manzoni, a celebrated makeup artist for Elizabeth Arden, who subjected Stoppi to what one would now term a makeover. In particular, her hair was given a lighter tint, bringing out her eyes and cheekbones.
“It only needed a little to free her natural magnetism,” Barbieri said. “She had become a blond tigress.” He decided to do a test shoot for Stoppi’s new look and while Manzoni applied a few floral decorations to her face, he borrowed a boa constrictor from Milan’s zoo.
When Diana Vreeland, the formidable editor-in-chief of Vogue, saw the photograph of this Italian Eve and her serpent, she declared in a stentorian voice “I want this!” and Stoppi’s career was launched.
Her success depended on a large helping of good fortune and good timing.
Vreeland got her taken on by Eileen Ford’s agency in New York and over the next few years Stoppi worked with photographers including Irving Penn, Bert Stern, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Henry Clarke, with whom she shot a memorable spread in India. Hers was the face seen on the cover of the first edition of what became Vogue Italia and she was at the center of a group of Italian models who found doors opening for them in Manhattan, among them Marina Schiano.
Stoppi’s greatest attribute as a model, Barbieri believed, was her mind. “She was intelligent, unlike most models, who have not cultivated themselves, and she had the gift of bringing something of herself to everything she wore, which is also very rare.” She was also much liked for her wit and straightforward temperament, approaching fashion with a free-spirited nonchalance that could be caught by the camera.
Stoppi became identified with the rising Italian wave of designers, modeling for Valentino and later for Armani and Versace. She liked to cook and would make spaghetti al pomodoro for Valentino Garavani when he was in New York.
By the late Sixties she had realized most of her ambitions in fashion. She had hopes of being taken up by cinema, but aside from a brief appearance in Sidney Lumet’s The Appointment (1969), which featured many Italian faces, these came to nothing; indeed, she did not like the film. Instead, what was to next transform her life was love.
For all the eagerness with which Italy embraced her status in fashion, her roots were not classically Italian. Iside Stoppi was born in 1941 in Tajura, an oasis town in Libya close to where Muammar Gaddafi would be born the following year. The country was then an Italian colony and her parents, through whom she had Austrian ancestry, worked on a farm. When she was ten, however, Libya gained its independence, having been under Allied control since 1943, and the Stoppis knew there was little future for them there. For the next few years they lived in a caravan park in Syracuse in Sicily. Isa’s father died when she was 12 and to help her mother support her and her sister she went to work in a tomato-canning factory, sorting ripe from rotten by hand. Later the family moved to Castell’Arquato, between Parma and Piacenza.
In the late Sixties, in a Milan nightclub, she met the industrialist Gian Germano Giuliani. He had built into a substantial enterprise the family pharmaceutical business, originally founded on the reputation of a medicinal herbal tonic. He was also married, to Bedy Moratti, whose father, Angelo Moratti, was Italy’s leading petroleum baron and owned Inter Milan football club.
After his divorce he and Stoppi were married in 1978 in Lugano, Switzerland. The threat of kidnap by the Red Brigades led them to raise their two sons there and Stoppi retired from modeling; Germano and Giammaria now run the family businesses. She and Giuliani were subsequently divorced, and, though admired by Teddy Kennedy, in 1988 she married Renzo Ghezzi, an insurance broker, who survives her.
Although she occasionally posed for the likes of Helmut Newton, Horst P Horst and Oliviero Toscani, in later years she preferred a life away from the camera. For two decades she spent much of the year on her finca in Ibiza, the odors of which reminded her of her childhood.
Her family, including her former husband, took out a full page in the Corriere della Sera to announce her death. “Ciao Isa,” it read. “Your beauty mirrored your life.”
Isa Stoppi, model, was born on June 12, 1941. She died of cancer on November 14, 2020, aged 79