Inside Dolce & Gabbana's Jewellery, Menswear And Womenswear Haute Couture Collections
Showcased in Milan to the one-percent of the world’s wealthiest, Zul Andra wonders if this is the road to riches, or a road to redemption for the illustrious designers.
La Scala, in zero-degree Milan, plays host to its first-ever fashion show in its two-century-long history tonight. Contrasting with the growing bustle of Milanese and tourists in the cold outside is an undercurrent of murmurs—from the one-percentile of the world’s wealthiest—reminding us what we are here for. The trench coats are off. It’s warm and cosy. There’s no Wi-Fi connection in sight.
We are all seated along a row of gold-plated chairs on the theatre’s vast stage, looking out towards the towering columns of private booths cupping the central auditorium. The soft musk from the antique fixtures that remain, like aged books, calms the restlessness. That is if only one is aware, because the number of guests wearing crowns and tiaras could have easily distracted your nose their way.
Although renovated in 2002 at a cost of SGD95 million, the indomitable weight of rich Italian tradition—kedged in this 2,000-seat theatre—remains. This renders the clicking of outstretched iPhones indecorous. But how does anyone fully Snapchat or Instagram the repository of this theatre’s historical significance? The artistry that has performed here is, after all, the very influence that threads through Dolce & Gabbana’s 2016 Alta Moda—women’s haute couture—collection. Even the social media ban by the designers has fallen on deaf ears; mine included.
If you are to consider that we are seated at the same spot where the great 18th century performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly gave birth to today’s opera standards, then it’s intoxicating to realise that we are on the cusp of an old-world legacy and, as anticipated, a new one to come.
For designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Puccini and his granddaughter, Biki (AKA Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure, an Italian couturier in the ’40s) are the icons that have informed their Alta Moda collection.
And as the models take turns to walk up to the stage, herded by the aria of classical opera, I wonder if I can Shazam this track. But now’s not the time to listen to anything else on Spotify, or rapper Fetty Wap enthusing about his trap queen.
There are, however, regalia displayed on stage: gowns with embroidery of real gold, cloqué opera coats and royal headgear. And just like Rihanna’s USD9,000 filigree headphone/crown engineered by the same Italian designers (that sold out within 24 hours last month), these one-of-a-kind Alta Moda pieces are made to be bought today. Money is no object; unparalleled exclusivity is.
Even the menswear-influenced women’s couture doesn’t shy away from the bling. By the demands of the designers’ female clientele, these pieces are the work of the Alta Sartoria men’s atelier, albeit with a different cut for blue-blooded woman. The three-piece trouser suit and tweed skirt suit are punctuated with chained brooches and candy-like gems that only the moneyed in attendance can chew on.
Today’s Alta Moda womenswear, yesterday’s Alta Sartoria menswear and the fine jewellery showcased the day before all draw parallels with this play of majestic exuberance—one that customers will purchase off the rack and wear tomorrow with a goblet filled with a refreshing beverage of some kind.
As the final line of models struts down the aisle, camera flashes bounce off their shimmering pieces. Dolce and Gabbana follow soon after. And as the operatic music reaches its crescendo, a large percentage of the world’s one-percent lower their phones, some adjust their Alta Sartoria pieces bought the day before, and they give the designers a standing ovation.
Midway through the walk of gratitude, Dolce, the younger of the two designers, can barely contain his emotions. As those in attendance notice the tears streaming down his cheeks, cries of their names grow even more boisterous. Dolce buries his head in his hands, before reaching out to Stefano’s waist to guide him off stage.
Dolce and Gabbana return to thunderous applause with the former’s wet cheeks reflective under the light. As the crowd makes slow strides towards them to offer affection—more celebratory than consolation—one has to remember that the guests witnessing this poignant moment are their most ardent supporters.
They—the anonymous from the Middle Eastern oilfields, helicoptering Russian oligarchs, Asia’s moneyed housed in upscale hilltop mansions and beyond—live the brand. They are dressed from head to toe in Dolce & Gabbana—the robes, the crowns and the jewelled embroidery. Light-heartedly, their vascular organ could be bespoke Dolce & Gabbana.
Today is for Dolce & Gabbana’s ultras. Today is, arguably, the pinnacle of the duo’s 30-year fashion career.
But how did Dolce come to this moment? The last time any of the two designers were reportedly in tears was when the misty-eyed Gabbana spoke to The Telegraph in 2013 about being accused of tax evasion. Italy’s highest court eventually dropped all charges a year later.
Or are those tears of relief for completing their fourth year in womenswear haute couture and the second year for menswear? Their direct-to-client Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria lines undoubtedly take a lot of work. Made with the finest materials, the wealthiest buy up to 12 unique pieces a season—a different burden from their more populist ready-to-wear.
Or do Dolce’s tears have anything to do with this season at all? Or has the accumulated toll—or, perhaps, joy—from the path that they’ve chosen come to bear?
After all, this journey for Dolce and Gabbana hasn’t always been as smooth as Biki’s selection of silk or her great-grandfather’s verismo opera.
“Our world is for everyone,” Dolce tells me as I reach for another flute of brut champagne. It’s the evening after the Alta Sartoria men’s show, and the designers are hosting celebrities, VIPs and editors at the private suite of their multi-storey style office.
“Is it?” I reply. “You’ve seen the Alta Sartoria, yes?” I have. “It’s made for any season; anytime you can wear it. It’s about style, not fashion.”
It’s hard to agree that it’s not about fashion when the Alta Sartoria pieces tiptoe between costume and everyday wear. I have friends who are millionaires, but I’ve never seen them decked in anything close to a polo shirt made of ermine fur—which was showcased at the Alta Sartoria.
But what’s frown upon as fashion to the 99-percenters is accepted as style to the ultra-rich. There are no restrains when you can afford anything. If there’s a price tag on fantasy—a world that the clients expect—then, Dolce and Gabbana will speak in the same language through their Gatsby-style tennis jacket and duchess satin trousers, paired with velvet slippers that are embroidered with the Dolce & Gabbana crest.
The funny thing is, although these T-shirt and jeans-wearing friends of mine can be considered 1-percenters, I’m making an educated guess that Dolce & Gabbana’s haute couture line is arguably targeted at a much smaller group of people. The 0.36-percenters, to be exact.
For the sake of context, Dolce and Gabbana are worth USD1.3 billion each. According to Forbes, they are the 27th richest men in Italy and ranked a thousand-odd in the world. In a 2015 report by Swiss bank Credit Suisse, the top 1 percent owns 50 percent of the world’s estimated USD250 trillion assets. To be in the 1-percent group, you’ll need to have assets of more than USD1 million. There are 34 million people with this much dough. A top 0.36-percenter, however, has a net worth of more than USD50 million. There are only 123,800 of them in the world, and I’m chatting with one of them.
Dolce is an affable man. The red rings around his eyes tell me that he has been kept awake. Today, the last Saturday of January, is the second day of the triptych of haute couture shows. Two Saturdays ago was the designers’ Americana-influenced A/W 2016 runway show. Both Dolce and Gabbana continues to be unhurriedly accommodating.
Perhaps when Dolce tells me that their world is for everyone, he is inviting me to live vicariously through an elite world of which I’ve not experienced.
Dolce & Gabbana’s PR team would not reveal who their haute couture clients are or the price tag of any of the pieces. And rightfully so. I would consider this as more of a security concern than anything else. You won’t be able to find images of the who’s who during the shows; they’re cropped out to only focus on the pieces.
Journalists will be journalists, and the first to an uncontested fact puts you in the 1-percentile of journalists. But this is not The Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight team at work here. We are not exposing criminals. We are trying to understand an elite world where the term “exclusivity” retains its truest form and is not bastardised like a SGD2,000 table reservation in a nightclub.
Earlier in the day, and ahead of the Alta Sartoria show at Dolce and Gabbana’s multi-complex bespoke menswear headquarters, we meet up with the duo in one of their opulent, mid-century rooms. Getting to them is an experience in itself.
We walk up the polished marble staircase adorned with markedly neoclassical delights and step onto parquet flooring on which you can see an abstract reflection of yourself. Then, we pass by massive gold rococo-framed mirrors, a vintage bookcase from a hotel in Saint-Tropez and antique furnishing from the ’20s. The Venetian motifs and the paintings on the vaulted ceiling lead us to an atelier where both designers appear to welcome our arrival.
This 16th-century palazzo—complete with a boutique, a Sicilian courtyard, a martini bar, a spa and a barbershop—took six years to restore and continues to inspire their Alta Sartoria pieces.
Speaking to a small group of editors from around the world, Dolce and Gabbana have a knack for talking over and after each other. Cutting and completing each other’s sentences are met with no offence from the former lovers and restrained giggles from some of the editors.
Dolce and Gabbana might have consciously uncoupled in 2005, but they continue to produce great work together. Oddly, this verbal wrestling isn’t for the position of podium correctness. It is rather like watching an endearing, time-tested, couple trying to get to the same point while talking at the same time.
Dolce sits behind a live edge wooden table and remarks: “Our Alta Sartoria is very different from our ready-to-wear: you can wear it [the men’s haute couture] in hot or cold weather and…” Gabbana, who is sitting with the media, turns to the editors and interjects in his signature hoarse timbre, “It’s without seasons; that’s why we make coats and jumpers. It’s for now, wherever you are and…” Dolce punctuates, “It’s forever.”
Dolce: Many of our customers are sports fans…
Gabbana: And we have pieces for walking to the game, playing the game and going home…
Dolce: We have a customer from California who would like his scarf attached to his blazer…
Gabbana: Because he enjoys riding horses. You wouldn’t want to be wearing a normal scarf. It will…
Dolce: Fly away! Sports is sophisticated…
Gabbana: And sometimes, most [of our customers] play these sports at home.
Dolce: We approach this season as new designers.
Gabbana: Yes. Sometimes, we miss the times when we first started out, because if you know too much, it becomes a huge responsibility. If we stop at an inspiration because of our old experiences, we cannot grow.
Dolce: I love books. If you don’t touch, smell and see the print, it’s a different kind of luxury.
Gabbana: People have asked me if I do my research on Google. I say no. I do it with books. I’m old school. I asked a friend, a teacher, and he said that Google only goes back 15 years. But with books, I find new things and it opens my mind. To me, this is the new luxury.
Dolce: We have to find the balance between modernism and tradition. But we have the freedom to make what we want. Fashion, to us, is what you enjoy.
Gabbana: People have asked us to make a reality show.
Dolce: [Laughs] Working with Stef is the best. It’s impossible to work alone. We tell each other the truth.
Gabbana: But when I tell the truth, he doesn’t like it.
Dolce: But it works.
An hour before the Alta Sartoria show, Dolce takes us to the chaotic backstage to view the pieces—or rather, feel them, as he insists—that are hanging on the racks.
The collection is informed by three defining inspirations: the neoclassical interior of the palazzo; sophisticated sports—specifically tennis, golf and equestrian—and, finally, the cut and the fabric donned by American actors and style icons, Fred Astaire, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
But just as it’s a challenge to differentiate between costume and everyday wear, a portion of Dolce & Gabbana’s bespoke men’s line could also be considered androgynous. Not only did the Alta Sartoria men’s atelier work on some of the key menswear-influenced highlights for the Alta Moda, the womenswear department also worked on the men’s pieces. After all, why should women have all the fun when it comes to dressing up?
With a team of seamstresses numbering about a hundred full-timers, the blurred lines on gender-specificity only become clearer if you take a step back and look at the cut: the men’s are boxy and the women’s fluid. Beyond the lavishly decorative pieces, classic tailoring and sporty inspirations, you’ll find the Alta Sartoria man.
Here, we meet cashmere coats with garlands and laurels, beaded jackets with archaic Roman heads and those with neoclassical fresco inspirations; a jockey getup with panels is accessorised with a case for the whip; tennis and golf-goers lugging their gear in a glossy crocodile-skin case, tipping their caps inlaid with gold embroidery; satin robes and silk pyjama tops and trousers; a charcoal pinstripe suit trimmed with platinum and gold thread; a navy suit made of vicuña and cashmere.
The things I’d do for a cigarette right now. This unrestrained craftsmanship offers a different kind of orgasm.
I can hear the rich in attendance gasping at some of the pieces. It’s not the kind of gasp you make when you realise, as an opinion piece in The Guardian notes, the cultural misappropriation found in Dolce & Gabbana’s hijabs. It’s also not the same kind of reaction for the apologetic nature of their recent capsule collection—handbags and T-shirts showing a motif of same-sex couples with kids—that is considered a reparation of their statement opposing gay parenting and in-vitro fertilisation.
I am fully aware of their darker days, and I’m sure Dolce & Gabbana’s ultras are, too. But the exclamation that I hear from most of the guests, with a sparkle in their eyes and uprightness in their posture, is of profound adulation.
To keep things separate and distinct in the world of fashion, and to only focus on a designer’s better body of work, is almost unheard of. The blanket reproach from the public is easier to forgive than what incited it in the first place.
This isn’t rock ’n’ roll, because in the court of opinion there, it takes a lot more to care about anything people say. But in fashion’s court of opinion on the designers’ anti-surrogacy comment—led by Madonna and Elton John—we saw a rapid strike on a hot-button topic.
Perhaps by undressing the duo’s series of faux pas, the general public could have the clairvoyance in addressing the glorious workmanship behind this Alta Sartoria jacket. However, the people that continue to poke the white elephant in the room—so that it trumpets behind the thinly veiled curtains—are not Dolce and Gabbana’s faithful. Faith and the relentless pursuit for perfection is the return to what fashion was all about.
Perhaps, this chapter on Dolce and Gabbana isn’t about redemption as much as it is about a rebirth to form.
Genesis 1:27. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Brunello Cucinelli, Giorgio Armani, Maria Bianchi, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana—these are the Italian fashion gods made by those who have been baptised by their craft. And for these gods that put clothes on the shoulders of mankind, it’s a celestial relationship that defies common convention. Dolce imagines a world once they are long gone.
“When I was 50 [he turns 58 in August], I understood that my achievement would be my collection. When we [he and Gabbana] die tomorrow, I’d like to believe that we gave this brand a future,” Dolce reflects. “We hope that when we’re gone, the young designers will continue the Dolce & Gabbana philosophy.”
“Like the Vatican, we don’t suddenly pray to a new Jesus.”
When Dolce’s eyes welled up with tears at the Alta Moda and we made our way off stage, a guest—a handsome Italian woman, with a creamy smile hidden behind blood-red lipstick—walked up to him and completed a loving embrace. She peeled herself, and her sultry lace gown, off him and proceeded to clutch Dolce by his shoulders. As I stood there waiting to congratulate him, she tilted her head gently to one side and asked him something in Italian that I couldn’t comprehend.
Dolce nodded, almost reluctantly, and then shook his head to perhaps find the words that escaped him. Under his eyebrows, and with the red rings around his eyes growing even redder, he looked up at her and replied, almost unknowingly, with a comforting sigh.
From: Esquire Singapore's March 2016 issue.