With their twentieth anniversary in the fashion world looming this year, the design duo find themselves with an enviably healthy turnover—approximately $900 million in 2002–03—and celebrities clamoring to wear their clothes. Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Angelina Jolie, Kylie Minogue, and Jennifer Lopez have all stood in line. But they’re also looking to stretch their metaphorical hemlines, and they’re in an unusually strong position to do so.
When the rush came in the late nineties for designers to be signed up to join the fashion conglomerates (LVMH, Prada, Gucci Group), Dolce & Gabbana preferred to stay out of the fray. Now, with the departure of Tom Ford, a designer who has held sway in Milan for a decade, from Gucci, Italian fashion is poised for major change. While there’s no doubt that Gucci will strive to maintain its position as the Italian power brand, it’s likely that Ford’s exit will create a new fashion world order. Dolce & Gabbana has, over the last couple of years, been quietly and steadily strengthening its power base: posting a 36 percent wholesale increase last year; opening three stores in 2003 (two D&G—the younger, more informal line—and one Dolce & Gabbana) in the States alone; and driving a massive worldwide launch of its new scent, Sicily. And it didn’t hurt that the company hired Gabriella Forte, an industry titan who previously boosted the businesses of Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein, to become its U.S. president.
Might this be the moment that Dolce & Gabbana takes the lead?
“There was this beautiful, brilliant red-fuchsia dress that I wore a few times,” Olivia Chantecaille remembers. “I felt like a flower in the middle of winter. Even though it was 20 degrees outside, I felt hot.”
If it does, then it will have to be done on Domenico and Stefano’s terms. In fact, to hear them tell it, you’d think that was the very last thing on their minds.
“Many people asked to buy us,” says Domenico, declining to mention names. “Sometimes you think it might be nice to have the money. But life is not just about money. When you’re owned by someone else, you don’t always have the final say in the way that the business is run, the way that you show your collections, the clothes you make . . . We want to have the final say in everything we do.”
Already the spring collection shows signs of them extending their reach, and they both believe it represents a move from the past.
“We needed to do something that was new,” says Stefano.
Domenico cuts in: “So we had these little signs up in our design studio that said NO CORSETS, NO FRINGE, NO JEANS! It’s a little like going into an Italian restaurant and finding out that there’s no pasta.”
I’m pretty sure that I saw a little corset action going on there, but whatever. The simple fact of the matter is that the designers, really for the first time, put a much softer, warmer sexiness into the collection. And the closing sequence of evening dresses—with their hand-worked detail, and a color palette of rose, lilac, and pearl gray—really showed that they’re capable of big-night dressing that doesn’t rely on a girl being poured into a gown that needs to be laced up à la Marie Antoinette by a maidservant with an obliging boot in her boss’s back.
As ever, though, Sicily looms large in their collections. Domenico comes from that little island off the Calabrian coast, while Stefano is from Milan. But it’s in Sicily—with its sun-drenched, rugged terrain and its mix of religious repression and unfettered sexuality—that they found the means to express being Italian in a new way.
That means even when they’re skillfully appropriating punk, or hip-hop, or 1970s hippie chic, their designs always make a pilgrimage back to Sicily, and stay, in essence, Dolce & Gabbana. It also meant that they can, with their tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, send up the clichés of what it means to be Italian, including the Madonna-whore complex. Or in the case of their men’s clothes, make that saint-pimp: The collections are as likely to star exquisitely cut formal suits and shirts as they are hooded sweats and heavily zippered leather jackets.
Much of their signature look came from their homages to Italian movies. And the cinematic influence is visible not just in the look of the clothes but in epic advertising campaigns with Isabella Rossellini, Linda Evangelista, and Gisele Bündchen playing Claudia Cardinale, or Anna Magnani, or Sophia Loren. Madonna once remarked, “Now that Fellini, Rossellini, Pasolini, and Visconti are gone, all we have is Dolce & Gabbana.” In the commercial for Sicily, Monica Bellucci is straining against an improbably tight dress while following her husband’s funeral procession through the streets of a Mediterranean village. In the commercial’s closing moments, Bellucci makes eyes at one of the mourners. How impossibly Italian can you get?
The Sicilian inspiration was there from the very first Dolce & Gabbana collection in 1984. The two men met when they were both just starting out, freelancing for a design studio that was used by the likes of Italian labels iBlues, Marzotto, and MaxMara.