A Sicilian Thing

Dress for Success: Domenico Dolce and Stefano GabbanaPhoto: Andrew Hetherington

It’s the day after Dolce & Gabbana’s spring 2004 women’s collection, and the company’s palazzo at Via San Damiano, in the heart of Milan, is silent. This almost unsettling quietness is not something that you associate with Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana—designers who love nothing more than to crank up the volume in everything they do. The nineteenth-century palace, with its walls of warm-colored Tuscan clay, functions as the nerve center for this extraordinary design team. If you’ve ever visited their store on Madison Avenue, the décor would be entirely familiar. The interior walls are scarlet, punctuated by tall cacti, and there are gorgeously ornate Baroque gilt furnishings, pictures of the Madonna (as in the pop, not religious, icon), Murano-glass chandeliers, paintings by Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol, and zebra skins everywhere. It’s as if an interior decorator had channeled the spirit of Diana Vreeland and then consumed a copious amount of acid while executing her vision. It’s also, of course, a look that’s meant to be taken with a knowing wink.

Domenico and Stefano always hold their shows on the palazzo grounds, erecting a white tent and then creating a scene inside that complements the collection. In the past, that might have been an arid, tree-trunk-filled landscape that would have appealed to Georgia O’Keeffe, or a particularly hot and heavy night at Area circa 1986, or—most memorably—a Sicilian street market, replete with musclebound male models manning the fruit, vegetable, and fish stalls. By the time the show concluded—what with the delay in starting, and the blazing heat from the lighting rig—the usual struggle to reach the exit was made all the more urgent by the overwhelming olfactory assault.

This spring’s collection featured a souped-up, sassy mix of ruffled and tiered jersey dresses, lace and beaded lingerie, and some rather sweetly sexy suits in soft sherbet shades. And everything—everything—had been splashed with a near-hallucinogenic, kaleidoscopic mix of prints. Technicolor florals appeared and then blurred and merged with some very Roy Lichtenstein comic-strip prints, and then bloomed into florals once more. For the interior of the tent, Milan must have been stripped bare of its every peony, rose, and begonia. As the show progressed, the floral patterns on the clothes started merging with the flowers on and around the runway, causing serious sensory overload. A fashion editor sitting next to me sniffed that the choice of décor was so obvious.

But that, of course, is precisely the point. Dolce & Gabbana’s aesthetic is anything but coy: They will gleefully squeeze as much excess as is humanly possible into each showstopping piece—whether a jacket, dress, or suit.

“Dolce & Gabbana aren’t subtle,” says Andrew Bolton, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. “They design blatant statements. Yet they also have a huge sense of irony and whimsy. The spirit of their work is Jean Paul Gaultier.”

The comparison is more than welcome: “Gaultier, ’eee’s a genius!” says Stefano, a huge fan of the French designer since the eighties.

Dolce & Gabbana’s way with a corset has become emblematic of their love of va-va-voom dressing—and their awesome tailoring talents. British fashion writer Lisa Armstrong once commented, “Many of the fluttery-as-a-breeze little chiffon nothings come with awesome internal structural engineering. If you wanted, you could see it all as an apt reading of current femininity.” Even their business suits achieve an erotic frisson, courtesy of Domenico’s tailoring skills.

“They truly have a monopoly on the shapely, form-fitting suit,” says Jacqui Lividini, senior vice-president of fashion and merchandising for Saks Fifth Avenue. “Wear one of those, and you always look and feel beautiful. It’s a touch of genius.”

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Images of their recent runway shows.

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.

“After one year,” Domenico says, “I realized that we were working together so much at the studio, we might as well go into partnership.”

Hastily deciding to call themselves Dolce & Gabbana—Domenico: “It made us sound like we were lawyers”—they presented their first collection, which was, recalls Stefano, “all long stretch dresses worn with big jackets with oversize shoulders, flat shoes, and black stockings. Basta! We’ve changed a lot, but the sense of humor, the opposites, the idea of glamour … they were all there.”

Their professional partnership was to develop into something deeper when they fell in love. It’s a relationship that still appears to be thriving. Their conversation forms one seamless narrative. They balance each other out—Stefano the silver-tongued showman complementing Domenico’s studious demeanor.

(It’s also probably not too much of a stab in the dark to speculate that Domenico is the diplomat of the two; while Stefano doesn’t lack charm, it’s doubtful whether he has his partner’s patience.) And they bicker. As Domenico started to tell me about his love of seeing art shows in New York, Stefano interrupted, “Uggh … boring.”

It’s a testament to the affection that they’re held in that even their ex-employees remain immensely discreet and loyal, and won’t dish about them. (Or perhaps there’s more to their affinity for Sicily than meets the eye.) There’s certainly an incredibly passionate sense of family at the company: In the fashion world, where allegiances shift more quickly than a new consignment of Rochas at Barneys, there’s a close-knit core who have stayed with them for a long time.

If Giorgio Armani’s restrained, lean silhouette was the touchstone of Italian fashion at the time Domenico and Stefano came along, then the dynamic duo provided an alternate view of womanhood. Monica Bellucci walked the runway for them in their first show.

“I wasn’t getting that much work because I wasn’t that skinny,” she recalls. “But they made me feel that my curves were an asset.”

Sex soon became a major selling point of a Dolce & Gabbana collection.

“It’s an empowering kind of sexuality,” says Andrew Bolton. “There’s nothing fragile about it.”

It wasn’t surprising that the sex quotient soon had Hollywood stars beating a path to the designers’ door.

“We didn’t plan to have this connection with celebrities,” says Stefano. “When we design, we never think about actresses or rock stars. Perhaps our style is strong and good for those people. But we don’t ask them to wear it.”

One journalist tells me she remembers Dolce and Gabbana saying that they would never pay to have a celebrity wear their clothes. When I ask them about who they think is well dressed, they reel off a list of … men! Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Colin Farrell. They are far less enamored of today’s screen goddesses. “It’s one day Versace, one day Gucci, one day Dolce & Gabbana,” complains Stefano. “It doesn’t come down to style, it comes down to business. Actresses take a lot of money from the labels, and that’s why they wear their clothes.” They agree that no one beats Elizabeth Taylor. Or Sophia Loren. Or Madonna at her height: “But not now,” says Stefano.

Perhaps their new book, Hollywood, a lavish affair that’s as much their personal scrapbook of the great and the good who have worn their clothes as it is a glossy coffee-table tome, is best read as a sign of their hard-won independence.

“I never pay $1 for these people to be in the book, honestly,” says Domenico.

“So this book is for me and Stefano, and it’s to recognize all of the stars who have worn our clothes.”

“It’s like when Sophia Loren was at the Oscars,” says Stefano, laughing, “and she said, ‘Thank you, Hollywood. Thank you, America.’ Well, now it’s our turn.”

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A Sicilian Thing