A sweeping change rolled through the house of Dolce & Gabbana.
When most Italians were getting ready for their monthlong holiday this summer, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana were nursing a kind of sartorial emergency. The designers were on the verge of a principal evolution, one that would result in their striking spring show, but first they had to get their seamstresses on board.
Their blockbuster collection, a soupçon of layered organzas, hand-painted tulle, crimson brocades and feminine silhouettes, demanded not only a different creative approach, but a new technical one, as well. “We had to abolish everything,” Dolce recalls, during an interview in the designers’ Milan studio just one week following their sumptuous show, which helped solidify a standout season in Milan. “We told our [seamstresses] to pretend not to know how to sew, as though it were the first day of school.”
Those instructions were based on a determination to finish a hem in another way; layer fabrics so as to allude to transparency while remaining well covered, or even close a seam with a selvage rather than a stitch—and that upheaval left many of the seasoned women in tears. “It was the first time we really changed everything,” Gabbana says . “It was violent.”
Yet, in fashion, often the most radical experiences result in the most sublime iterations. The process may have been cumbersome, but it bore graceful, pure and tempered clothes. The two had originally said modern art, with its pulsing brush strokes, along with a recent trip to New York, inspired their spring outing. But, like anything that concerns Dolce & Gabbana, the starting point, under further inspection, proved more nuanced, layered and certainly less linear.
The collection featured dresses hand-painted by local artists brought in by the designers, and the work was shown in progress via video clips that ran on monitors suspended above the runway. Designs ran from full-skirted party models in canvas and short poufy ballerina numbers to sweeping, frothy confections. It was as much an homage to modern art as it was a nod to the duo’s early aesthetic. “We wanted to revisit Dolce & Gabbana ourselves, but with a different eye,” says Gabbana. “We had a desire for change and we felt something in the air, but at first weren’t able to understand where to go.” They quickly found their way as they became more confident in their instincts, decided to abandon the steely extremes of the past two seasons and instead delve, much to their surprise, into their historical leitmotifs: patchwork, brocades and the Baroque.
Just a season ago, those key concepts would have repelled the designers. Like most creative people, Dolce and Gabbana developed an aversion to that which made them famous. “Everyone talks about ‘Sicily, Sicily, Sicily,’” Gabbana says. “At a certain point you want to tell them, ‘I know how do more than just Sicily.’”
Such a desire to push and experiment had led the designers to glossy, high-tech fabrics, exaggerated proportions and raw, sexually explicit shows.
Spring brought a halt to all of that. Remembering the words they tacked to their drawing board—lightness, sensuality, rebirth and transparency—the designers returned to a sweetness that had been absent for some time.
But there was nothing nostalgic about the delicately layered dresses plied with subtle brush strokes or dreamy floral prints, the dusty-hued silk brocades cut into flared trousers or the subtle veils that enveloped many of the dresses. The collection was as modern as it was feminine.
“Romantic isn’t really the right word,” Gabbana says.
“It’s sensual,” Dolce adds before Gabbana can finish his thought, and now the verbal volleying begins.
Gabbana: “It’s light, something…”
Dolce: “…Summery, that makes you think of beauty, that makes you think…”
Gabbana finishes: “…Of the positive.”
Spend a few minutes with the designers and you’ll quickly find it’s rare if one is able to speak for more than 15 seconds before the other one pipes in. It’s not so much that they are interrupting each other, but rather that one is completing the other’s thoughts.
While their roles may be well documented—Dolce is the perpetually hunched-over tailor and Gabbana is the statuesque man with the savvy merchandising eye—it would be wrong to define them in such specific terms.
After 22 years in business together, more than 15 of them as a couple, Dolce and Gabbana have reached a level of understanding, sharing and communicating that eludes most partners, professional or otherwise.
Yes, they still disagree, and by the very Italian, primitive sound Dolce makes when asked about if they fight, it’s clear that they do, and all the time. But it’s exactly this kind of connection, as well as surviving the proverbial ups and downs, that have helped propel their business into the heady realm of billion-euro fashion companies.
“The beauty in life is that we’re better today than we were yesterday,” says Dolce. “Thus, tomorrow will be better still. The future must always be thought of as a positive thing.” When Dolce and Gabbana first put brocade on the runway in the late Eighties, they were a company of 30 people. Today, they count more than 3,000 employees, and the machine they’ve built continues to surge.
“Our advantage is that there are two of us,” says Gabbana. “Where I don’t arrive, he does, and vice versa.”
In a world of increasing yes-men, powermongers and public relations minions who are paid to kowtow, honesty may be the one commodity money can’t buy.
In their relationship, no criticism is too scathing, no subject too sacred. “If there’s something I don’t like, I say it,” says Gabbana. “We are not each other’s assistants, and regardless of the affection we share for one another, we are both professional figures. If there’s something I don’t like, I say it whether I’m wrong or right.” Gabbana doesn’t bite his tongue when it comes to Dolce or when it comes to prickly subjects.
From designers as celebrities to commercial domination to fashion critics, the pair is not for want of an opinion and certainly isn’t afraid to stir some controversy.
On the fury and fuss over certain sexually aggressive ad campaigns: “What’s stupid is that people take them seriously. It’s a fashion photo. A dream,” Dolce says.
“Maybe we made mistakes, but it’s never been our intention to provoke,” Gabbana adds.
On barring journalists from shows: “We appreciate criticism if it’s constructive….What we don’t like is gratuitous criticism, when it’s just meant to hurt a person,” Gabbana says.
On the ubiquity of designers: “There’s a lot of presumption out there,” Dolce says.
“A designer [in the truest sense] today is at risk of extinction,” Gabbana surmises.
For all their posturing, though, they do have moments of self-deprecation. They laugh at the fact they are still called “the boys” of Italian fashion.
“The old boys,” corrects Gabbana, who is 45 years old. Dolce is 49. They still have insecurities and they are more demanding of themselves than they are of anyone else.
This season, the designers, unsure of their spring palette choice, decided to cut a second collection all in black. The anticollection, fortunately, stayed on the work floor. “I still like to wear black,” Gabbana says. “But when we saw the dresses in black, we said, ‘Mamma mia. It’s so old. It’s so heavy.’”
Gabbana is definitely the actor of the two. His intonations and exaltations often come across as melodramatic. Dolce is slightly more understated. Together, they are as equally in sync as they are contradictory.
“In a way, though, we are still the same guys we have always been,” Dolce adds. “What’s important is that we keep trying to learn, that we stay curious and that we keep the brand alive. Once you get into self-celebratory mode, you’re dead.”
Unlike most designers today, who cringe at the pressures of commerce, Dolce and Gabbana embrace it. On the runway, they can showcase their most whimsical ideals. In fact, the majority of the spring runway dresses will be produced in limited quantities. Yet the designers equally know it would be foolish to dismiss their enormous customer base. To wit, they’ve reproduced printed versions for their retail collections as well as crafted tulle overlays, which mimic the runway veiling, but can be tossed over any frock.
“When you sell clothes, it means you and your designs are appreciated by the world,” says Gabbana. “That’s far from being a bad thing—actually, it’s the best thing there is. I’m not of the mind-set that you have to create impossible things.”
“What’s important is being current,” Dolce adds. “Many designers think they find satisfaction when they create a collection they like, but what I like is when we design clothes we like that are also able to meet a need. When that happens, it’s magical.”
Spells, however, were not needed to woo the audience at the duo’s spring show. “It was such a celebration of femininity,” says Michael Fink, vice president and women’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It was a fantastic new vision for them…and if anyone knows how to cut a dress, it’s the Dolce & Gabbana boys.”
“There was such prettiness to this collection,” adds Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York. “In the past, I haven’t really been able to say their shows are pretty—they’re sexy or glamorous—but this one was actually really pretty. There was a beauty in the lightness to this collection and there was also an element of casualness to it. It’s nice to have a change.”
The finale was a series of dresses, one more sumptuous and extravagant than the next. Each one garnered an applause, which surprised the designers looking on from backstage.
“We understood it was really a rebirth of Dolce & Gabbana,” says Dolce. “In that collection was our soul.”
Before the first guest arrived backstage, the designers knew they had accomplished something special. Those same seamstresses who were crying over hems two months earlier were now admiring their handiwork.
“They saw the dresses and were checking to make sure the hem was the way we wanted it,” Dolce says. “Then they told us it was bellissima.”
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