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It’s an early morning in September and, as staff trickles into Dolce & Gabbana’s Milan headquarters, Stefano Gabbana sits at his desk, scrolling through the Italian brand’s Twitter account. Along with his daily caffeine fix, tweeting has become essential to the designer’s morning routine, providing a direct link to the label’s followers. After a moment, he settles on a message that’s positively sweet.
“It’s from a young guy somewhere in the south of Italy,” says Gabbana. “It just says: ‘Good morning, I love what you do.’ It’s very important to get this feedback.”
No doubt it’s especially gratifying when such feedback comes from the south. Gabbana and Domenico Dolce ventured into men’s wear 20 years ago because the market failed to satisfy their own fashion desires (“I wanted a simple but well-fitted white shirt, which at the time was impossible to find,” recalls Gabbana), and they presented their first men’s collection, in 1990, as a tribute to their native Sicily.
After a decade of style focused on Wall Street, Dolce & Gabbana offered men a taste of Sicilian romance and a softer, sexier way of dressing. The strong-shouldered power suit of the Eighties gave way to oversize knits and relaxed tailoring.
“Back then, innovation in men’s wear was thought to be either too gay or too strange, but our first collection proved that innovation gives guys more options and allows them to dress how they want to dress,” Gabbana says.
As Dolce sees it, “Over the last 20 years, there’s been a silent revolution in the way men dress.”
Or maybe not so silent. Since 1990, fashion-minded men have clamored for the label as the designers reinvented the Italian playboy. Unexpected juxtapositions—sharp tailoring and distressed denim, sports and luxury—have distinguished Dolce & Gabbana and sparked global trends. Edgy advertising has also drawn attention to the brand, not all of it favorable (a 2007 ad depicting a woman on the ground surrounded by a group of men was banned in Italy). Yet the designers have built their men’s revenues on a strong foundation of tailoring (“The fit of the suit was crucial,” says Dolce), and today men’s wear represents almost half the company’s $1.96 billion business.
According to Gabbana, the approach of the new millennium marked a turning point. “For us, the big break happened at the end of the Nineties, when we started working with David Beckham, a hot, straight man with a family and kids,” he says. Soccer fans worldwide began to wear distressed denim with soccer-inspired jerseys. Luxe drawstring pants became another sexy-meets-sporty signature.
This naturally spawned knockoffs, but Gabbana surprisingly doesn’t seem to mind. “I feel most flattered when I see a guy in the street wearing something that looks Dolce & Gabbana but which is not,” he says. “It means they want to dress in the essence of the brand and that our message has been heard.”
Now, as the designers celebrate two decades in men’s wear, that message has come full circle. During Milan Fashion Week, to mark their anniversary, Annie Lennox sang throughout the Dolce & Gabbana runway show—right up to an emotional finale, when a wave of models in the designers’ trademark tuxedos gathered around Lennox’s piano. It was a dramatic moment, yet the theme of the spring collection was warm and familiar.
“We have been all over the world and seen so many different cultures,” says Gabbana. “But in the end we came back….After the recession, people want something recognizable and reassuring.”
Dolce immediately sums that up in just three words: “Sartorial, sensuality and Sicily.”