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November 2019

Owners In Profile

Italian couture titans Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana muse on what makes their style unique and why, unlike some luxury brands with billion-euro turnovers, they remain fiercely independent
Dolce & Gabbana’s autumn/winter 19/20 show – held as usual in their own fashion theatre in Milan – was elegant and, by their standards, surprisingly restrained. Entitled “Eleganza” and with the words “Fatto a mano” (made by hand) embroidered on some dresses, it drew attention to the timeless crafts that are essential to their beautifully constructed tailoring and exuberantly embellished evening wear. 

In place of the over-the-top inclusions of recent shows – such as casts of hundreds and stars like Monica Bellucci, Isabella Rossellini and former French First Lady Carla Bruni  Sarkozy – instead the spectacle included a black-and-white video of the designers’ workrooms, which looked almost as if it had been filmed in the 1950s. After a somewhat controversial year, it was a reminder of their origins in the glorious bella figura of Italian style, in the Catholic culture, lush gardens and food, in their love of gold-braided pomp and even the gangsterism of Dolce’s native Sicily. It was a marked shift in emphasis from high-octane glamour to powerfully alluring investment dressing, but, as proudly independent designers, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have plenty of confidence to do this.

We mix different shapes and styles, exploring all possible alternatives.

Both designers sum up the advantage of this independent status – and spirit – in one word: freedom. “Being free allows us to express our creativity without any constraint, the most important aspect of our work as designers,” they say. “It’s essential and has allowed us to build our message, a narrative that is clearly reflected in our collections.” This aesthetic is based, according to Dolce, on “contrast – our style results from opposites coming together. We mix different shapes and styles, exploring all possible alternatives. On one side we have the corset, black sheath dresses, lace skirts, all very sensual. On the other side there are the men’s-cut clothes, T-shirts and sneakers.”

Gabbana sees it more as an expression of Italian culture. “Our design DNA is a mix of elements based on our history of love, passion for Italy, fashion, culture and the family,” he says. Rather than being interested in fashion trends, he says, “we create clothes and accessories that talk about us and our love for life. We keep up with what is happening: we research, we look for new and different fabrics, we read, but above all we are inspired by life, people and love.” Travel is another creative driving force: “It makes us dream,” they say and appreciate how their status as NetJets Owners helps cater to this desire. 
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Alta Moda allows us to push our creativity to the extreme – we never have limits
Domenico Dolce & Stefano GabbanaQuote Closed
Despite being outside the all-powerful fashion combines, through judicious partnerships with manufacturers Dolce & Gabbana has built a full-scale fashion empire that includes handbags, shoes, sunglasses, perfumes and cosmetics, and watches and jewellery. It also includes, in a very unorthodox move, its Alta Moda, the Italian equivalent of haute couture – oneoff, hand-made, often elaborate items, fitted and sometimes totally designed for one client and never repeated exactly for another. It is a time-consuming and very costly operation that many houses treat more as a promotional necessity. Traditional couture houses like Chanel, Dior and Valentino started with this and then branched into ready-to-wear and accessories; Dolce & Gabbana’s decision to reverse the route is indicative of their sense of freedom, and it provides a business model that other brands are examining, now that the desire for the unique among the most demanding global clients sees them increasingly patronising haute couture.. 

“We are not interested in fashion directions, the so-called ‘trends’; we just want to fulfil the dreams of our customers,” says Dolce. “Alta Moda was our dream and we waited for the right time to do it. In 2012 we presented the first collection in Taormina, Sicily, and we have so many good memories of that show, which marked a huge change. Alta Moda allows us to push our creativity to the extreme – we never have limits.” Gabbana credits their “team of super-talented tailors and seamstresses who work with us”, a prime example of the muchvaunted “Made in Italy” tradition. 

That first show set another Dolce & Gabbana pattern: twice-yearly displays of the most exquisitely detailed and decorated clothes, in a sumptuous, sometimes exotic, location, for which clients and carefully selected press are flown in to a three-day party, that now includes reveals of the men’s version – Alta Sartoria – and unique highjewellery pieces and watches, all spun off from the success of that first collection. It is eminently social; clients renew friendships with each other, as well as with the designers. “We simply try to make them part of a real family. We listen to them, we chat, we spend time with them, building a relationship based on humanity,” says Dolce. The clients have, they say, been equally enthusiastic about the accessories, unique examples of the best Italian craft tradition in jewellery and watch-dial making. “We like the idea of creating small marvels that are collectables and that fulfil our customers’ wishes,” they say. “To achieve them takes time, work and a great passion for what you are doing, and our customers are very enthusiastic about this.” 
This July, they returned to Sicily for an extravaganza set in the town that was the home of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, one of their constant inspirations, that took years to plan. Displayed among the gloriously opulent clothes and jewels for both sexes was their latest project: ornately engraved gold and jewelled watches with a specially designed movement that bring the brand into yet another area of high-end luxury. 

Given their vast costs, their profit in the financial year ending 31 March 2017 of €80 million on a turnover of nearly €1.3 billion (figures from Business Insider Italia) looks more than respectable. But rather than rest on their laurels, the pair constantly seek new markets and new ways to spread their vision to a wider customer base. Traditionally, the pinnacle of fashion was aimed at a more mature client on the assumption that few younger people could afford it and those who could would be introduced by their families. Now wealthy millennials brought up on social media are key, especially in the Far East, and Dolce & Gabbana has been quick to capitalise, with Instagram-ready, teen-star front rows and the newest model names. Despite the pair’s assertion that they “don’t like quantifying what we do in terms of income – we are happy with a millennial clientele but we love all customers equally”, they and their advisers are clearly nimble and shrewd. 

They are also authentic in a way that some big luxury brands are charged with no longer being. They are now not the couple in life that they were when they started, but the success of their vision depends on the dynamic between them and, as Dolce points out, “We are united by a strong affection, certain ties will never break.”  “I don’t know what I’d do without Domenico!” exclaims Gabbana. “Of course we fight, we have different ideas and opinions and sometimes it takes a while before we get to a decision. But in the end we always find the solution that makes us both happy and satisfied. We are two sides of the same coin.” As to the future, with designers such as Giorgio Armani and the late Karl Lagerfeld working well into their eighties, at 61 and 56, respectively, neither Dolce nor Gabbana is looking to retire, or to change their business model, any time soon. Which should keep their wide-ranging legion of fans, so well reflected on their catwalks, very happy indeed.

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