The extravaganza that is haute couture is by now enough ingrained in our fashion consciousnesses to know that it is a rare and precious environment that is not of this world. That is, of course, aside from those few fierce radical souls who endeavor to apply it to the everyday. But Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have so much of the everyday in their ready-to-wear business that couture (or alta moda in their mother tongue) gives them an opportunity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God, a silken, gilded, embroidered, sequined, furry God who dwells in a realm of pure indulgent luxury, outside any of the prosaic restraints that bind designers to budgets and deadlines.
Continuing their sterling work for the Italian Tourist Board, D&G chose Portofino as the location to launch their new alta moda on the world. Not just alta moda, but alta sartoria and alta gioellia: womenswear, menswear, and jewelry, a world of one-off splendors, essentially showcased in their own homes. Yes, the duo’s own houses—baby castelli, really—on the outcrop of rock that distinguishes Portofino from its sister enclaves on the rest of the Ligurian coast. “Stefano’s house is the showroom, my house is a backstage for the models,” said Dolce, before Friday night’s mind-numbingly spectacular parade of womenswear. And ownership of that outcrop meant that the designers could indulge their most extreme fashion fantasies: Dante, Homer, and, critically, Shakespeare coming together in their own version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Lewis Carroll also played a part in a hallucinatory mise en scène that transformed Dolce’s garden into a hybrid paradise: grapes on a palm tree, watermelons on an olive tree, orange trees with chestnuts, and a massive upside-down oak, roots waving in the air. “What’s real, what’s fantasy, you won’t know,” Gabbana teased before the show.
“It’s the fashion system’s fault that no one tells a story today,” he continued. It’s maybe closer to the truth that no one tells a story like Dolce & Gabbana. Worker bees had been buzzing around Dolce’s property—auspiciously named Villa San Giovanni, like his mother’s house in Sicily—for a year to make it ready for Friday night. It was the designers’ biggest production to date—94 models, 80 performers—and the substantial uphill hike to the property (thoughtfully eased by hydrating way stations) was sufficiently disorienting enough that the audience was prepped for something extraordinary. It arrived, with a sequence of looks that jammed a movie’s worth of sensory overload into almost every outfit. Let’s set aside the simplest—the doubled tux jacket, the gray pinstripe suit with the Dietrich pants, even the white T-shirt (ermine) with the little black skirt (hyper-embroidered)—to focus on the gigantic skirts, full-blown from Dolce’s bible, Visconti’s The Leopard, each one more overwhelming than the last. Spumes of peacock feathers, sprays of silk printed with pumpkins or owls or parrots, familiars to Dolce’s magician. It all looked hand-painted, but the duo now have their own printing facility, so fairy tales can come true. This wasn’t so much a midsummer night’s dream as it was an entire world re-created by Prospero, Shakespeare’s mage in The Tempest. Dolce even made new animals, like a jacket composed of a hybrid of red, gray, and green fox, red ermine, and yellow ostrich feathers—a bird of paradise redux, paired with a parrot needlepoint skirt and a black lace camisole. The outfits were purest alta moda one-offs, once sold, never repeated, and to ram that point home, there were pieces made from vintage fabrics, like a black lace caftan cut from a single bolt of cloth.
And then, to make the point even more acute, Domenico and Stefano did it all again on Saturday night, this time for men. Tailoring is in Dolce’s blood, but his spin on bespoke menswear was lush, decadent. “Our desire for vanity and beauty doesn’t change,” he said. ”We’ve just lost the way to deliver them.” Consider D&G’s alta sartoria a remedy for that state of affairs. Like the alta moda, this wasn’t intended as a seasonal proposition. Dolce claimed that fashion lay in the way the wearer himself would approach the duo’s alta sartoria, the onus therefore being on the customer to not surrender to fashion victimhood. An interesting challenge, when the men’s collection was such a provocative blend of hard and soft: silk linen pajamas under an officer’s coat in baby cashmere, kimono wraps encrusted with embroidery, cyclamen pajamas under a matching robe. Dolce was insistent that these clothes would be a purely private pleasure for the men who ordered them. He had been in the homes of such people, never a photographer in sight, the utmost discretion at all times. Take, for instance, one of the first clients Dolce & Gabbana’s alta sartoria ever had: He wanted the jacket with the hand-painted Canaletto. When Dolce pointed out that it had already been ordered (one-offs, remember?), he replied, “But I have my own Canaletto.”
In the luxe, calme et volupté of a world where men can have their own Canalettos reproduced on the jacket of their choice, it would seem that extremity could scarcely grab a hold. But Dolce & Gabbana have a canny grasp of the mechanics of desire. Friday night’s event ended with a post-dinner handbag grab for the ladies, a time-and-place souvenir that proved irresistible to just about every woman on Dolce’s mini mountaintop. It was followed by an orgy of cheesy Italian pop that had the crowd vibrating with glee. The following night, men got cigars (not quite as fabulash as a handbag for the nonsmokers) and a swing combo from Palermo called the Bar Room Kings, who were a little less cheesy but still had a noisy, up-for-it crowd gagging for a good time. The weekend climaxed with a club night dedicated to oro, gold, the most antique symbol of human cupidity recast in a disco inferno. And that’s the odd magic of this brand: heights of craftsmanship, depths of fun. Genuine fashion democracy in full cry. And no surprise that it works. People are people, after all.
Photo: Courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana