June 2, 2014
Seemingly yesterday, this Italian mega brand had a tremendous amount of mainstream appeal, backed by celebrities like Madonna in the ‘90s for its sultry take on fashion and sensuality. But since 2009, the most famous design duo in the world has been reinventing Dolce & Gabbana as a patrimonial brand using the classic codes of Italy with full-fledged nods to history, art, and tradition. Upon meeting the designers in Dubai ahead of a private dinner, they asked me where I came from. I responded, “Tunisia, the land of Azzedine Alaia.” They replied that they look up to this fashion genius. One thought came to mind: if Alaïa did the same job taking inspiration from Tunisia as Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana do from their country, perhaps we would attract more tourists—but that’s another story altogether.
We sat down for a laid-back interview on their legacy, the story behind their evolving Sicilian aesthetic, and how Karl Lagerfeld is the new Benjamin Button.
ON THEIR LEGACY AS FASHION DESIGNERS
For people like you who work on the imagining and representation of a culture, what does the Orient evoke for you?
Domenico Dolce (DD): The Orient is one thing, and Dubai is another altogether. Dubai is a metropolis. Today, Europe is seen as the famed grandmother, the oldie, whereas here everything is new. During the Italian renaissance, architects built Florence, Naples, and Palermo; they invented the baroque. Here, we are witnessing history: the birth of a new city.
Stefano Gabbana (SG): In 300 years, the Emirates will mark the sign of the times. You see, Sicily is not so far from Arab culture. There are so many things that link us together in food, in taste, in decorum—the feeling between Arabs and Sicilians is actually pretty close. [Between the years 831-1072, Sicily was actually an Islamic state referred to as “The Emirate of Sicily,” whose capital was Palermo.]
And what about the women of both cultures?
SG: Both represent femininity.
DD: There’s a comparison to be made between the south Italian culture, North African culture, and the culture here—the woman as the maternal mother, the center of the family.
It seems like there are some designers who love women and others who love fashion…
SG: Well, you have some who love women and some who hate them (laughs)
Your career is based on beautifying the female figure. Do you think of yourselves as “Pygmalions?” As artists?
SG: Artists? No. We are couturiers.
DD: Couturiers at the service of women.
SG: Our work is artistic in a sense that it has to do with fantasy, but for us, “art” is eternal. Fashion, by definition, is ephemeral. It might be a sign of times, but it is never eternal.
Yet in many of your previous interviews, you seem preoccupied by the legacy of Dolce & Gabbana. You even mentioned as a joke that when you will die, Karl Lagerfeld will come to replace you at the helm.
DD: For sure! He is immortal (laughs). His spirit still flies over Dubai [Lagerfeld hosted Chanel’s 2015 Cruise show in Dubai two weeks before our interview]. He is a superhero; he has the gift of transformation. Soon he will become a baby all over again…
Like Benjamin Button! And there’s actually a comparison to be made between being a designer and Benjamin Button: each new season you need to be fresher, to be newer. How do you continue to reinvent yourselves with new codes of femininity that tend to be about a woman who is more masculine, more in charge, more mobile? Maybe this woman doesn’t want to be as sensual as you would necessarily want her to be…
DD: Women don’t want to be sensual until they try a corset on, but then when they see themselves in the mirror they say, “Well…” (laughs). There is nothing more beautiful than the feminine world—it’s much more interesting than the masculine world as it holds so many mysteries. Furs, vanity, make-up, jewelry, lingerie, corsets…we are fascinated by these codes and they are still so incredibly strong today—they make womanhood unique.
Your vision on genders appears to be quite dualistic.
We are interested in polar opposites: a masculine man and a feminine woman regardless of their sexual orientation. But take the traditional woman of the Middle East, for instance. She manages to stay covered and still be seductive and utterly feminine; everything goes through her eyes. Exercising your eyes to speak without opening your mouth is an incredibly gymnastic thing for the mind. A vocabulary, per se—a secret language. It’s not that easy.
You create collections like some people tell a story. The last show was even more evident as a fairytale. We spoke before about how you are particularly aware of your legacy. Now let’s imagine a Dolce & Gabbana museum many years from now. What would be the main stories within it?
DD: Each collection we do is a story.
SG: We cannot design without a story in mind.
DD: As you know, not each story is a good one…
SG: Like cakes! Not all cakes come out good. Some are undercooked, overcooked…some are even burnt.
Don’t say that, as now I obviously want to ask you which collection was “burnt” in your eyes.
DD: Oh, we burnt some…
SG: But it’s not negative, even if things don’t go your way, it is still a positive experience—it teaches you what not to do. Failure is always useful. Thankfully in 30 years of our career, most of the collections were successful but we also made errors, errors that we caught afterwards.
Let’s go back to this ultimate collection. Which items might we find there?
DD: A Guepière [corset], for sure. A low neckline black dress with long sleeves…
SG: The tube dress, the slim fit skirt suit in black….
DD: The camisole, always…
SG: A lace dress.
DD: High-waisted briefs and a black bra. They were there from the first collection in 1984 and they never changed. To tell you the truth, when we do a fitting and I see models without a bra, naked with their tiny nude thongs — I hate thongs; they drive me crazy—we have to make them wear the bra, the briefs, and the camisole and then we can start dressing them. We like dressing women to then undress them.
SG: It is very seductive for a man.
They have to work for it!
DD: Other than the safe of a bank, what’s more exciting for a man than to hear the “click” of a bra opening? Here’s another thing that belongs to the feminine codes that are so fascinating to us, and that we don’t want to lose. No matter how the body changes, big or small breasts, what matters is the gesture—it is the most important factor in fashion. You don’t just wear clothes to protect you from the weather or to be “cool” or “trendy.” Cool is a moment—you can be cool from 1pm to 2pm and then you’re old. Better to be “charmante,” have charisma…
SG: And style! The garment is your way of manifesting your style. It is a medium—you cannot be the slave of it.
DD: We often talk about it together. The garment needs to be worn in “désinvolture,” nonchalance, because it should be yours, not because it is cool. But don’t forget that we have 30 years of career behind us. We were maybe “trendy” years ago. I am not even sure…
SG: Now we don’t care about that. It is not that we are avoiding it, but we are not obsessed with trends anymore at all. Novelty is good—it’s new, it’s fresh. But trends? Personally, I don’t care.
ON HOW THEY FOUND THE ESSENCE OF DOLCE & GABBANA
All designers are different. I see you as the “patrimonial designers.”
DD: Thank you. We like that.
I, for example, am not Italian, and part of my discovery of patrimonial Italy was through your eyes: Sicily throughout the ages, the Byzantine mosaics, the Italian sensuality. You made me want to revisit movies with Anna Magnani and Silvana Mangano that I would probably have overlooked if it weren’t for your constant reminder. And it is an ongoing process—your work on patrimony and representation—whereas other designers like Raf Simons and Nicolas Ghesquière constantly work on reinventing shapes and the fashion proposition…
DD: It is a life choice. When we look back at our 30 years of fashion, we created a distinct universe but we also took inspiration from the 60’s, outer space, Tamara de Lempicka, Charlie Chaplin, the hippies… when I look at this menswear hippie collection we did, I get horrified. Mamma che orrore [oh, the horror]!We did so many different things.
What was the turning point between presenting collections according to your inspiration and focusing on such a tight Sicilian universe?
DD: At some point something really strange happened. When we opened the market to China seven years ago, we came with our collection devoted to Schiaparelli. It was one of my all time favorites; until today I think of it as one of our best. So we arrive in China and the clients were used to the traditional DNA of our brand and told us this is not Dolce & Gabbana. For the next collection we came back with the house’s classics and offered the first tribute to Sicily collection.
You mean Dolce & Gabbana the brand is more powerful than you?
SG: Sicuro! Of course!
DD: For example we love what you are wearing today [I was wearing pink Capri pants with a blue men’s shirt and a pair of blue kitten heels], but it is not Dolce & Gabbana. We would have to add a black bra, and fit the shirt, you understand. We started with Sicily by chance; we started with a look that we liked. Stefano does not come from Sicily. I do and he is more obsessed than me.
Like all the converts, they tend to be the most passionate about their newly adopted passion. It seems like you found yourselves when you started using Sicily as your main inspiration. The return of the prodigal sons…
SG: It was a return home—to our roots. We love Italy. We design for the whole family: from the baby to the grandmother.
DD: People expect a certain aesthetic from us. One day, we bought this vintage Christening gown from the flea market. Madonna came to us asking for the exact same thing for Rocco and we did it. We want to be present for all stages of life. We often have long discussions about what is Dolce & Gabbana and now with this very marked aesthetic, we feel we reached the essence of Dolce & Gabbana.