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During fashion show season, which is any time between January’s men’s wear shows and this weekend, when their women’s wear collection is shown in Milan, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana don’t go out to lunch.
This is not, in case you’re wondering, an initiative reflecting the current austerity programme in Italy – Dolce and Gabbana actually own a restaurant in Milan called, pointedly, Gold. But during super-busy periods, the design duo – famous for turning Sicilian widow’s weeds into objects of high fashion fetishisation, and for persuading celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson and Kylie Minogue to shoehorn themselves into said confections of corsetry and black lace – rarely leave their office once they arrive, at 9am, from their respective apartments in a building across the street (Dolce lives on the fifth floor, Gabbana on the sixth).
In other words, if you want to talk to them, you go to them, which is not as bad as it might sound. As Gabbana explained, when I invited them to lunch, “The office is our prison. But it is a nice prison.” “It’s a golden prison,” added Dolce. He was not speaking entirely metaphorically.
Arriving at the general reception (pretty standard, featuring a woman behind a high desk), I am quickly escorted to a more private reception area. It is an eye-boggling combination of deep burgundy velvet settees, leopard-print walls and assorted enormous paintings. These include an oil of the designers and their three labradors – one chocolate, one blond, one black – and the Italian pop artist Giuseppe Veneziano’s depiction of an enormous classical Madonna with the head of Madonna Ciccone and two putti – with the heads of Dolce and Gabbana – playing at her feet. It is, frankly, a little disconcerting. Still, Dante Ferretti couldn’t have made a better film set if he’d tried. As Dolce and Gabbana design, so do they live.
“Vanessa!” Gabbana enters, stage left, smile on his tan face, wearing artfully ripped Dolce & Gabbana blue jeans, an odd assortment of keys jangling from a watch fob on his pinstriped vest. “Vanessa!” Dolce enters next: shorter, bald, with black-rimmed glasses perched on his head, wearing a grey sweater and jeans.
Dolce, 53, and Gabbana, 49, met in 1980 when both were assistants at a fashion atelier in Milan, and became Dolce & Gabbana in 1982. From the start, their inspiration was to tap into the romantic nostalgia people feel for the Dolce Vita clichés of Italy – Sophia Loren, pasta, Sicily – and to translate them, without irony but with great enthusiasm, into a modern aesthetic (one 2009 ad campaign featured Madonna in a kitchen cooking pasta). The clothes may have a complicated construction but their appeal is straightforward. Like many other Italian brands, they are, at least superficially, about sex. But where Gucci historically channelled hedonistic sex, and Versace aggressive sex, D&G’s domain is happy sex: the wow-check-out-my-cleavage-I-can’t-believe-it! sort of sex.
The two designers have been together professionally for 30 years and they were also involved personally for 23 of those but broke up in 2005. They know it is tempting to try to make sense of their partnership, to say one is a tailor and one a dressmaker, or one a sketcher and one a draper. Dolce says: “I go to Pilates three times a week in the morning and recently I was in the dressing room and a teacher came in – which wasn’t really nice, because I don’t want to talk to the teacher when I am dressing – and he says, ‘So, how does it work: are you a tailor and he is more VIP? Or – wait, I know – are you like Bertelli and he is Miuccia Prada?’ ”
“Bertelli and Prada? Hah!” Gabbana snorts. The reference is to the division of business and design responsibilities that exists at another famous Italian fashion house, between the designer Miuccia Prada and her husband, and Prada chairman Patrizio Bertelli.
Instead, the way Dolce explains it: “We are in each other’s minds.” Certainly, by this stage in their lives together, they are a double act to rival Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, or Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple. Dolce is quieter, more practical; Gabbana, the chattier one. He says Dolce is “Sicilian – he came north to find ‘the new’, and he’s all the time looking forward”; he himself is Milanese, “so I love tradition. It’s very hard for me to let go of the past.” Gabbana talks not just with his hands but with his arms and occasionally also his shoulders. If Dolce uses any props to illustrate or underline his words, it’s his eyeglasses.
Watching them in action, you know you are seeing a performance but to complain seems churlish. For those familiar with their runway shows, it provokes an interesting sense of déjà vu. Though their collections are full of push-up corsetry and crystals, the Dolce & Gabbana business is actually built on tailoring, white shirts, and trouser suits. But while very profitable, this stuff is not particularly stimulating to look at. So, instead, the two men provide a show.
As we stroll to the dining room, situated across a wide hall with an enormous Venetian chandelier at one end, the routine continues. I mention that I have just come from the Paris couture shows and was disappointed by them.
“Today people think style is a handbag,” says Dolce, mournfully.
“But you don’t change your style by changing your bag,” says Gabbana. “You change it with your clothes.”
Dolce: “In history, in ancient Egypt, did Cleopatra change her bag?”
Gabbana: “It’s clothes that change with the times. In 10 years, who is going to remember the bags? They will remember the clothes.”
Dolce: “The fashion system has killed fashion.”
The patter pauses as we enter another room, with another enormous chandelier – gilt this time – and equally feral wallpaper, in tiger stripes. Gabbana’s dogs are about to have lunch, too. The designer heads through a door and reappears with three dog bowls that he places in a corner. Gabbana loves labradors. He has had labs for 17 years, since Anna Dello Russo, the Italian fashion editor and blogging celebrity, gave him one as a Christmas present. “They are the nicest dogs,” he says. “So friendly to people.”
A waiter appears and hands Gabbana a piece of paper. He looks at it and hands it to me with a flourish. “This is your menu,” he announces. Unfortunately, it is in Italian, which I can only guess at, so he elaborates: “I am on a detox, so what I get, you get. Madonna told me about it once when I was in New York, and now I do it twice a year. Ten days, all vegetables and protein.”
“I don’t detox,” says Dolce. “I like to cook. I cook Sicilian food: over the weekend I made a bolognese and roast for 15 people. I cook and wash, cook and wash. When I am done, the kitchen is like a mirror.”
A tureen of soup – carrot, with seaweed and bulgar – is brought in by a waiter in a white coat. As the guest, I am served first. I mention this, because it will become an issue later. “This is good,” says Dolce.
“Mmm,” says Gabbana.
“Cheese?” says Dolce, proffering some shaved dairy products in a silver bowl. Gabbana gives him a look.
This is one of the last meals they will have in their current headquarters: they are moving to a new building next to the old Metropol theatre, a classic, mirrored venue they bought a few years ago and transformed for their runway shows. Renovations have been going on for three years, pausing briefly during the onset of Italy’s financial crisis. The two men say they approve, generally, of what Mario Monti’s government is doing to address the country’s fiscal woes. This despite the fact they are facing a trial over a charge of alleged tax evasion (“We know we did nothing wrong,” says Gabbana. “These things just take a long time”), and have been affected by a new law that means no establishment may accept cash over €1,000. “We lost so much money in the sales,” says Gabbana. “People come, they want to buy with cash, we tell them, ‘No, we need a charge card,’ and they leave without anything.”
“It’s the right thing to do, though,” says Dolce. “Think of all the manicurists who have been taking cash and not paying the right taxes. OK, one, on its own, it’s nothing. But all of them together ... ”
“This is one of the ways we have changed the most since the beginning,” says Gabbana. “We have learnt there is a time for everything.”
“Before we wanted everything immediately: fast, fast, fast,” agrees Dolce, having some more soup. “We were like a machine. Well, I am still like a machine. But now my machine can wait.”
Dolce designed the new building (architecture is his domain) but Gabbana has not yet been inside. “He won’t let me in,” he says, waving a hand at Dolce. They will share an office, as they do now.
“About three or four years ago, I thought, ‘I am exhausted by seeing you all the time!’ ” says Gabbana. “I mean, this is the conversation: he says, ‘I want yellow.’ But I want blue. And then he says, ‘This shirt is giving me a headache,’ and, of course, I have to say, ‘It’s my fault?’ and then he says – ”
“No, it’s not your fault,” smiles Dolce.
“So I said I wanted my own office in the next place. But then, in the end, we have one big room.”
A waiter brings a tray of steamed fish, seaweed, broccoli rabe and fennel. I take some – normally I like just one course at lunch but I was taught that when you are a guest in someone’s house, you eat what you are served and this is Italy, where meals matter – but when the waiter gets to Dolce and Gabbana, they wave him away.
“I ate too much soup,” says Dolce.
“Me too,” says Gabbana. “That was very filling.” I look at the food on my plate and feel a bit silly. I am the only one eating, which in the fashion world is pretty weird. Still, this means the designers can continue their dialogue without worrying about food coming out of their mouths, so maybe they have an ulterior motive. Either way, they have manipulated the scene effectively to their own advantage.
“The worst time for us was when we broke up but kept working together,” says Gabbana. “We thought about splitting up, but no. And the truth is, everything is exactly the same. But no sex!”
“No sex,” agrees Dolce.
“I can’t work without him,” says Gabbana. “Maybe one day there will be a Dolce collection and a Gabbana collection – ”
“No. Never,” says Dolce. “This is my destiny.”
“Never say never,” scolds Gabbana.
This is also what both say when the subject of an initial public offering comes up. It is conventional fashion business wisdom that, to be competitive globally, Italian family-run companies must either turn to big groups (Bulgari has just been bought by LVMH), go public (Ferragamo) or take private equity investment (Moncler). Dolce & Gabbana – with revenues in 2011 of €1.1bn – is widely viewed as an attractive candidate for any of the above. “When people ask if we are going public, we think, ‘Why?’ ” says Gabbana. “For about six months, banks kept coming to talk to us.”
“But we don’t want the money,” says Dolce. “Tomorrow we could change our minds if we needed it to expand but, at the moment, we don’t. We do need to grow a bit more. We have a lot of plans.”
Though they closed their younger, more accessible D&G line in September, they tell me it was to stop causing confusion with their main line, not for financial reasons. They want to open 30 stores in China over the next two years, as well as others in São Paulo and New York. They have also become something of a mini-publishing house, producing coffee-table books in conjunction with publishers such as Rizzoli and Taschen. Their dream is to be a “maison, like Chanel. But maybe we need to die first,” says Gabbana.
“And then Karl [Lagerfeld] could come in and do the collections!” says Dolce.
The waiter is back, this time with a glass-domed plate piled high with little Sicilian desserts. “Oh!” moans Dolce. “I love cakes.”
“Sugar is like a drug. If I have one bite, I need to eat it all,” says Gabbana. “I can eat an entire panettone in one sitting.”
And, yet, neither touches the pastries. When we finish coffee and the designers mount the wide, curving staircase to their atelier and I am escorted out into the Milanese sunshine, I remember those sweets, sitting under the glass dome, and consider the fact that, no matter how much face-making and sighing Dolce and Gabbana did to indicate their desires, no matter how tempted they claimed to be, they stayed in absolute control. After all, you don’t eat the props, do you?
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
Dolce & Gabbana HQ
7 Via San Damiano, Milan 20122
Carrot and bulgar soup
Steamed turbot, sautéed fennel,
broccoli rabe, and seaweed
Sicilian pastries and mixed berries
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