When fashion’s dynamic duo first met up in the early Eighties, Domenico Dolce, fresh in Milan from his native Sicily, described his appearance to Stefano Gabbana.
”I’m dressed like a priest with a ponytail at the back of my neck!” he said.
And that is how the couple started a relationship that took them from modest beginnings to the stage of London’s Central Saint Martins this week, where the students heard a story of life, love and hard work.
There was some gentle prodding by journalist and talent supporter Sarah Mower and much laughing and banter from the archetypal Italian designers. We heard about Domenico, at age six, sewing his first suit as he copied his tailor father in their small village outside Palermo. And a hilarious game of telephone tag — long before mobile devices — as the fledgling designer tried to secure an appointment with Giorgio Armani to show him sketches.
He and Stefano worked together in Milan for Giorgio Correggiari, ultimately linking their own names and finding their identity in the theme of Sicily around 1988, even if, as Stefano claimed, American critics described the designers’ pin-striped men’s suits as “Mafiosi” and when they presented the first corset the newspapers said “it is very vulgar, it is fit for a bitch”. But the designers’ reaction was defiant: “You are a bitch, because you have the dirty eye! It is just a bra in a different way.”
“To Sicily to find the roots, because for me the roots are the most important thing in human life,” said Stefano. “I convinced Stefano to think about Sicily,” said Domenico. “It is double vision because we have two different visions on the same thing.”
Stefano said that he has never believed in globalisation, at least creatively.
“If you lose your identity, you lose your personality,” said Stefano, as a film of those early days showed images of the model Marpessa and the flouncing skirts, fringed shawls and succulent flowers of Italy’s deep, hot south.
But while “Fashion is love — basra!” as Stefano put it. “Style is forever — the most difficult thing in the design world, something that comes from your soul.”
The story unfolded as the designers joshed each other on the podium and spoke of their early image-making advertising campaigns with photographers like Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton. They used supermodels Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista, who weighed up the designers’ fashion skills before speaking Italian with them.
Linda turned up trumps calling all her model friends. “We said: ‘Linda, we don’t have the money to pay these people,’” said Domenico. “Linda told us not to worry and we paid for them in clothes!”
There were tough moments on life’s trail: the thorny personal split in the new millennium, as they no longer lived together yet learned to respect each other, keeping the love, but not the sex.
“The family is our point of reference, he is my family and every collection was our children,” was how Stefano put it.
There have been other tough moments, as when it became clear that the D&G line could no longer compete with H&M or Zara, while Domenico yearned to focus on his primary love of tailoring, with “every tailor of a different sensitivity”, as in his father’s small business.
Thus was born a new dream: haute couture, custom-made clothes — “something special, very private,” as Stefano described Alta Moda couture, launched three years ago and held in the landmarks of Italy’s Dolce Vita days, from Capri to Venice. And now, finally, Alta Sartoria, high fashion for the male customer, as the wheel turns back to the six year old and his father.
“It is like a church… Today, finally, we are one of the best and most beautiful tailors in Italy. This makes me proud,” said Domenico. “If you visit my atelier, everyone is dressed in black and white, it is like a religious moment.”
What was the duo’s advice for the MA students whose work they had studied in the college before the talk?
“There is a time when you are young in the beginning when you need to try and discover your way, but it is good because you learn from this, too, you learn from everything,” said Stefano. “When you start working in this business you realise that you need to mix your very strong opinion, with what people want. Style is forever. It is the most difficult thing in the designer way to find a style… you develop the idea, after 20 years maybe, you know the people recognise you by this. It is something that comes from your soul.”
For Domenico it is the roots of each individual creative that matter, “I think for everyone today, the Chinese, the Europeans, the Pakistanis, sometimes we want to cancel the roots of where we are from, but I think they give us great power, he said’’. ‘’This is your DNA… every root is beautiful. To cancel the root is a big mistake. Ten years ago people thought globalisation was the most important thing… but your identity is more important. If you lose your identity, you lose your personality, you lose yourself.”
Domenico added, “We absolutely believe in the young generation. We have a lot of young designers.’’
There was plenty in this talk left unsaid: problems with the Italian tax authorities, now resolved; the recent rumpus caused by an innocent and charming fashion collection devoted to mothers and children — but soured by the Dolce duo disagreeing with gay men building a family.
Some students tried to whip up controversy by asking the designers why there was not more diversity on the catwalk. (To which Stefano replied that intensely Italian clothes required Italian models.)
But the talk had honesty on its side. And it filled the duo’s need to leave an emotion for the audience.
“We need to tell our story,” said Stefano. “It is part of a fashion designer’s job.”