In a rare interview, Dolce and Gabbana speak to Helena Frith Powell about their pursuits of perfection and the 'real women' they design for.
Dolce and Gabbana's new book celebrates two decades of the fashion duo's creations. In a rare interview, they speak about their pursuits of perfection and the 'real women' they design for. Fashion duo Dolce and Gabbana, possibly the most famous ever, has been making stars look like stars for over a quarter of a century. To celebrate, they are launching a new book called Diamonds & Pearls, which Domenico Dolce describes as "an invitation to the public into our own personal world, one of luxury, intense pleasure and seduction, but also a dreamlike world featuring grotesque and ambiguous situations that verge on the paradoxical".
The book is a collaboration with the Austrian photographer Guenter Parth, whom they chose because he specialises in still-life images. "The delicate balance between the portrayal of what we see in real life and the deep-seated meaning to which the subject refers is a standard feature of Guenter's works and that is what we are looking for in these images," explains Stefano Gabbana. The book celebrates more than two decades of creations by the design duo made from sequins, rhinestones, pearls, glass drops, crystal, Swarovski diamonds and shells - in short, anything that glitters. "As per previous publications, we love art for the sake of art," he says. "This time even more than in the past, as we have made images purposely for this book."
In a way, Diamonds & Pearls is a testimony to a story that began 50 years ago in the small hilltop town of Polizzi Generosa, close to Palermo in Sicily. One of the most remarkable things about this town of 4,500 inhabitants is that it has been home to some of Italy's most famous celebrities: the film directors Martin Scorsese, for example, and Anthony Scarpa, as well as the actor Vincent Schiavelli and the writer Giuseppe Antonio Borges. Domenico Dolce was born there on Aug 13 1958.
Despite the fact his partner, Gabbana, was born in Milan, the pair retain close links to Dolce's home. "We love Sicily," he says. "It is the perfect place to just relax - eat, read and not worry about the stress of work. And we always come back with so many ideas. It is very magical." Dolce's father was a tailor and he worked in his family's small clothing factory while he was growing up. Gabbana's interest in fashion, on the other hand, began much later. He studied graphic design at university as a means to a career in advertising. After a few years he realised it wasn't for him and went into fashion instead.
The pair met in Milan in 1980 and started their partnership two years later, although they still freelanced as designers for other companies. They struggled to begin with, using friends as models and showing clothes wherever they could, from fast food restaurants to apartments, with the help of friends and family. Their real debut came in 1985 at the Milan collections new talent fashion shows. They were so well received that the pair launched the Dolce & Gabbana women's collection the following year.
A little more than 10 years later in 1997 they reported a turnover of £400 million (Dh2.2 trillion), prompting the pair to announce they would retire by the age of 40. Happily they didn't retire and by 2005 their turnover had reached £600 million (Dh3.3 trillion). Now, almost 25 years later, with 201 shops around the globe the couple are still going strong. In fact they have grandiose expansion plans for the Middle East. Dolce & Gabbana plan to increase their 19 free-standing stores in the region, adding that the Middle East is strategically important for the company and is full of unexploited potential for their brand. "We will reinforce the presence of both brands by opening another 12 new mono-brand points of sale; seven for Dolce & Gabbana in Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait among other places and five for D&G in Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain," says Gabbana. "We are strengthening our presence to achieve the leadership position we already have in more mature markets."
They have been to the Middle East six times. "It's always nice to be back," says Gabbana. "I don't know when our next visit will be but it will be soon." "We have plenty going on in the region," adds Dolce. Meanwhile they are still striving for that elusive thing they have chased throughout their careers: perfection. To the designers Diamonds & Pearls is in a small way a homage to that quest. "We wanted to experiment and to start a completely new path," says Dolce. "Unlike previous publications, Diamonds & Pearls does not contain archive pictures but new photographs taken during a campaign conducted specifically for it."
Gabbana adds that it was time to do something that was not just a series of images of their clothes. "We wanted it to be something new," he says, "but at the same time something that could sum up our vision on fashion and beauty. We wanted to share our vision with our public in a different way, by putting together our creations and our love of fashion photography." The clothes are not worn by models but by what the pair call "real dolls", lifelike mannequins made to bear a striking resemblance to real women and built following specifications for their "ideal woman". Gabbana explains why they chose to use dolls and not real women. "The three dolls symbolise the perfect woman: we deliberately chose not to take any top model as an aesthetic reference when we made them."
Dolce adds that one of the central themes is the relationship between appearance and reality. "Of course there are pictures in which it is hard to tell that the subjects are not made from flesh and blood, but many of the photographs intentionally show the hooks and the metal structures propping up the real dolls. Does physical perfection exist in real life or is it an illusion to be pursued only in dreams?"
Dolce and Gabbana have often stated that they require perfection in their work. Have they achieved that? "Our aim was more to understand if perfection exists in this world, if it is something that you can hope to reach one day or if it is the quest which is important in order to understand your limits," says Dolce. Gabbana adds that he often wonders whether perfection is something real. "Or is it, like beauty, something that lies in the eyes of the beholder?"
Many would describe the stars who have chosen to wear their clothes as close to perfect. The list reads like a who's who of the world's most beautiful and iconic women: Monica Bellucci, Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta Jones, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Lopez, Nicole Kidman to name a few. The men aren't bad, either. Tom Cruise, for example, is a long-standing fan. They have also dressed Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Bryan Ferry.
(From left) Beyonce|Demi Moore|Victoria Beckham, Courtesy Rex Features
The pair is famous for making stars look like stars. It is hard to find a red-carpet event where they are not well represented. Do they have a particular favourite? "Madonna!" they reply in unison. This is understandable. Madonna is often credited with bringing them on to the global stage. She is one of the few people for whom the pair will drop everything. In 1993 they rushed to her side to create 1,500 costumes for her "Girlie Show" World Tour. For her album Music, they went one stage further, not only dressing her and her backing group, but also designing and creating the backdrop for the tour.
Other singers for whom they have designed tour costumes are Kylie Minogue and Whitney Houston. Their profile has not been damaged by an association with the Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. She has been wearing Dolce & Gabbana almost since they started. Rossellini also wrote the introduction to their book 10 Years of Dolce & Gabbana. But the pair deny that they have ever seen any of the women they have long-term relationships with as muses in the way that Karl Lagerfeld saw Inès de la Fressange.
"The time for the muses is gone," says Dolce. "When we create, we have in mind only real women, those we see walking down the streets in Milan, New York or ... Dubai!" Gabbana agrees. "These will be the women who are going to go to our boutiques and buy the clothes, therefore we want to do something with which they can identify." Muses aside, are there any stars they would still like to dress? "We have been lucky enough to have been able to dress the most beautiful men and women in the world," says Gabbana.
Dolce says that as opposed to muses, they have been inspired by other designers. "Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Balenciaga and Thierry Mugler to name a few. All the great masters of the past." Unlike many of their predecessors, they plan to retain their independence, even through these tough economic times. "We love our independence and we wouldn't want to lose it for any reason," says Gabbana. "It's a tough time, which implies that however healthy you are you should be careful how you invest your assets, but we are lucky in that Dolce & Gabbana is doing well."
As it is going so well, they have aligned themselves with the charity Ecoles Sans Frontièrer, part of The Butterfly Foundation, which was established in 2002 and focuses on projects in developing countries. It works mainly with children, constructing primary schools and building drinking-water wells. Dolce explains they chose this particular charity because they were moved by the message from the founder of the organisation, which is that even the greatest sorrow, such as the loss of your own child, can be turned into a positive sentiment of sincere and profound love for others. "This moved us a lot," he says, "and prompted us to support and back these charitable activities."
They may be involved with charities but their main focus remains design. They are still, after so many years, passionate about their work. "We love it," says Gabbana. "The passion is what drives us, otherwise we could not do our job well." Any advice for up and coming Dolce and Gabbanas? "Be patient," says Dolce. "Believe in what you are doing." "Study," advises Gabbana. "And find your own language."
Their designs have been described as "haute hippydom". They draw a lot of inspiration from the Italian film industry. "When we design it's like a movie," says Dolce. "We think of a story and we design clothes to go with it." Their trademark pieces include underwear as outerwear (corsets and bras), deeply coloured animal prints, gangster-pinstripe suits and lavishly embroidered coats. Their style is sexy. They are known for making women look (and feel) devastatingly attractive. Their two brands are Dolce & Gabbana, their high-end fashion range, and D&G. So what do they normally wear? "Jeans or jogging pants, a shirt and a cashmere sweater," says Gabbana. "Jeans, leather jacket, a shirt and cashmere sweater, a baseball cap," says Dolce. Gabbana says they don't have a personal favourite among their own designs. "This was one of the most difficult things when selecting pieces for the book," he says. "We had a lot to choose from, especially accessories, that are a standard feature of Dolce & Gabbana. They have accompanied us from the very beginning and are still a major presence in the latest collections. It's just not possible for us to pick one thing as they are all representative of a certain moment in history." Dolce agrees. "Each outfit, each dress, each bag has a special meaning for us. It's hard to express in words, but all our creations are like our 'children'."