The DSquared designers' modest beginnings helped them capitalise on everything, even their 'twinness'.
Dean and Dan Caten: their fearless symmetry
Two heads are, they say, better than one, and in fashion there are plenty of examples to prove it. Dolce & Gabbana, Viktor & Rolf, Proenza Schouler: when those perfectly matched pairs run down the catwalk at the end of their shows it genuinely does have twice the impact. So Dean and Dan Caten, the Canadian identical twins behind the Milan-based label DSquared, knew exactly what they were doing last season when they came out for their applause wearing matching shorts, leggings and neon socks, identical mischievous grins in place, Oompa-Loompa tans richer than ever. While, in the presence of Dolce & Gabbana, one may wish for va-va-voom curves, and Viktor & Rolf inspire a gothic thrill down the spine, Dean and Dan invoke the mothering instinct: ruffle their hair, pat them on the head, pack their lunch and send them off to school.
But for the brothers, who will show their spring/summer 2011 womenswear collection in Milan tomorrow, their "twinness" is not just a show: they do, in the tradition of twins everywhere, frequently finish each other's sentences and wear almost identical clothes - though after a few moments in their company, over mocktails at Ping Pong in Dubai Mall, plenty of differences become perfectly apparent.
"He's got a one-button cuff; I've got a two-button cuff!" cries Dean, who is also possessed of a slightly longer face and deeper voice than Dan and is the more reticent of the two (though reticence is not a word one would normally associate with the pair, who are renowned party animals). Dan goes further. "I have a grey jacket; he's got a dark jacket!" Of course, they are just as aware of that double impact as everyone else, and they're happy to use it to the company's benefit.
"We are two individuals and we do have our individual styles, but you know what, it's so much more effective, for events, when we focus on the power of two," says Dan. "Because you know, you see Viktor & Rolf that dress the same and Dolce & Gabbana that dress the same, and they're not the same; they're trying to infringe on what our act is," adds Dean mock-indignantly. Dan is more conciliatory. "I mean, I think it's powerful, too; we know it's interesting to see two identical things. One time we were in Omaha and it just happened to be a twin convention, and you know what, you'd look and you'd think they're freaks, but they're interesting freaks because it's kind of rare, two identical specimens, looking identical, and it's cool. So we kind of play upon it once in a while."
Dan stops for breath, allowing Dean to get straight to the point: "And it makes a better picture for the show." Clearly, he's used to judging his more garrulous brother's pauses. "And I mean even people who don't remember the name of the brand go, oh yeah, you're the two twins, you're the two Canadian twins, which you get a lot, so we should use it." The Canadian thing: it's both the core of their quirky design ethos and 5,000 miles (literally) from their current place at the heart of Milanese high fashion.
"Our design, I think it's a mash of what we're seeing and who we are," says Dan, slurping at his giant orange and strawberry mocktail. "We always wave our flag, we're very proud Canadians, and I think that's also keeping us unique in our feel and it's that identifiable bit of who we are, so we like that. We think it's important." Combining the work ethic of Canada with the dolce vita of Milan, Dan and Dean are all about grafting hard and playing hard - a theme that comes through in their clothes, which combine pseudo workwear with super-glamorous cuts and fabrics, for both men and women.
"We do, like, a bootcamp in the factory for three days," says Dean, "and we don't waste time, even if we're there from 8.30 in the morning till 11 at night. In three days, we do two weeks' work. We've got the three collections..." "Then you have accessories," adds Dan. "You have bags, you have shoes, you have fragrance, and then you're opening a store, and then you're doing four fashion shows a year, the music to do, the sets to design, the windows for the whole year for the shops..."
You get the picture. They don't sit still, and it shows in the business's results: they are, they say, up 30 per cent this year - quite a feat in this extended period of retail gloom, which explains why they are pushing ahead with their plans for a series of shops around the world (the Dubai store opened in Dubai Mall earlier this year). "Our dad's way of teaching us was like, if we were going to swim, he'd throw us in the deep end and say, 'sink or swim'; those were the options. That's also why we moved to Europe: it's the deep water. If we'd moved to New York, that's a bus ride home, and a cop-out. We're far, we had a language barrier, and it would have been such a disappointment to go back - we didn't let that happen, and I think that's why we fought stronger and harder."
The twins have grown up fighting - not with each other, of course, or not too often- but against the limitations of the circumstances into which they were born. Brought up in Willowdale, a suburb of Toronto, by their Italian-born father, a welder, after their mother left when they were just babies, Dan and Dean Catenacci and their older siblings (five sisters and two brothers) grew up in a poor, crowded household - "financially challenged", as Dean puts it.
"I don't think we ever went shopping," he says, "and what you don't have, you want. But the less you have, the more creative you become because you have to use what you have. And I think it was just all those things growing inside..." Dan takes over: "Even being in Canada, the fashion that was in Canada wasn't the most current, hottest fashion, and we would go to the magazine stores and see Time magazine and the European magazines, and it was like another world."
Their sisters encouraged them, too. "They were like our Barbies," says Dean. "Playing with them, dressing them up," adds Dan. "Making them new prom dresses," continues his brother. "Out of the clothes we had... We were different kids. We kind of stuck out." "We still do," says Dean. "We stuck out at school and we're different from our whole family, and we're different from all of Milan, too." "That's what we're used to - we like to be different; it's kind of an asset," says Dan. "And I think even our Canadianisms: Canada doesn't have anything to do with us, it's who we are. And that's why I look different from our peers in our industry and people can associate that with us. It's a tool and we can use it."
Dean concludes: "Edith Piaf said, use your defects as your defence and then you're gonna be a star." Beneath their diminutive, shiny, enthusiastic facades, these men are as tough as nails, and always have been. Where others might have crumbled in the face of adversity, they accepted the challenge and ploughed on. Dan says: "We grew up really fast, and we've experienced a lot, and we're quite fortunate for that. We were, like, 13 and we were in clubs and we were going out with 20-year-old models and hanging out with hairdressers. We didn't fit in at school, so we didn't stay with the people in school." Simple as that, although few 13-year-olds can claim such self-assurance to simply abandon their peers - and going clubbing as barely teenagers is hardly the usual route to success. Don't try this at home, kids.
"We were fortunate," admits Dan, "and we went to New York when we were 17 and met Andy Warhol, and it was just like another thing for us. We were these two little kids and we were living like we were grown-ups - it's really funny and strange. At Studio 54, we got to live that moment, and we survived." For all the glamour of that era, not everyone made it through to the other side. But then Dan and Dean are nothing if not survivors.