Twenty Hot Candles

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005

MILAN, Oct. 1 --The models at the Dolce & Gabbana spring 2006 show shimmied down the runway in tablecloth-lace suits, temptress-red dresses and voluminous Scarlett O'Hara ball gowns. The damsels in their crinolines preened and paused and cast their eyes downward as they clutched stems of straw or wheat or some sort of rustic flora beyond the knowledge of the average Dolce & Gabbana customer, who considers speed-dialing event designer Preston Bailey the equivalent of gardening.

The proscenium stage, from which the models' promenade began, was set with bales of hay, a wooden wagon and two goats attended by their own herder. There was also a wooden crate housing hens and at least one rooster. The collection was filled with the designers' signature blend of sharp-eyed tailoring, form-fitting dressmaking and the level-headed belief that fashion should never get too serious.

As always, the collection was for a woman who believes there's no point in leaving the house if her bosom has not been neatly trussed and served up for all to admire. But this time the celebration of cleavage was not overwhelming. This collection was a bit more coy, more sensual than sexy, and at times even a little demure.

It may be that the emphasis on lace and embroidery rather than beads and rhinestones reduced the level of ostentatious showmanship. And indeed the floral embroidered suits and the delicate tiers of antique white lace on party dresses emphasized femininity over sexual provocation. But mostly this was a joyful collection in celebration of the designers' 20th business anniversary.

Over the last two decades, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have helped to define the way in which popular culture views female sexuality. Thank them for making public displays of lingerie -- from bra straps to the bras themselves -- fashionable and ubiquitous. In creating costumes for Madonna, they influenced for better or worse the ways in which millions of young women not only dressed but thought about femininity, power and sex.

With their fascination for the culture and working-class heritage of southern Italy, they found romance in kerchiefs, slips, grandmotherly sweaters and mournful black. They made the gritty, hardscrabble, rural Sicilian life seem enchanting, creating a kind of peasant chic that -- depending upon one's politics -- is either admiring or condescending.

Along the way, Dolce & Gabbana built a privately held business with total revenue in excess of $1.3 billion, according to Women's Wear Daily, with just about half of that coming from the sale of clothes. The bulk of their business is in Europe, particularly in Italy, where their D&G line has tapped into the youth culture like few other brands. Their show tends to attract an unwieldy crowd of onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or just breathe in the air of anticipation. Invariably the crowd tumbles into the path of oncoming cars and trams that grudgingly slow to a halt. Even after 20 years, the company still hasn't managed to master crowd control.

But the designers have developed a signature brand of fashion that sells -- and that is no minor accomplishment. While it is the "pre-collection" -- the tailored, more modest garments that lack the drama of catwalk pieces -- that make up the bulk of their business, the runway show has created their image. And of course, some of the runway clothes sell, too.

They know how to sell their brand with the same sure hand as Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren. There is never any confusion about their point of view. And as a result, they have become one of the iconic names in Italian fashion.

A landmark anniversary, of course, requires a party and the designers hosted one Thursday night for about 1,000 people. The asphalt road to the bash was sprinkled with glitter and it led to a red-carpeted entry filled with photographers. A fashion party can be a deadly event, not so much because the industry is filled with inept hosts, but because the guests tend to be sourpuss cynics eager to complain about everything from the temperature of the room to the quality of the free champagne. But it would take quite a spoilsport to be grumpy at a party with golden banquettes, cocktail tables stocked with magnums of Dom Perignon, a performance by the bare-breasted showgirls from the Lido de Paris done up in white marabou and spangles, and Donna Summer dusting off her vocal cords -- which remain in fine form -- for her disco rendition of "MacArthur Park."

One marveled at the fact that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with members of his soccer team, stopped by the party to offer congratulations to the two designers. There had been half-naked showgirls onstage! Dolce & Gabbana clearly have done their country proud with their iconic imagery of lusty Sicilian women with their heaving bosoms, pencil skirts and stiletto heels on their way to the market to buy fresh lemons.

D Squared, Roberto Cavalli, Max Mara

Dolce & Gabbana's collection did not redeem Milan's uninspired spring 2006 season, but they offered a reminder that if fashion is fun, its lack of innovation can be forgiven. That has been the philosophy that has driven Dan and Dean Caten, the designers behind D Squared.

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