In other words, they are the perfect designers for this cultural moment, with all of its fractured politics and infuriating contradictions. Go ahead. Tsk-tsk them. They don’t really care.
At the Metropolitan Opera House last month, golden chairs awaited 350 coddled clients. Pink and lilac roses were tucked into the thick gray branches curled around the brass handrails of the grand staircase. The guests walked a golden carpet in clothes of fairy-tale opulence (those were gold and diamond buttons, not brass and rhinestone) and sipped Cristal. They relaxed into a level of consumer luxury that makes the good life look like little more than a struggle to survive. Awaiting the start of the Dolce & Gabbana alta moda show — a spectacle of sable, mink and more diamonds — they were living the best life. Or at least the fashion world’s version of it.
These clients can sate their personal desires because they are fabulously wealthy. The designers are able to indulge their runway fantasies because they don’t answer to investors. Still, observers can’t help pointing out the ungodly cost of mounting an alta moda show.
“Excuse me, it’s your money?” Dolce replies. “No. Okay.”
The designers do not refer to these men and women as customers; that sounds so “commercial.” And for Dolce and Gabbana, this is art. (One of their coats is embroidered with gold thread, like something worn by a rajah, a queen or a pope.) But make no mistake: This art is for sale.
Alta moda is a small part of the Dolce & Gabbana business, which encompasses ready-to-wear, accessories and fragrances; and despite its expense, it generates a small profit. But alta moda’s greatest value is in the message it delivers about the brand, which is that Dolce & Gabbana is among the most creative and masterful in the world.
And its most powerful lesson is about the economic disparity of these times: You really have no idea how great the gulf is between the haves and the have-nots.
The garments must still be wearable. But they are not for the merely rich. These are clothes meant to be worn aboard the 600-foot private yachts of Russian billionaires and Middle Eastern royalty, and behind the security perimeters of walled-off European estates. The garments delight China’s new generation of moguls and feed a hunger among America’s corporate titans who put fashion in the same category as fine art, rare wines and trophy real estate.
The opening price point for these frocks? As much as $60,000. Are these incredibly wealthy people paying too much?
“Do you ask the cost of a Michelangelo?” retorts Dolce. “You don’t ask the price. Beauty has no price.” He gestures toward Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza. “This square is beautiful. Do you ask how much the square costs?”
Dolce, 59, is bald with a gray stubble of a beard and an average build. He speaks in long paragraphs in heavily accented English. He has the more serious, reserved bearing, and an Instagram account on which he has never posted anything. Gabbana, 56, is the tall one with black hair and a more muscular build, the upkeep of which he documents on Instagram for his 1.2 million followers.
They have known each other for 35 years. Dolce, the son of a tailor in Sicily, taught Gabbana — a fashion-loving graphic designer from a working-class family in Milan — how to sketch. They founded their fashion house in 1985 on the romantic imagery and stereotypes of Southern Italy: black-clad Sicilian widows, macho Mediterranean men, voluptuous lingerie models, all anchored by the centrality of family, a devotion to Catholicism, the pleasure of food and the beauty of the Italian landscape.
For a time, they were boyfriend and boyfriend. That relationship ended in 2005, but their business partnership has endured. Other designers have sold out to large conglomerates; other major brands churn through creative directors every few years. These two remain at the helm of their privately held “baby,” with sales of $1.5 billion. (They spent nearly four years fighting accusations of tax fraud in Italy before being found not guilty in 2014.)
And unlike many fashion lines, Dolce & Gabbana has passed up the profit margins to be found in lower-priced goods. They recently closed their less expensive division, dominated by T-shirts and jeans, and have committed to addressing the unique desires of the few.
This season’s alta moda was a rah-rah, red-white-and-blue love letter to America. At a time when the country itself is riven by questions about what constitutes greatness, the Italian designers still believe in an America as a snow globe of glamour, possibility and freedom.
Freedom is paramount for them, as they often declare as they burrow into controversy after controversy. They’ve been accused of racially insensitive references in their work, such as describing gladiator-style sandals as “slave sandals” and featuring Moorish — or “blackamoor” — imagery in a ready-to-wear collection. In one interview, they expressed their belief that “family” should be strictly defined as mother, father and naturally conceived children. They called IVF babies “synthetic” and said they didn’t support the right of gay parents to adopt.
Gabbana has also questioned whether the #MeToo movement exaggerates incidences of sexual harassment, and he maintains that sexual harassment is a nonissue in Italy.
“We have a lot of women in our company. [They] are the best. . . . The woman is more powerful than men,” Gabbana says. “All the things about women in U.S., we don’t have the same thing because we have a lot of respect for women. Our mentality is totally different.”
“Who wears the trousers in the family?” he adds. “It’s the woman in Italy.”
Yet according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, an estimated 43.6 percent of women between 14 and 65 say they have been victims of sexual harassment. Critics argue that sexual harassment has simply been normalized in Italy; the few women who publicly complain about it are derided.
The designers are emblematic of this cultural moment in which the extremes have moved to center stage, the so-called common man is hailed for his wisdom and political correctness has, in some quarters, become the enemy.
“I love to be free. Free, free, free, free, free. I love to say what I think,” Gabbana says. “I’m not afraid. What I say is not wrong, but it’s out of the system. But it’s really what I think.” He added that “You find the truth from ordinary people, not in politics.”
In his spare time, Gabbana is a one-man cheering squad for Melania Trump. On Instagram, he showers her with thank-yous whenever she wears the company's clothes — which is often.
He has supported the American first lady while much of the global fashion industry has been diplomatically silent if not actively opposed to the Trump administration. This has made him the target of social-media trolls and boycott threats. The designers responded by producing T-shirts emblazoned with “#boycott Dolce & Gabbana” and a video of a mock march.
Gabbana entered the American political fray on New Year’s Day 2017 when he posted a photo of the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago, where the first lady was wearing a black Dolce & Gabbana dress decorated with jeweled bows. His caption made up in heart emoji what it lacked in punctuation: “Melania Trump #DGwoman thank you #madeinitaly ”
“I post it because I think it’s a beautiful picture. I’m Italian, so I know nothing about Trump. . . . Well, I know something about Trump, but it was not a political post,” Gabbana says. “I post Rihanna. I post ordinary guys and women. I post what I like.”
He says he was surprised by the backlash, but because he revels in speaking his mind, he did not shrink when the complaints rolled in. “I know America is a big country and the [division] is big. I don’t post for a scandal. I know I make a controversy, but I’m not afraid.”
“In the end, it’s just a dress,” Gabbana says. “And she bought the dress. We don’t give anything to her.”
Mrs. Trump has worn the brand on numerous public occasions, including the 2018 White House Governors’ Ball. During an official visit to Sicily last year, she donned the brand’s richly embroidered floral coat, valued at $51,500. The designers did not invite Mrs. Trump to alta moda, however. “She’s the wife of the president and I don’t want to do any mistake,” Gabbana says. “But we’d love to have her.”
The appreciation is mutual. “Mrs. Trump admires their work and has been purchasing Dolce & Gabbana since her teenage years,” emailed her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham. “She considers them each an incredible talent who have made a significant impact on fashion around the world.”
None of this drama seems to have hurt the Dolce & Gabbana business.
The spring evening of the alta moda show was unseasonably cold with predictions of snow. When the sky cleared, the designers rejoiced; they had fireworks planned. The lingering chill gave the clients an excuse to wear fur.
At other fashion shows, arriving guests typically go directly to assigned seats. But at alta moda, no good can come from ranking customers. Regular guests knew to immediately claim a seat for themselves, deftly draping chairs with a mink or chinchilla seat-saver while Hollywood-handsome waiters topped off their coupes from magnums of bubbly.
Most everyone here was a repeat guest. Vicky Wang, attired in a long pink Dolce & Gabbana dress that seemed constructed from thousands of individually cut petals, came undone when asked the season of her dress’s origin. Oh, the memories! Who could keep the endless dreamscape of extravagance straight? Alta moda debuted in Taormina in 2012. Since then, there have been shows at La Scala, in Portofino and Venice, and on a rocky outcropping in Capri best accessed by yacht.
This alta moda weekend was stretched out over several Manhattan sites, chosen to reflect the designers’ fantasies about the city — the Met in a nod to their obsession with opera; menswear at the Rainbow Room of Rockefeller Center, a symbol of Dolce’s fondness for architecture and jazz; and the New York Public Library, host of Carrie Bradshaw’s aborted wedding in the “Sex and the City” movie.
At the Met, Isabella Rossellini introduced the collection by reading the Emma Lazarus sonnet from the Statue of Liberty. Then an operatic soundtrack soared to life and model Karlie Kloss appeared at the foot of the grand staircase, dressed like a bewitching firebird — all red feathers and fearsome grace.
The show covered 100 looks over 30 minutes, including full-length intarsia furs featuring images of the New York skyline and the American flag. There were red-white-and-blue bejeweled hoodies and glittering track pants, lush dresses encrusted in crystals and headpieces that call to mind Lady Liberty. The models were a diverse group — categories included plus-size, mature, Muslim, and celebrity. Naomi Campbell closed the show, in a corseted ball gown, her head tilted back with enough ravishing hauteur to make guests feel as though they’d witnessed a fashion moment.
“Domenico and Stefano are just like geniuses,” offered Marjorie Harvey, wife of comedian Steve Harvey and star of her own website, TheLadyLovesCouture.com. “You never know what to expect from one season to the next.”
“And my baby was in the show!” she added — her daughter Lori, a model.
Then she glided into the post-show dinner, on the stage in front of a high-drama chiaroscuro set from “Turandot.” Tall vases overflowing with mournful, long-stemmed tulips, decorated the tables. The Chianti flowed.
After dinner, guests could shop the collection, hanging on racks in a makeshift shop — complete with dressing rooms.
Most people will never lay eyes on the women who ultimately buy and wear these clothes. except perhaps in pictures from some party on a private island. Perhaps, they will declare the garments beautiful. Or grotesquely decadent. Regardless, the clothes mean something. They speak of unimaginable wealth and unbound creativity. And they represent the ability of two designers to speak freely — with little worry or concern for what anyone else might think is correct.