Exclusive: interview with Dolce and Gabbana at the launch of their flagship store in Dubai

In a rare and exclusive interview, we talk to Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana about fashion, tradition, creativity – and pasta – ahead of the launch of their new boutique in Mall of the Emirates.

Fashion designers Stefano Gabbana, left, and Domenico Dolce. Stefano Babic
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“We are lucky because we are Italian,” says Stefano Gabbana. “Italy is full of information, full of history. Every city, region and village is different.”

“Different food, different architecture, different dialect,” Domenico Dolce interrupts. “Different view, the sea, the mountains, the lakes.”

“Different artists, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael,” Gabbana adds.

So goes a conversation with the famed founders of Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana. Friends for 33 years and obviously still impassioned by their work, the duo talk non-stop, finishing each other’s sentences, words tumbling over one another, hands waving to emphasise crucial points. And the entire conversation is peppered with laughter.

Call me jaded, but this is not what I was expecting. A world-famous design duo sitting atop a €1.1 billion (Dh4.3bn) fashion empire, I was braced for something a little less upbeat, chatty and fun. Something a little more, well, fashion-y. Messrs Dolce and Gabbana could be forgiven for being abrupt, difficult even, barking answers and chasing the clock. Yet, the opposite is true.

From the outset, they are delightful company. In town to officially launch their two-storey flagship store in Dubai's Mall of the Emirates, the designers are greeted like pop stars by a vast, Dolce & Gabbana-clad crowd. Partly fuelled by a pre-event Instagram campaign (entitled #DGLovesDubai, and spearheaded by close friend and Vogue Japan editor-at-large Anna Dello Russo), Dubai turns out in force to welcome the designers, who last visited three years ago.

The MOE store is a suitably grand affair. A soaring glass facade offers views into a gleaming world beyond. The space is dominated by a circular gold staircase that links its two levels. Made of gold vertical bars, it resembles a vintage bank vault, which is fitting, given how many treasures are to be found within.

“Gold is important here; it’s the sun, it’s the sand, it’s the light,” Dolce says with a laughs. “Dubai is huge, not because it is big, but because it is powerful. So we made this store with this in the air.”

“When we design [our flagship stores], we want to show respect for the location,” Gabbana explains. “I don’t want to come here and make something like somewhere else. We are in Dubai, so we used a lot of Sahara Noir marble for its special vein. For us, it is important all stores have different architects, and we never repeat anywhere in the world.”

The Dolce & Gabbana portfolio spans men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, as well as accessories, perfumes and make-up. In a nod to its undeniably well-heeled client base, 2012 saw the launch of the brand’s women’s couture line, Alta Moda, followed last year by the men’s equivalent, Alta Sartoria. Proudly Italian, the duo even spurned the traditional Paris couture-show timetables, choosing to show their collections in Italy instead.

Dolce and Gabbana met in the early 1980s, and showed their first collection together in 1985 at Collezioni’s Nuovi Talenti (New Talent Collection) in Milan. In March 1986, they showed their first full women’s collection (entitled Real Women, referring to the friends they enlisted to walk the runway since they could not afford professional models). Despite stuttering sales, they had opened their first store in Milan by the end of 1987.

Heavily inspired by retro Italian black-and-white cinema, the designers increasingly began to incorporate other elements drawn from Italian history into their work. The year 1990 saw a women's collection inspired by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, and was the first time the label used heavy crystal embroidery to adorn its womenswear. This caught the eye of Madonna, who wore one of the encrusted corsets and jackets, promptly propelling the brand into the mainstream. The duo dressed Madonna again for her Girlie Show tour in 1993, and by 1996 they were designing the costumes for Baz Luhrmann's film Romeo + Juliet.

Their designs are instantly recognisable, from elaborate, curve-clinging dresses and swathes of black lace to heavy embroidery. Inspired by their native Italy, the designers have for years drawn upon the seemingly endless bounty that the country's history has to offer. Gabbana hails from Venice in the north, while Dolce comes from Sicily. And it is Sicilian imagery that is often the driving force behind their collections. They return to the theme again and again, offering a glimpse into a romantic, glamorous, bygone era. Using elements of Italian cinema (think of The Leopard or Sophia Loren), their work evokes images of sensual raven-haired women, and young men as slickly dressed as old-school mobsters. Heady with the promise and romance of summer, fruits and flowers spill over clothes, and women wear garlands in their hair. Suits and dresses are made in embroidered velvet, and leisurewear translates as silk pyjamas.

It is, in short, a world of glamour and decadence.

“We play with our tradition,” Gabbana says. “We take the original and we look at it in a different way. Like when we cook a pasta. We already know the simple one, but maybe we cook with another ingredient. So, we play with the original. For us, if 50 per cent of each collection does come from tradition, then the collection doesn’t work. It’s not just the clothing, it is a spirit, a sense of humour, a colour, an attitude. It’s everything.”

The duo’s dogged refusal to look beyond Italian shores has drawn criticism over the years, but as fashion gets ever faster and trends come and go with increasing speed, the gamble to stick to one aesthetic has paid off. With such a rich source of inspiration, returning to it time and time again has allowed the designers to grow with their collections. Ideas are revisited, refined and honed, and themes are carefully worked through in evermore sophisticated ways. Think of the roses, lemons and nipped-in waists atop full skirts. Or the widow’s lace and intricate headpieces that are all taken from Italian life and yet, through careful reuse, have been reinvented with a quintessential Dolce & Gabbana twist.

The son of a Sicilian tailor, Dolce has a passion for the topic of tailoring that’s infectious, and his knowledge of the subject is vast. “My inspiration is my father,” he confides. “He is a tailor who worked with a lot of different people. With aristocrats and with country people in Sicily. I remember when he had fittings, using flannel for the winter and linen for the summer, jackets for the day and suits for big events. Suits, robes, pyjamas, country clothes, beach clothes, suits – everything was possible.”

He laments that men’s attitudes to dressing have altered radically since those glory days. “After the 1930s, men’s clothes became a little bit flat, and step by step, men closed their dreams of clothes. Now, it’s just suits for work. It’s like a uniform. But if you don’t keep dreaming, you don’t enjoy.

“I love that it is possible to complete the day with different clothes. To dress for dinner, to dress for lunch, it is a beautiful experience. I would love for men to have the courage to do this again.”

I ask if this is the driving force behind the brand’s menswear offering – an opportunity to reconnect with the lost days of dandyism, when men could, and did, dress with unashamed extravagance. With Dolce & Gabbana’s new couture line, every element of an outfit can be customised, from the cloth and the thread, to the solid gold buttons. “With Alta Sartoria, we discovered that men were first approaching us for something classic, but slowly they relaxed and start to say they wanted to try the pyjamas or the tuxedo, to try something special for themselves. Sometimes the men are nervous to discuss this with a woman, but with another man, it’s confidential. We allow them to dream. Alta Sartoria is a reminder of men like Salvador Dalí and Oscar Wilde; some of the most stylish men in the world,” Dolce explains.

At the new Dubai flagship, along with the men’s and women’s collections, customers will be able to avail themselves, for the first time in the region, of a men’s tailoring service called Made to Measure.

“The Made to Measure is like an elegant tailor,” Dolce says. “The tailor’s job is to look at a man and check his proportions – if he has short legs or rounded shoulders; the best tailors will make an outfit to help, and cut the clothes to help the body in a good way.”

Despite being a company that is transfixed by the past, the Dolce & Gabbana business model has always been about embracing the new. In 1991, the brand was awarded the Woolmark Prize for most innovative menswear, and its first foray into men’s perfume in 1996 won it the French Oscar des Parfums for Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme. Most crucially, Dolce & Gabbana was among the first to realise the power of the internet when it chose to live-stream its fashion show to a newer, younger audience in 1996.

So how do they engage with the next generation of shoppers? “I am 54, and Domenico is 58, so we are not so young, and need to pay attention to the movement of the world,” says Gabbana. “We know the most important thing [are] the young, so social networking is the world of the young generation.”

Set in a recreation of the 1983 club where Dolce and Gabbana first met (long before any of the models were even born), the brand’s spring/summer 2017 menswear show was filled with the rising stars of the internet generation, both on and off the runway. The first model down the catwalk was Presley Gerber, son of Cindy Crawford, followed by Rafferty Law, son of Jude Law, and Brandon Lee, Pamela Anderson’s son, while the audience was filled with the likes of stylist Luka Sabbat and model Neels Visser (the latter, incidentally, has 1.5 million Instagram followers).

Nonetheless, speak to Dolce and Gabbana for long enough, and you realise that they are old-school fashion purists at heart, flag-bearers of a golden age of style that has all but disappeared.

For one, they still handle every element of the business themselves. “We are one of the unique owners and designers of their own company,” Gabbana notes. “And we are in the business for 33 years, so we have a story. If you like it or don’t like it, that is not the point. But we have something to tell you.”

I can’t help but wonder, then, what they think of the See Now, Buy Now trend, and its fast-fashion approach? “For us, the process of making a collection is that it grows with us,” says Gabbana. “We develop and develop, then change a detail at the last minute, but you cannot do this with See Now, Buy Now.

“If you do See Now, Buy Now, you programme everything before. It’s not fashion, it’s a fashion industry. Fashion design is another thing, in my opinion. I respect that labels want to do this, but it is not our story. A real designer cannot do this. Sorry for saying that, but for a real designer this is impossible.

“I am not criticising anyone, but if you put a seed in the earth, you need time to be able to take the fruit. It’s the same for children: you cannot ask a child after one year to run, jump and write. No, you need to wait and let them grow,” says Gabbana.

“Now the crisis within fashion is that no one has a history. No one has a story to say. Before, when we began, our teachers were Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier ... they started and created a world. Now, it is just marketing. The customer is not stupid.

“This is my experience, and I can say this because I’ve lived for 33 years in fashion, and I realise now why have we had such big success. It’s not just because we are good, but because we don’t have any people around us that are like us. So many labels change their designers every two to five years. What can you build like this? Nothing.”

That the duo are inimitable is undeniable. And now, nearly three-and-a-half decades after they first set out, the oh-so-charming Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce must inevitably be turning their thoughts to legacy. “Our goal was not to become rich or famous, but to become recognisable,” Gabbana says. “One day, when we are not here, someone will look at a picture and say this is Dolce & Gabbana style. This is our goal. To build a DNA that is strong, that is recognisable.”

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, December 8.