The very Italian world of couture by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana is one of beautiful extravagance. A notoriously private universe – open only to the truly wealthy – it is the realm of hand-worked, custom-made clothes, which are as rare and unique as the occasions they are worn to. Opulent and decadent, this is grandeur for the modern age, the very antithesis of understatement or, as Gabbana once put it: "We're not about minimalism; we're massimalismo."
When the Alte Atrigianalita show was unveiled last week, however, it felt quite different. The beautiful clothes for both men and women were still lavish beyond words, and a testament to the skills of the atelier. Rather, what marked this collection as different was the setting, because – unusually – it was held within the newly refurbished Dolce & Gabbana store on Old Bond Street in London. The culmination of a two-year redesign project, the store is the third collaboration between the designer duo and Tokyo-based, French interiors expert Gwenael Nicolas. Having previously created the brand's flagships in both Milan and Tokyo, Nicolas seemed a natural choice for the recreation of the London store.
“It is an interesting collaboration,” Nicolas says, when I meet with him ahead of the Alte Atrigianalita show in London. “I like simple things and Domenico likes different things. Domenico and Stefano know everything; they travel the world to gather information for their collections, so we have to surprise them, and that is the challenge. It is not just designing a beautiful boutique; we have to come up with an idea they fall in love with.”
Challenging it may have been, but the result is a transformation from the previous look of gothic boudoir, into a sophisticated, elegant and light-filled space. Understated and refined, the six stories of the Old Bond Street store are the perfect counterpoint to the opulence of the fashion label. The first three floors make for an open retail space, while the upper three stories are reworked into a secret studio for couture (accessible only via personal invitation and a separate entrance).
“Each store is unique,” Nicolas continues, as he walks me through the building, “and Domenico wants to create something surprising every time, which expresses both where the brand comes from and where they want to go. This is very important, to show their vision for the future, and their legacy.
“When you see a fashion brand from the outside, you think they just want to do cool, trendy stuff, but for Dolce and Gabbana, the notion of time is very important. They are under immense pressure every three months to come up with a new collection, but underneath that is a timeline about the dynamic of the brand. And that’s my job: to create a store to last two, four, five or 20 years. I have to understand this line, and make sure it is strong enough to still be relevant in a few years.”
That timeline has been deftly retained in this version of the store. Gone is the trademark heavy baroque wallpaper, replaced instead with discreet stuccowork patterning in pale grey. The floors are covered in white marble, beautifully bookmarked in flowing veins of black. Echoing the life of the city outside, the floor brings movement to an otherwise tranquil space. “London is a very dynamic city,” Nicolas explains, “and we wanted to show that energy. You feel movement here, so we used marble that looks like a Chinese calligrapher came and drew on the floor. It is very painterly.”
The artistic effect is bolstered by the skilful use of light, which envelopes every corner, eliminating shadows. “The light is coming from everywhere. It’s a very Japanese thing. The light has to come from the materials, it has to shine from the object, not on an object. Like music, each object has its own frequency, and together they create a harmony. With the mirrors, it feels like you are floating.”
When they saw the finished space, Dolce and Gabbana made an on-the-spot decision to show the latest Alte Atrigianalita collection here. “When they saw the stairs, they said we have to do a fashion show here. Usually they don’t do shows in-store, but in London, I think it is nice for the intimacy,” says Nicolas. The stairs in question are located in the “secret” upper half of the store, and are a great spiral comprising all the different marbles throughout the six stories. Custom-made by craftsmen in Italy, the installation was not without complications. “It was so difficult to make. It is one structure, so we had to calculate the weight of each stone. Without the stone, the stair sits here,” Nicolas explains, gesturing to a point high above the top step, “and when you add the stone, with the weight it drops down. The stairs had to be redone three times. It was trial and error.” Yet, it’s his favourite part of the building. “It is like a sculpture, and your imitation goes somewhere else. Like in a museum, you are looking at a sculpture that sinks into your mind and becomes a mirror of yourself. It is nice to create an object like that.”
As one of the few lucky members of press to be allowed into this otherwise closed world, I was fortunate to witness the same staircase take pride of place in the Alte Atrigianalita show, complete with dramatic choreography, with male models walking up, while female models swept down. Themed for the city hosting it, the collection has a decidedly London edge to it, with the Union Jack flag remade into an object of opulence. It opened the show in the form of a liquid sequinned skirt, teamed with a delicate lace blouse and a feathered top hat. The flag also appeared again as a dress, an evening clutch and in layers of puffball organza, gathered up like bunting at a Jubilee street party. Other British elements were woven though womenswear, with Harris tweed cut into opera coats and dresses, and lavished with dense gold needlework. Even punk raised its rebellious head in the form of a yellow tartan skirt, complete with safety pins, but softened with roses and opera gloves.
Huge tulle skirts were topped with what could have been raven feathers from the Tower of London, while a swing coat was decked out in cherubs lifted from the ceiling of a stately home. The solitary pair of riding trousers was a patchwork of metallic brocades, and yet more gold appeared as dresses, embroidery and regal crowns, on knitwear, coats, gloves as well as heads. Menswear was just as opulent, but carried a more military air. Khaki green was echoed in a sequinned smoking jacket, while jackets, blazers and overcoats were smothered in frogging. Suits were immaculate, and finished with velvet lapels and jewellery reminiscent of medals. The velvet slippers that accompanied the looks were encrusted with golden beads and stitching.
Ever present in the fashion collections, gold features in the interior, too. In London – a dark and gloomy city – light is everything, and Nicolas has made sure that the simple display racks for the clothes are made of warm gold, and are the first thing a customer sees when entering. "It makes you feel there is sun outside," he explains. "London is not always very sunny, so it is important. The gold gives you energy."
Downstairs in the store, another vast staircase holds court. This one is an immense slab of black stone, swept into a dramatic curve that vanishes through the ceiling. This, too, was a labour of love. Decorated with a pattern reminiscent of black paint trickling from the walls onto each step, every piece has been custom-made. Water-cut from white and black marble, the two elements fit together so perfectly that every step and riser looks hand-drawn.
“We made the sketches, and we asked [the stonemasons] can they find a stone like it. They said no, but they could create it. It’s like when Domenico creates a dress – all the artisans come and it becomes a working collaboration. We don’t use a catalogue of stone and leather, no, it is all created for us, that’s why it takes so much time and is so much work. It has to be unique.”
It’s apparent, as Nicolas leads us through an archway of black marble, that no detail has been overlooked. “Here you get squeezed in a dark space,” he explains, gesturing to the enclosing walls, “and then it opens into the next room. It’s like breathing.”
The finished store is the culmination of two creative sides coming together to find a mutual visual language. Often faced with conflicting ideas, the process was not always straightforward. “Normally, working for a brand, I get a brief and there are 20 people sitting around a table,” Nicolas confides. “They tell me what they want. But here we have to find something totally unexpected. Domenico never said what he wants, there was no brief. The brief was ‘surprise me’.”
Having begun his design career when fashion designer Issey Miyake requested he design a store, Nicolas is clearly used to overcoming challenges that would daunt others. For this project, he and his studio created five propositions for the store, each one finished down to the smallest detail, such as the plug sockets. These were then presented to Dolce and Gabbana. "It is very simple, when Domenico stands up to look at a proposal, it means he likes it, so in 15 seconds it's finished. No kidding."
Despite the huge workload, Nicolas seems to have relished the London project, even hoping to collaborate with the label again in the future. “It is amazing to work with them, because how many fashion designers still run their own business? It is very few, so it is such an exquisite moment to be able to share this time. And it is amazing, as we have to create something totally new each time. I have even showed to [them] concept for stores that don’t even exist,” he says.
Back in Old Bond Street, after the last model has descended the stairs and the show has finished, Dolce and Nicolas smile broadly at one another, and I watch as Dolce mouths “thank you” to his architect, even as the thunderous applause from the crowd drowns out his words.
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