It's a balmy summer's evening in Palermo's Piazza Pretoria and the faint scent of Sicilian lemons and roses hangs in the air as 400 VIP clients take their seats for Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana's Alta Moda show.
The Italian designers’ collection of 120 couture pieces for women is presented in the shadow of Renaissance churches, on a runway that encircles an imposing 16th century Carrara marble fountain by sculptor Francesco Camilliani. Saudi Arabian royalty, eminent Emiratis, Chinese industrialists and Africa’s super-rich feature on the guest list this season, along with European nobility such as Princess Carine Vanni Mantegna.
The exclusive event is charged with emotion for Dolce, as it represents a return to the Mediterranean island where he was born in 1958. "This is my country," he says. "Stefano and I love this place more than you can imagine, with all its history, architectural styles and influences - from Norman, Spanish and Greek to Arabian. Every culture has been mixed together right here in Sicily."
It was at the age of six, in the small hilly town of Polizzi Generosa, that Dolce's thoughts first turned to fashion. Having keenly watched his sarto-tailor father make gabardine suits and velvet capes for Sicily's gentry, Dolce stitched himself a pair of trousers.
"Sicily is part of our brand's DNA," says Gabbana. "We started here 35 years ago and we even came back to show Alta Moda once before, in 2012. This collection is about us, about our history and about that of Palermo, which is why it is so exciting to be back."
The pair first met in Gabbana's native Milan in the early 1980s, but while their meteoric rise to commercial success in ready-to-wear and accessories is well documented, their couture offering for women (Alta Moda), men (Alta Sartoria) and high jewellery (Alta Gioielleria) is an intensely private affair.
The presentation of D&G's bespoke collections is a four-day extravaganza dubed Alte Artigianalità, held once a year and almost without exception in Italy. Security on the ground at the shows is discreet but tight, fittings are done swiftly after the presentations and the buying that ensues is intense. The prices of the designers' one-off pieces remain as confidential as their show guest list.
This time around, in an ode to Palermo, D&G’s voluminous Alta Moda gowns were decorated with hand-painted neoclassical statues, fountains and monuments. Glinting as the model sashayed before the crowd, a column dress with swinging caped sleeves captured the baroque façade of a building from the ancient heart of the city, Quattro Canti, in cream and azure sequins.
Corsets encrusted with precious stones sat atop billowing, hooped silk skirts printed with frescoes and altarpieces, inspired by Renaissance and Rococo churches in the city, including Santa Caterina and San Giuseppe dei Teatini. Others paid homage to the city’s Byzantine opulence and its period of Norman-French rule.
Dresses, beaded by hand from collar to hem, dazzled in their display of Sicily's vibrant wild flowers, while fiery red Sciacca coral set a signature black lace gown alight. Other showstopping pieces included an ivory ballgown adorned with gold cherubs and a crinoline number inspired by Luchino Visconti's 1963 period drama film Il Gattapardo (The Leopard). The film documented Palermo's tumultuous social upheavals and was based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel of the same name.
Many silhouettes were romantic and sensual, referencing the glamorous life and times of Donna Franca Jacona della Motta, the baroness of San Giuliano who was born in 1873 and fondly known as the "Queen of Sicily", or simply Franca Florio.
Alta Moda’s playful pieces took the form of gowns with kaleidoscopic prints reminiscent of Sicily’s vibrant marketplaces, while a rainbow of tassels and pom-poms made for epaulettes on curve-enhancing cocktail dresses. Almost good enough to eat was a dress resembling a cassata cake, Palermo’s traditional sponge desert, which is decorated with candied fruit.
[ Dolce&Gabbana's Alta Moda Palermo at Piazza Pretoria. Courtesy Dolce&Gabbana ]
"Fashion has to be fun and we have always told our story in a different way to others," says Gabbana. "This Alta Moda is a fantasy where we've played with everything from the princess theme in The Leopard, to Sicily's kings and queens, to the colours of fruit and vegetable carts, and ribbons used in traditional folklore dances. The collection is just like Palermo - it is a big mix of things."
Albeit whimsical at times, Dolce and Gabbana's collection was firmly rooted in Sicily's aristocratic, ethnic and religious heritage. As a nod to the centuries of Arab rule on the island, coloured inlays and geometric details featured on some gowns, reflecting the intricate carvings and pointed arches of many of the buildings in the capital.
Muslims first invaded Sicily in 652, seizing control of the island from the Byzantine Empire. What was dubbed “the Emirate of Sicily” existed from around 827 until 1072. The result was the emergence of a multicultural Arab-Byzantine society that thrived until it was conquered by Norman mercenaries under Roger I of Sicily. Until at least the late 12th century, Muslims made up the majority of the island’s population and their influence is still clear today, in everything from cuisine to place names and Sicilian colloquialisms.
Sitting just a stone’s throw from the Arabic-Norman church of San Cataldo, with its bulging roof domes and Islamic merlons, the well-heeled crowd at Alta Moda this season was taken on an archival and cultural couture journey by Dolce and Gabanna. The narrative of the collection was deliberately hard to circumscribe, with every ornate, precious stone necklace, towering floral headdress and ethereal gown having a different story to tell.
“It is perhaps too difficult for the audience to understand every single aspect,” says Dolce. “There is so much going on, so many influences. For us, as designers, and as a Sicilian, all this is normal. But I can understand that for foreigners it is perhaps a bit strange.”
The collection was clearly a labour of love for the designers, who chose not to rework or replicate any previous Alta Moda motifs in the making of the dresses, some of which took an entire year to create. “The finish is so perfect,” says Dolce. “You would think that everything had been done mechanically when, in fact, of course, it has all been done by hand.”
In a departure from Alta Moda’s styling of recent years, the designers clad their models in slides, flat velvet pumps and sneakers. Billowing silk sports shirts were teamed with elegant evening skirts, and luxurious jeans accented with needlework flowers, pearls and beads had clients reaching for their phones. In keeping with the youthful design elements, the models themselves were fresh-faced and included the 21-year-old royals, Lady Amelia Windsor and Princess Olympia of Greece.
“We have started to pay more attention to our younger customers,” says Gabbana. “They are the new generation and their approach to Alta Moda is a little different. They love to play and experiment but, of course, still want the very best of everything - fabrics, cuts and details, etc. Last summer, the very first things to sell were denim pieces and t-shirts.”
A proud father watching his millennial children walk in Alta Moda this year was the American comedian, television host and author, Steve Harvey. “It is very exciting to see the dreams of my girls coming true,” he says. “It is an amazing experience and opportunity for them. My daughter Amanda is a professional model and Lori is getting into the business too. My son also walked in Alta Sartoria, but he is not going to be a model."
[ Dolce&Gabbana's Alta Sartoria. Courtesy Dolce&Gabbana ]
To witness the unveiling of Dolce and Gabbana’s Alta Sartoria presentation of 116 looks for men, Mr Harvey plumped for a dress shirt and bowtie topped with a black kaftan with gold embroidery. “It is the first time I have ever worn a kaftan and I really love it,” he says. “I saw the collection ahead of time and was given the outfit and a hat. It is a bit outside of the norm for me as I am normally a suit and cigar man, but I have to say it is very comfortable. I have not yet got to the point where I am wearing Dolce and Gabbana pyjamas out in public yet, like my wife, but she has progressed me quite a bit over the past few years.”
Alta Sartoria was set against the dramatic backdrop of Duomo di Monreale, a 12th century cathedral built upon the slopes of a city that was inhabited by the Arabs and the Normans. "It was almost an impossible dream to show the men's collection here," says Gabbana. "It's such an important monument and the mosaics and use of real gold everywhere inside is incredible."
Shirts and suits paid tribute to Sicily’s King William II, the cathedral’s visionary architects and the artisans of yesteryear. Separates featured the Duomo’s religious artwork and its imposing structural details in printed, painted and needlepoint fashion.
Brocade jackets bloomed with embroidered flowers, resembling designs found on the antique vestments and liturgical garments on display within the cathedral. Silken shirts and bomber jackets were paired with exotic skin pants and pyjamas were shortened to reveal ankles and forearms.
The kaftans showcased in Alta Sartoria this season were perfectly suited to their lofty surroundings. Some came in classic cream, others were stamped with the façade of Monreale’s towering edifices. Stealing the show - and lighting up the floor beneath him as he glided by - was a turban-wearing model dressed in a jalabiya made entirely of dazzling gold and black sequins, embellished at the cuffs.
[ Dolce&Gabbana's Alta Sartoria. Courtesy Dolce&Gabbana ]
Overall, styling was cool, calm and considered – comprising of Dolce-esque black rimmed spectacles, feathered slippers, versatile zip clutches and papal scarves. But what truly set the pulse of male clients racing was the brand’s first full-scale collection of high jewellery and watches, Alta Gioielleria.
Timepieces ran the gamut from sleek chain metal bracelets in bronze, gold and pewter with plain roman numeral faces to gilded dress watches with intricate subdials, precious stone crowns and elaborate bezels.
Models strode the runway wearing ornate cufflinks studded with black diamonds, while brooches shone with rhodolite garnets and south sea pearls. Oversized lion head rings were inset with royal blue tanzanite and cigarette cases bore crowns and gold wreaths, accented with orange tourmaline resembling medieval ceremonial swords.
Alta Gioielleria was unapologetically opulent and sprinkled with references to Sicily’s King Frederick II, a ruler known for his cultural curiosity, as well as his passion for purebred Arabic (Saracen) horses, camels and falcons.
“It is a very pure and clear message that we are sending out through hosting this event,” says Gabbana. “Our job is to find love and give it to people. Fashion for us is not about the money, it is about beauty and love. We have enjoyed putting all of this together and know that we are lucky that we get to live our passion. We hope that our customers - now that we have taken them to these places and shown them these collections - will really understand more about Dolce and Gabbana.”