Inside Lake Como’s Villa Bolivianina, Lady Kitty Spencer stands patiently as Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana make last-minute alterations to the outfit she'll be wearing to open the duo’s star-studded Alta Moda show later that evening. Dolce styles her hair into a high bun, and Gabbana gently lowers a spoked crown onto her head.
The 27-year-old British model and niece of the late Princess Diana is sporting a voluminous 18th-century-inspired skirt and corseted top; emblazoned across the ensemble's puff sleeves are extracts from I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), the historic Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni, whom Gabbana refers to as "our Shakespeare". A scene from the book, featuring its ill-fated lovers, Renzo and Luciana, is also depicted in painstaking detail across Spencer's skirt.
Manzoni’s seminal work, which is set in Lake Como, is the basis for Dolce & Gabbana’s latest Alta Moda collection (which, as the Italian duo’s answer to haute couture, represents the very pinnacle of their creative offering and acts as a tribute to Italian craftsmanship), but Como also plays a starring role. On one dress, the gardens of Villa D’Este, a Renaissance residence-turned-luxury hotel on the shores of the lake, are recreated in all their colourful splendour – complete with flamingos, squirrels, butterflies and vibrant three-dimensional blooms. Elsewhere, historic villas and lakeside scenes are rendered in sparkling, multihued sequins, and oversized blooms are picked out in intricate needlepoint. At this level, fashion is more akin to art than clothing, and dresses are transformed into canvases.
“We took our inspiration from the books of Alessandro Manzoni, but also the idea of Como, which is famous for all its villas, which have attracted the most aristocratic people to this lake. These people lived life very freely, outside of the rules,” Dolce explains. “This was a holiday city, a spa city. A place to relax, enjoy the good weather and the good food.
“When we went around checking locations, we saw a lot of incredible buildings and palazzi. And when we talked to people, every palazzo has a story; there is a lot of gossip. About Napoleon and his lovers, about Queen Victoria… there are secrets here. This opened a new dream for us, and we started to sketch something very eccentric and outside the rules,” Dolce continues.
“It’s like a dream. It’s our dream,” Gabbana adds, before acknowledging: “The dream is completely crazy.”
Gabbana warns against trying to over-intellectualise the collection – and fashion in general. “We cannot explain exactly what we do. It is our imagination. We mix everything. It is difficult for us to explain exactly. I think in this moment in the fashion system, everybody needs to explain and explain. Fashion is art. It is impossible to plan anything in fashion… you cannot explain anything. These days, there are too many theories. Too many people talking about nothing. At the end of the day, it’s clothes, and it’s emotional.”
The Alta Moda presentation is part of a four-day extravaganza set in some of Italy’s most picturesque surroundings, where top clients and a handful of international press are invited to fully immerse themselves in the Dolce & Gabbana universe. To enter this heady fantasy world is to understand how Alice might have felt as she slipped down the rabbit hole. In addition to getting first dibs on the brand’s Alta Moda, Alta Sartoria (menswear) and Alta Gioielleria (high jewellery) collections, attendees are treated to such delights as a dedicated pop-up shop on-board a boat, dinner on the grounds of a church in Bellagio and entertainment courtesy of Tinie Tempah.
Dusk is falling as Spencer appears at the top of the grand double staircase that dominates Tremezzina’s Teresio Olivelli botanical park and the Alta Moda show begins. Designed in the 1920s by architect Pietro Lingeri, the park is filled tonight with Dolce & Gabbana clients clad in Alta Moda outfits from seasons past (one lady appears in a ballgown crafted entirely from red ostrich feathers, another in neck-to-toe silver sequins), who sit or recline amidst the camphor and cypress trees.
The show itself is an unashamed ode to opulence. The first few looks are direct references to Manzoni’s book – Spencer in her expansive skirt, followed by a model in a slim-fitting frock suit and an austere-looking nun in an oversized straw hat fashioned into a habit. And then the crazy really kicks in: a rainbow kaftan lined with feathers; a lace suit in silver; blue mermaid wigs; feather-lined sunglasses; beaded turbans crafted into oversized shoulder embellishments; and sandals inlaid with artificial grass. Helena Christensen makes an appearance in a tiered black gown and matching lace parasol, while Eva Herzigová jauntily parades powder-blue trousers and tails dotted with delicate floral motifs. But it is Naomi Campbell who steals the show, a knowing smile playing on her lips as she sashays through the gardens in an exquisite floral gown and matching headdress.
In among the literary and Como-specific references are plenty of international elements, including a custom-created sari worn over a midnight blue blouse with oversized sleeves; and a more “modest” look sported by Halima Aden that consists of a tiger-print kaftan fringed with feathers, and topped with a matching turban. “There’s not just one reference in one outfit; maybe you find five different references and five different points, in one outfit,” Gabbana notes. “It’s very schizophrenic.”
For the sari, the duo took their cues from model Dipti Sharma. “We have a model, an Indian girl, and we told her: ‘We'll give you a piece of fabric and you do, by yourself, the sari and after that we’ll customise the outfit. We love the tradition. In this case, we love to put our touch on the Indian tradition,” Gabbana explains. “We have a Muslim, too, with a headscarf, and we did the same. We said: ‘This is the fabric, make it the way you dress, because we don’t know exactly which way you do it.”
Dolce adds: “This experience is beautiful because we discover all the cultures. We respect all the religions, all the cultures, all the sizes, all the ages. This is the modern life.”
Later that night, after a fireworks show and dinner on the grounds of Como’s Villa Olmo, the façade of which is covered with projections of Dolce & Gabbana’s signature floral motifs, clients rush to take a closer look at the collection and snap up some of the priceless, one-off pieces. And then they dance off into the night, “very freely, outside of the rules”.