From the fashion front row: The gilded rebirth of Dolce & Gabbana

Against a backdrop of scandal and boycotts, the Italian house pulls out all the stops while unveiling its Alta Sartoria and Alta Moda collections in Milan

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The designers behind Dolce & Gabbana have, no doubt, spent the past three weeks weighing up the label's spectacular fall from grace in China. The controversy broke following the release of an ill-judged video and an anti-Chinese Instagram tirade, drawing the fury of the populace. In the aftermath, about 150 million people took to social media using the hashtag #BoycottDolce. This in turn forced the company to cancel its much-heralded show in Shanghai, and saw its products pulled from Chinese shops and websites in protest.

The Milanese Renaissance

Such has been the storm that, even after issuing two public apologies to China and its citizens, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have been keeping a low profile since. The pair are now back on home turf in Milan and unveiled their latest couture collection last weekend in front of a (presumably) friendly audience. The Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria show is the first public event since the scandal began, drawing all eyes to see how the designers would handle it. As it turned out, they handled it rather well.

This, the company’s third outing in couture this year alone, was already long planned. What may have been a more last-minute decision, however, was the theme of the collections: the Milanese Renaissance. Given that the designers were lambasted for cultural insensitivity, it is interesting that the notion of awakening and rebirth was the inspiration behind this collection. Entitled The Renaissance of Milan, this was not just a history lesson about the Italian city, but a moment of rebirth for the brand itself.

The unveiling of the men's (Alta Sartoria) and women's (Alta Moda) couture took place in the lavish, Rococo-style Palazzo Litta, a historical building dating from the 17th century, into which we entered via a room lined with 30,000 fresh roses. Clearly with the idea of fresh starts foremost in mind, this show saw the combining of both men's and women's collections for the first time, resulting in a grand procession of more than 200 looks, which took over an hour to swagger past. Another first, too, was the use of French embroidery house Lesage to craft the opulent surface work, liberally scattered across many pieces.

Alta Moda womenswear

A central inspiration was Ludovico Sforza (born 1452), the ruler of Milan during its golden awakening, and a great supporter of the arts and architecture. It was Sforza who lured Leonardo da Vinci to Milan, to paint The Last Supper (a painting that has been the centre of its own scandal this month). With this nod to the arts at the fore, the show opened with a gown featuring ­mustard-coloured feathers, which had a depiction of Ghirlandaio's Madonna and Child hand-stitched on its bodice, and was closely followed by a needlepoint version of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, now made into an off-the-shoulder gown.

Leaning heavily on Renaissance portraits, dresses came with square necklines furnished with pearls, while the models’ hair was intricately woven into cages and headpieces that took more than five hours to complete. Masterpieces by Botticelli and da Vinci were translated into densely embroidered dresses, coats and jackets, encrusted with beadwork, and splendid in the earthy tones of the Enlightenment, including pewter, charcoal, royal blue, burnt umber, bitter chocolate, and oily greens.

In a blaze of technical know-how, one coat was painstakingly pieced from more than 60 different shades of yellow, to mimic an inlaid marble floor, while elsewhere an antiqued golden lace ruff sat atop a dress lavished in sequins, depicting the very same Hall of Mirrors, where we now sat. Rococo gilt frames were seen as headpieces, or even around the artwork itself, carried along with the outfit it inspired like enormous bags. Huge net gowns in Tyrian purple, rose pink and magenta were described as being “clouds of colour”, while an elaborate oxblood gown required 526 metres of fabric for the ruching alone.

Many pieces were weighed down with embroidery and metalwork, such as dresses of filigree work that clung to tiers of gilt net, and a blue crepe coat embroidered so densely, it became three-­dimensional. Elsewhere, rich brocades were fashioned into pantaloons-style trousers, teamed with ruffled shirts with lace-trimmed collars. In contrast, other looks were cut from airy silk, including a floor-length gown depicting Raphael's Three Graces, printed on the round, and forever caught under netting.

Alta Sartoria menswear

The menswear, when it arrived, was remarkable with its Lesage handwork, including a double-faced cashmere coat heavy with pearls, and a velvet cape so densely worked, it stood proud of the body. An inky leather jacket was adorned with applique, and had the word "­Ludovico" picked out on the back in gold metalwork.

Even amid this level of opulence, there were ­standout pieces, such as the jackets realised in punto pittura, roughly translated as "stitching the image". This clumsy English phrase, ­however, does little to convey the ­immaculate embroidery that recreated Raphael's Madonna in the Meadow around a blazer and coat, the painterly threads tracing the movement of the artist's hand.

Elsewhere, a tuxedo suit was carved from watered silk in burnt sienna, while another had a clever trompe l’oeil lapel, that was in ­reality stitched flat to the chest. A second jacket had no lapel at all, as if to demonstrate the skill of the tailors, and their ability to sculpt a jacket perfectly around the male form. Another jacket was carved from golden threads, deliberately broken as if antique.

Filled with surface detailing and theatrical silhouettes, this collection veered almost towards costume – rather than anything wearable – at times, but that too seemed to be the point. Embroiled in an all-too-real economic storm, this show was about forgetting woes and immersing oneself in the fantasy world of handmade clothes.

Alta Gioielleria high jewellery

The sentiment also ran through the Alta Gioielleria (high jewellery) collection, which was shown in its own dedicated building. Opulent in the extreme, the contemporary jewels all felt antique, thanks in part to the ploy of leaving gold patinated, and incorporating period elements such as 18th-century miniatures and fronds of long-exhausted ­Mediterranean coral. A deliberate decision to use only untreated stones meant that a ruby the size of a raisin carried a shadow in its heart, yet spoke volumes about ­authenticity and transparency ­moving forward.

Interestingly, the jewels were displayed alongside a photographic exhibition of favoured clients, from a project entitled Queens of Alta Moda. Although more than two years in the making, the pink-bound tome felt telling, with only Dolce's name listed as author.  

'A visual journey through the history of Milan'

Seen against the fiasco that was China, this opulent display for Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria was important, seemingly offering an olive branch to those it offended. ­Theatrical, beautiful and a true celebration of art and culture, this was a magical diversion through the technical prowess of the house and the undimmed passion of its designers. In conjuring a visual journey through the history of Milan, the designers carried a wider message about looking to the future while learning from the past.

The precise and perfect detailing of each look also made the recent errors – however disagreeable – feel more human. And as the final dresses swept past, each trailing metres of fabric, it was good to see the duo leave politics aside and get back to what they do best: transporting a rapt audience to a place of unashamed glamour.


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