On a mesa in Agrigento overlooking Sicily’s southern coast, dusk is settling on the Valley of the Temples. The towering Tempio della Concordia, which has stood almost entirely intact since it was constructed in 430 BC, is bathed in light, a makeshift runway extending out from its six-columned facade. A figure emerges and makes her way down the stone steps; she is clad entirely in gold, the outline of an Ionic column picked out on her skirt, a floor-length cape trailing behind. So begins Dolce & Gabbana’s procession of modern-day goddesses.
There is Diana, goddess of the hunt, in a shimmering gold tunic, a bow clasped in one hand and a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder; Arethusa, the nymph, in a sheath of barely-there organza covered in abstract, painterly florals and topped with capped sleeves made of 3D blooms; Dikaiosyne, goddess of justice, in a one-shouldered black gown that draws its inspiration from the peplos – the traditional draped robe of ancient Greece; and Aphrodite, goddess of love, in a frothy pale-blue-and-white ballgown that emulates the waves from which she emerged.
"In this setting that has no equal anywhere in the world, our Alta Moda creations will re-evoke the enduring myths of Classicism, which have continued to fascinate poets, painters and sculptors for centuries now," Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana expound in their show notes. "And, just as those artists who have never tired of reinterpreting them in their masterpieces, so our seamstresses have incessantly painted, embroidered and sewn them on to the garments."
It is a remarkable thing – to see Italy through the eyes of two of its most famous sons. For their Alta Moda presentations in July each year, Dolce and Gabbana invite their top clients and select members of the press to their home country for a four-day fashion extravaganza. Or, as Gabbana puts it: "It's hospitality, it's friendship, it's fashion, it's one world. We know it is difficult to find this these days, because the big companies are not like this. We are enjoying to share with you, our heart."
Alta Moda is the duo’s answer to Paris’s haute couture shows, amplified ad infinitum. It is a parallel universe, where historic sites are transformed into runways, dinners are held in ancient palazzos, men unabashedly don crowns and gold brocade robes, and women sport Disney-esque gowns. It is a fantastical world where Dolce and Gabbana not only show their exquisite men’s, women’s and high jewellery collections in magical locations, but also highlight the best of Italy – the country’s history, quality craftsmanship, and unparalleled food and hospitality. “We open our culture and we are so proud about this. This is Dolce & Gabbana,” Dolce says as he welcomes press for a preview of the Alta Moda collection.
In addition to the financial investment that an event of this scale represents, the destinations that feature in this year's Alta Moda events benefit in myriad other ways. As part of its Alta Gioielleria, or high jewellery, presentation on the first night, Dolce and Gabbana invite their 400-odd guests to Palma di Montechiaro, the birthplace and family seat of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature.
As the designers walk the streets, excited townsfolk gather to watch, honing in for selfies, throwing rose petals from balconies and chanting their names in welcome. It is revealed that the duo have made a donation to the Municipality of Palma di Montechiaro, which will be dedicated to the renovation of the Tomasi di Lampedusa Ducal Palace. They have also developed and donated a floral design project to upgrade the gardens of the town’s Villa Comunale and Via Turati promenade. Back at the Temple of Concordia, a special floor – created so that the models can walk through the structure – will remain in place until October, allowing tourists access to the temple, which has traditionally been cordoned off.
“From 1984, little by little, year by year, we built an image and we built a label,” Gabbana says. “We know we are unique, not because we are more good than the other one, but because there are not a lot of fashion houses that are private, like ours. And it’s very difficult to build, today, an image and to tell a story to people. Because sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not good, but all the time, it’s our idea, it’s our hand, it’s our heart. Everything comes from our heart. It’s not a CEO. There’s not anyone on the top of us. We are spontaneous. We make what we really want. And Alta Moda is the maximum expression of this.”
An up-close look at the clothes confirms this. This latest collection offers something of a departure from the duo’s much-loved, hyper-Italian motifs, into new territory – 125 looks that explore Sicily’s ancient Greek roots. “There are new proportions, new embroidery; we tried a lot of new things,” Gabbana reveals.
Dolce draws our attention to a bodice crafted from minuscule feathers, each individually hand-painted in gold, with a skirt made from beaded tassels that shiver with every step; a simple black dress with an oversized snake clasp at the breast that calls to mind Cleopatra and her murderous asp; and gazar silk skirts that have been transformed into canvases featuring the Neoclassical paintings of Jacques-Louis David. Accessories include embellished gladiator sandals, gleaming gold shields, bronze harps and clutches dotted with coloured stones.
“You see and you don’t see,” Dolce says of the intricate work on a yellow dress, which has feathers painstakingly interlaid with crystals. “Because beauty is not for everybody. Not everybody understands beauty. I’m sorry. This is the message.”
The duo stick with the ancient Greek theme for their men's show, sending models out in the guise of gods. In the charmingly weathered courtyard of Sciacca's Palazzo dei Gesuiti, guests sit around an ad hoc amphitheatre filled with towering, hyper-masculine statues, like spectators preparing for a gladiatorial match of old. The 130-look show offers styles worthy of a modern Zeus, Heracles, Dionysus and Apollo – from thigh-skimming tunics and flowing white robes to wide-legged trousers emblazoned with mythological figures and a crocodile-leather jacket coated in 24K gold.
“Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus, Poseidon and Ares, to cite just a few, have been portrayed, down the centuries, in fabulous masterpieces: in the multiplicity of those forms, we have rediscovered uniqueness, just as in representation of the real we have grasped the idea of beauty,” the designers state. “The mighty power of those bodies, their egos and their intellectual capacities will never lose their grip on our imagination.”
After the show, I chat to Sylvia Mantella, a highly visible and long-time client of the brand who has been attending Alta Moda events since they were launched in 2012. “I was blown away because they went in a very different direction,” she says of the 2019 collections. “The route has always very much been authentic to Italy and Sicily, and with this they managed to keep that authenticity, but also speak to the history, and the Greek and Roman element. I thought it was spectacular.
“I’ve seen a lot in terms of couture, and you can get a little bit jaded. But there’s nothing like this. There’s nothing like Alta Moda,” she exclaims before heading off to a sit-down dinner and fireworks show that will no doubt cement Dolce and Gabbana’s place in Sicily’s modern mythology.