A grotto dotted with priceless jewels. Helen Mirren dancing barefoot in a village square. A Unesco-listed cathedral transformed into a catwalk. And Ciara performing her latest single in a fortress dating back to the 2nd century.
This is Sicily, Dolce & Gabbana style.
It has been 10 years since the design duo launched Alta Moda, their distinctly Italian answer to haute couture. Each summer, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana host a multi-day extravaganza in a different part of Italy, where they roll out lavish womenswear, menswear and high jewellery collections. It is an opportunity for the brand’s most illustrious clients and celebrity friends to converge — and a chance for Dolce and Gabbana to show off their most bountiful muse, the country of their birth. A decade ago, 100 clients were invited to attend Alta Moda's launch event in Taormina; this year, there were 750 people on the guest list.
Alta Moda events are a heady mix of culture, craftsmanship, fashion, food and, most importantly, fun. Women don ballgowns, tiaras and dazzling jewels to nibble on arancini balls and creamy gelato; men style it out in floor-length robes and silk pyjamas as they let loose on the dance floor; a sense of childlike wonderment pervades, and even the most cynical of invitees can’t help but be drawn into Dolce & Gabbana’s carefully crafted fantasy world.
Over the past decade, Alta Moda events have been held in Venice, Lake Como, Palermo and Naples, but this year’s anniversary represented a homecoming for Dolce, who was born in Sicily. It was an ode to Syracuse, a historic city in the south-east of the island. “Siracusa is a special place for us,” Gabbana explained. “It is in the most southern part of Sicily, in front of Africa. I love the feeling, I love the mood, I love the stones, the colours, the people.”
Proceedings officially commenced with a high jewellery presentation at La Grotta dei Cordari, a quarry that yielded the limestone that gives Syracuse its distinctive white hue. Oleander, laurel, cypress, citrus and olive trees flanked a red carpet that wound its way down into the grotto, following a path once trodden by Saint Paul and Sir Winston Churchill, who apparently loved to paint in these surrounds.
Our journey was momentarily held up by Kris Jenner taking photos of her partner Corey Gamble with Stefano Gabbana, but soon enough, we were ensconced within the damp, evocatively lit grotto. As spectacular as they were, Dolce & Gabbana’s latest jewellery creations were dwarfed by the cavernous proportions and raw natural beauty of the site. Glass display boxes were interspersed with actors recreating scenes from ancient Greek tragedies and, at the bottom of the cave, hundreds of pink roses stood in a natural body of water.
A wooden bridge led guests out of the grotto, on to a path dotted with “street food” stalls, and then up to the Greek Theatre, one of the largest ancient amphitheatres in the Mediterranean. Here, a particularly well-dressed audience, which included Sharon Stone and Lady Kitty Spencer, was treated to an opera performance.
The following evening, guests were transported to the Cathedral of Syracuse, a Unesco World Heritage site in the historic centre of Sicily’s Ortigia Island, to watch Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda, or womenswear, show.
Mariah Carey made a suitably dramatic entrance, flanked by the designers and draped in a figure-hugging Dolce & Gabbana dress. She took her seat among an already stellar line-up of celebrity guests — an ever-youthful-looking Sharon Stone, Helen Mirren in a voluminous striped gown, Drew Barrymore, Lupita Nyong’o, singer Ciara with her husband and children dressed in matching shades of gold and white, Casey Affleck, Kris Jenner, Christian Bale, Monica Bellucci, Heidi Klum and Vanessa Bryant.
The Alta Moda presentation was preceded by a re-enactment of Cavalleria rusticana, a classic Italian opera by Pietro Mascagni from the late 1800s, on a catwalk set up in front of the famed cathedral. A tale of passion, betrayal, family and, ultimately, tragedy, it set the tone for a show laden with drama. “Tonight, we have tried to create an experience that is about the Dolce & Gabbana DNA,” said Dolce.
The collection was a heartfelt love letter to the Sicilian woman, one of Dolce & Gabbana’s most enduring muses. In a marked move away from the brand’s signature prints and vibrant, Mediterranean-inspired colour palette, the collection was rendered almost entirely in black. “If you ask someone, in their imagination, what the Sicilian woman wears, it is black,” said Gabbana.
The collection of 106 outfits was a distillation of the brand’s core codes. Appearing at the top of a set of steps as the church bells toll, the opening look consisted of a short white dress with oversized sleeves shaped like cherubic statues. Next up, full-sized wings extending from the shoulders and voluminous, bridal-esque gowns covered in three-dimensional blooms.
Angelic white quickly made way for its antithesis, black, in the form of laser-cut gowns and coat dresses, corsets, shrouds, veils, head scarves and stern pencil skirts. Black lace, stiff corsetry, sheer stockings, plays in transparency and religious iconography heightened the ever-present interplay between sensuality and modesty.
Fresh from taking Paris Fashion Week by storm, Saudi model Amira Al Zuhair walked the runway in a calf-length black dress with subtle transparent panelling on the legs, arms and midriff.
Pops of yellow, lime green, pink, red and orange cut through the otherwise sombre palette, while oversized blazer dresses were laden with gold embroidery, dazzling crystal work or floral appliques, and paired with rhinestone-covered boots or delicate, flowery tights.
“Alta Moda, for me, is about surprises,” said Gabbana. "Every time we start a collection, I want to surprise myself. Every time is a challenge. I want to say something more. And I am full of curiosity.”
For menswear, that curiosity led the designers to a little-known legend linked to Sicily’s Arab past. When the Normans drove the Arabs from Sicily, they allowed the wife of Emir Ben Avert and their daughter, Calafarina, to return to their homeland unscathed. The two women arrived in the small fishing town of Marzamemi flanked by 30 guards and 100 mules laden with gold and precious gems.
Using magic and trickery, the women hid their spoils in a cave near the beach, before meeting a tragic end. Legend has it that this treasure still waits to be discovered, and Dolce and Gabbana may well have unearthed the mythical hoard, judging from the level of adornment heaped on their latest Alta Sartoria offerings.
“We took the legend of the princess and we took the jewels and put them all over the clothes,” Gabbana explained before the show. “So it’s a very sparkling collection. It’s very unusual … a collection filled with fantasy.”
Wooden fishing boats bobbed in the foreground as the sunset cast an orange glow over the horizon. The sound of Arabic music reverberated through Marzamemi, and the quayside of the 17th-century “tonnara” was transformed into an Arabian Nights fantasy.
The Moors, or Saracens, arrived here in the Middle Ages, and their presence is still evident in Sicily’s architecture, dialect and culinary traditions — Arab invaders introduced crops such as lemons, oranges and pistachios, as well as sugarcane production, laying the foundations for some of the area's most famous dishes, including cannoli and cassata.
The name Marzamemi itself is believed to come from the Arabic phrase “marsa al-hamama”, which translates as bay of the doves. Another theory is that it is a combination of the Arabic words “marsa”, port, and “memi”, small.
On the Dolce & Gabbana runway, these Arabian influences were reinterpreted in voluminous harem pants, sash belts, embroidered velvet slippers, long flowing robes and bejewelled accessories fit for a sultan.
Bejewelled body harnesses, bibs and head coverings offered a glittering, high-fashion take on body armour, juxtaposed with jeans for the ultimate statement in high-low style. Gladiator sandals consisting of enormous crystals snaked up the calf, while wide trousers were tucked into knee-high boots for a touch of the cavalier.
There were gold brocade suits, satin and lace kimonos, and velvet robes in shimmering shades of blue, paired with heaped necklaces crafted from multicoloured crystals. A kaftan in leopard jacquard was uplifted with velvet detailing and a decorative fringe, while fluid silk suits came in stunning jewel tones that sung in the evening light.
Joyful, fantastical and beautifully made, the collection summed up the distinct universe that Dolce & Gabbana has spent ten years building. "We want to share with people around us what is Italy," said Dolce. "Alta Moda is not just clothes; it is a style of life."