No strangers to controversy, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana can always be relied upon to speak their minds. When they are not busy conjuring up beautiful, gilded fashion, they are refreshingly candid in their views – something of a rarity in an age of sanitised sound bites. Searing honesty has, at times, landed the pair in hot water, perhaps most famously in 2015 when Elton John boycotted the brand because Gabbana described children born via IVF as “synthetic”.
Nonetheless, the pair are in no rush to conform to other people’s expectations and have always valued their independence, which is evident in their work – an unashamedly flamboyant celebration of love, life and excess. “We are strange guys,” Dolce tells me. “We still do what we want, when we want. We decided on this long ago, and organise everything around that. Not because we are anarchists, but because we cherish our freedom,” he explains.
And what a freedom it is. I am in New York at the lavish four-day couture extravaganza that Dolce and Gabbana throw for their most exclusive clients – the Alta Moda shows, which include jewellery, as well as exquisite one-off clothing for men and women.
Standing among the racks of priceless creations, each lovingly handcrafted, I ask whether the duo prefer working on ready-to-wear or couture? “They are very different from each other,” Dolce explains. “We love them both, but in different ways. It’s like we have five children; one is beautiful, one is uglier, one is intelligent, the other is stupid… but like a mother, we love them all. We cannot choose. But Alta Moda has more freedom,” he admits. “We can experiment more, we don’t have to worry about the price, and there is no limit. We can give the audience a dream.”
The fact that the two still design for the label that carries their name also makes them a rarity in today's fashion universe. Few of the other big brands still have their founders at the helm. Established decades ago, the original designers of these labels are long departed, replaced with young creatives tasked with keeping the brand relevant for a modern audience. While this may work for the other houses, it does not sit well with Dolce and Gabbana.
Gabbana has been quoted as saying: "Once we are dead, we are dead. I don't want a Japanese designer to start designing for Dolce & Gabbana." I ask Dolce if he shares this view. "We talk about this a lot now. We all need to understand when our time is done. You just need to be honest with yourself and say my time is over, ciao. Today, all designers are freelance," he says. "I have worked freelance with many companies, and it is a very different approach. You finish the project, you take the money and ciao, you go on holiday. It's normal," Dolce adds.
“But when it’s your love, your name, your company, it is completely different. Today the fashion world is all profession, not emotion. I don’t understand. Today why don’t designers have ambition to make something alone? Do they just want a big company and lots of money?” This clearly touches a nerve.
Having been in the industry since 1985 (“We started with zero lira, we made sacrifices,” Dolce is at pains to point out), the pair can now be viewed as veterans, with an fascinating overview of the industry. Yet, Dolce clearly does not like what he sees. “This is not a job about money. Fashion design is something you love, you need. When was the last time you went to the doctor and they told you, you need two dresses and a coat? This is about devotion.
“What is the point, if you have spent your life making clothes in black, and the new designers presents plastic clothes? Why don’t they respect the name? If you want to do your own work, why not do it under your own name? For me, and maybe I am old, but I love the respect for tradition. If you want to make something different, do it under your own name. But they don’t, and that’s the problem,” he says.
That's not to say that the pair are afraid to embrace new ways of thinking – they were quick to use influencers as models and sent handbags down the runway attached to drones as part of their autumn/winter 2018/19 collection showcase in Milan. "We believe in new, and this is a new age," Dolce maintains. "I think the internet has changed everything, and we need to pay attention to the revolution. But everything ends, nothing is forever. We need to understand when our moment is finito."
As the pair leave to prepare for the collection being shown later that night, Dolce smiles. “Life is beautiful,” he says. “I want to live and enjoy. I want to die happy. I have lots of money, and I don’t need any more, because money is not happiness. It comes back to devotion. I don’t want to work with people who don’t have this devotion.”