This year marks a quarter of a century since Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana – designer fashion's most famous pairing – showed for the first time. Back then, the industry was far from the corporate juggernaut it is today. Never would Dolce and Gabbana have imagined they'd go on to exert such influence over the way women (and indeed men) dress – from the high street, where the type of exuberant and unashamedly sexualised clothing their designs exemplify are ubiquitous, to the upper echelons of Hollywood. Dolce & Gabbana has been championed by blonde bombshell Scarlett Johansson, who became the face of the label's first make-up campaign, as well as by Monica Bellucci, also a poster girl in her time, Isabella Rossellini and Katy Perry. Then there's Victoria Beckham, of course, with whom the designers have been known to enjoy a spot of (presumably light) lunch, and last but certainly not least, Madonna. In May, they are launching a new range of sunglasses, called MDG, in collaboration with La Ciccone, who has been photographed by Steven Klein to promote the line.
"Our first show?" Signor Dolce reminisces. "We did it in a small apartment in Milan. We organised it ourselves, me and Stefano, without PR, with nothing. My sister and brother were on the door."
How times have changed. Dolce & Gabbana is now one of the most recognisable brands of our time – and the men behind it are directly responsible for the livelihoods of no fewer than 3,700 people. As well as the main fashion line, there is the phenomenally successful D&G collection, plus accessories collections, beachwear, eyewear, childrenswear, underwear, watches, fragrance, cosmetics... The list goes on, firmly establishing that Dolce & Gabbana has extended its reach far beyond fashion to become a fully fledged lifestyle brand rivalled, perhaps, only by that presided over by Giorgio Armani. Dolce & Gabbana's shows, meanwhile, are blockbuster events even by fashion's inflated standards, located in their own, immense and suitably grand space and attended not only by international fashion editors and buyers of note but also by an A-list clientele of which most designers could only dream. Well aware of the fast-moving nature of the world they inhabit, and of the need to stay ahead of the game, the designers have also attracted considerable attention for the past two seasons by placing high-profile bloggers in the front row, filing live to an audience of millions. But if Dolce and Gabbana can never be accused of resting on their laurels, there is a sense both in their current collection – pictured on these pages – and in their designs for next autumn/winter, unveiled last month in Milan, that the designers are going back to their roots.
"This season certainly mirrors the essence of the Dolce & Gabbana style," Stefano Gabbana confirms of a look which sees the glorious return of the Sicilian siren in all her hot, Mediterranean splendour, dressed as she invariably must be in leopard print (most vivid in red and black), lace and, of course, the corsetry that might not unreasonably be described as an obsession here. But re-thinking such a mindset to suit contemporary taste – or "the re-elaboration of our heritage and traditions with the eyes of today," as Gabbana himself puts it – is an essential part of the story. "Our way of working is still traditional, but in 25 years, there have been many changes," he says. Still, the Dolce & Gabbana main line, in particular, is executed with an attention to construction, fabric choices and hand-finishing that is far from usual.
"Take, for example, the corset," Domenico Dolce continues. "It basically goes under each and every look. It is the traditional corset, the one that shapes women's bodies and that we have been doing since our early years, but we changed the way we make it. There is no more whale-bone, no more hard structure inside, but rather a more comfortable combination of different stretch materials to obtain the same effect."
Innovative technological advancement is applied to the impeccable tailoring, borrowed from menswear but as skin-skimming and curvaceous as ever, the transparency of delicate embroideries and even the over-blown rose prints of yesteryear, all of which are present and correct. Traditional hook-and-eye fastenings have been replaced by zips, however, and edges, where even the finest fabrics are concerned, are left raw.
"We began in Sicily and we returned to Sicily," says Dolce. "But," adds Gabbana: "The Sicily we recreate today is not the same Sicily as when we began. It's a way of seeing things with a contemporary eye."
Domenico Dolce, now 51, and Stefano Gabbana, 47, in fact hail from the south and north of Italy respectively. Gabbana has long adopted the role of the extrovert – tall, dark and handsome in a quintessentially Italianate manner. Dolce is more idiosyncratic in appearance, a whole head shorter, with large, slightly protuberant eyes. The son of a Sicilian tailor, he grew up on that island. "I never wanted to be anything but a designer," Dolce says today. "My father was a tailor, my mother had a shop that sold clothing and fabrics in our town. I never remember playing with toy cars or soldiers but only with pieces of fabric." Disenchanted with the limitations of provincial life, he moved to Milan, aged 18, to study fashion. It was there that he met Gabbana. Finding they had more in common than just a love of clothes, the two men set up in business together and for years were partners, too, in real as well as fashion life. Although they are now no longer a couple, the to-and-fro banter that always typified their exchanges remains the same.
Stefano Gabbana: "To think that he didn't even want to consider Sicily as an inspiration when we first started."
Domenico Dolce: "Yes, when I arrived in Milan in 1978, I was so tired of felt caps and of Sicily. I had lived there all my life and the only thing I wanted was to breathe different air, otherwise I would have stayed there."
Stefano Gabbana: "I, on the other hand, was in love with it – as I am today. So I insisted on Sicily and we built our entire aesthetic around it, an aesthetic made up of contrasts, masculine and feminine, and of strong passions."
Here's how it started. In 1985, Dolce & Gabbana was chosen as one of three up-and-coming labels to show on the official schedule in Milan. The duo immediately earnt a reputation as the mavericks of Italian fashion, showing the world that there was more to life than a supremely chic trouser suit (beige) or indeed a status-driven handbag (monogrammed). If, one season, Dolce & Gabbana sent models down its catwalk in nothing more obviously respectable than heavily embellished foundation garments, then the next season floral-printed chiffon and priest coats would be the order of the day. Faded aristocrats, space-age mavens and even cowgirls have all taken their place on the Dolce & Gabbana women's runway in the past. And the designers have never thought twice about dressing men in highly dandified designs, or indeed plain insane ones. Designer astronaut suits in gleaming silver and gold? Yes, Dolce and Gabbana did that. Suffice it to say that their heritage boasts audacity and, that rare thing in fashion, a sense of humour, too.
Unifying all the above, however – at least as far as their womenswear is concerned – is the appeal of the voluptuous leading ladies of Italian neo-realist cinema – specifically, Anna Magnani, Claudia Cardinale, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. It is this type of powerful – and powerfully desirable – woman who is entirely in control of herself and her body that has long played the muse here.
"When we design a dress, we try to imagine whether a man will whistle at the women who buys it when she wears it," says Gabbana. "If he will, it's OK."
Remarkably, Dolce and Gabbana have managed to transform their label into a monumental global concern while also maintaining their independence. Like only a few in the industry, they own and control every aspect of their business themselves.
"We could never work in a company where we have to justify why one year we want to make long skirts instead of short ones," says Gabbana. "If I feel like moving a chair and putting it in another room I want to be able to do so without asking anyone."
It is a measure of their confidence that the fact their designs are so often copied – without their permission – appears not to worry them. Indeed, in this instance, any imitation is viewed as the most sincere form of flattery. "It's always a pleasure for us to walk along the street and see young men and women dressed in a Dolce & Gabbana or D&G style," says Gabbana, "despite the fact that they don't own a single item of clothing from either." More seriously: "It means that the message we wanted to convey has been passed on – understood."
If that sounds unusually pragmatic, the sense of excitement they feel before a show never changes: "The adrenalin and energy which surge minutes before you step out on to the catwalk are still always the same," Gabbana continues. "It's good. It proves that we still love this life, just as we have done since the very first day..."
And just as they were that very first day, Dolce and Gabbana are once more enjoying a fashion moment. "The inspiration of the collection is Sicily and there are a lot of pieces that remind us of our first collections because that's exactly where we started from to create it," says Gabbana. "We were looking at our old advertising campaigns, at our old fashion shows and all those pictures and movies that have inspired us. We wanted to get back to those feelings."
And those feelings, it almost goes without saying, touch everyone from the Italian diva of a certain age to the bright young thing with a desire to make an entrance but who has never had the pleasure of wearing such openly womanly designs before.
"When we did our first show, neither of us would ever have imagined that we would arrive at where we are today or wondered, 'How big will we become?'" Gabbana concludes. "We never looked at things from that point of view – we certainly didn't care about them at that point. We hoped to be able to achieve our dream, which was never to make a big profit or a small profit but to create fashion and to be free to do so as we wanted. How do we feel about success? Well, we are very proud."