Designer babies: Dolce and Gabbana get broody

The Italian fashion icons say they want to adopt children at a time when the Church is flexing its muscles on gay issues. Peter Popham on an unholy row that is dividing the country
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The Independent Online

Eyebrows will be raised from Rome to Milan. Adoption by gay couples is illegal in Catholic Italy, as is adoption by lone would-be parents. Undaunted, the pair appeared on the cover of Italian Vanity Fair for its August issue yesterday, posing in the garden of the villa in Milan they still share, surrounded by infants. The babies were borrowed for the shoot - in one of the pictures inside, the most boisterous of them beams at the camera while yanking at Gabbana's sizeable Milanese conk - but the accompanying interview is a long meditation on how much they would both like a family.

"Of course I would like a son," says Dolce, 46, himself the child of a tailor from a village outside Palermo. "A child is innocence, purity. The child represents the future ... I would like to have not one but five, 10, a football team. I like big families, with chaos at the dinner table, the noise of plates and glasses, a real family."

Dolce's vision of the classic, turbulent southern Italian family, presided over by himself but with no mamma in sight, was only the latest provocation from the brilliant designers who have made a speciality of teasing, outraging and sending up their own culture since bursting onto the Milan fashion scene 20 years ago next month.

As elsewhere, homosexuals are abundant in Italy's fashion industry but, faced with the big guns of the Church, discretion has generally been the better part of valour: Valentino, for example, the grand old man of the business, only came out last year, at the age of 72. Dolce and Gabbana, by contrast, flaunted their sexual preference, and the fact that they were a loving couple, from early in their careers. Trashing convention is part of the exhilaration of what they do.

Their work has always been a celebration of what it means to be Italian. But, whether inspired by baroque church architecture, the lingerie of southern grannies or the stiletto-sharp suits of the Mafia, their tongues were always firmly in their cheeks. They were selling a high camp version of the bel paese to the world - and their compatriots were often not amused. But what did they care?

Now they are at it again. Although both men describe themselves in the Vanity Fair interview as "credenti" (believing Catholics), their colloquy on gay parenting hits Italy at a highly sensitive moment, with the Catholic Church flexing its muscles as never before on the issue of sexual mores.

Until recently, Italy had the most permissive legal environment in Europe for IVF treatments - one of the obvious ways, via a co-operative fertile woman, for gays to acquire a child. Then last year the devoutly Catholic Health minister introduced a new law prohibiting all but the most restrictive uses of donated sperm. From being the Wild West of fertility treatment, Italy reverted (in the view of proponents of greater liberality) to the Middle Ages. A couple of months back, liberals sponsored a referendum to strike the legislation down. But after an aggressive campaign by the Church urging people to abstain, it failed miserably.

Led now by a Pope even more rigorously conservative than the late John Paul II, the Church has also made its hostile views on gay marriage extremely clear.

Many Italians resent the increasingly bold interference of the Church in their political life. Yet there seems little appetite on either left or right for the sort of outright defiance of Catholic dogma practised by Jose Zapatero in Spain.

Into the sullen and stagnant waters of the national discourse on gays, marriage and children, the iconoclastic views of Italy's fashion stars plop like garish, multi-coloured fish. It is like a flash of one of their jewel-encrusted crucifixes at a solemn Mass, the gleam of one of those First Communion rosaries they convert into necklaces.

The ideas of the pair about parenthood are very different. While Dolce dreams of adopting his host of children as a single person, à la Mia Farrow - something that is banned by law in Italy - Gabbana, 42 and Milanese, would be happy with an only child, but insists on the necessity of a woman in its life. "I want to give my son a house and a family. I want him to have a mamma, who could live upstairs or in another house, as happens with parents who are separated. But it's vital for the child to have both a father and a mother figure," he says.

In their glittering careers, parenthood is one fulfilment that has eluded them. "The child represents the future, everything new that is coming," enthuses Dolce. "My mother always said..." "Babies smell sweet, but old people stink,'" Gabbano interpolates. "I learnt that from your mother, too..." "The the essence of purity," Dolce coos. "How could one do any harm to a baby? To educate one, to succeed in passing on positivity and love, these must be the things that makes a person happiest."

Yet in Italian society as presently constituted, this satisfaction is denied them both. "I have this little handicap of being gay," Dolce goes on, "and having a child is something I am not allowed. I could adopt one or contrive it in some way abroad, but I am paralysed with the fear that the child would feel it had been used."

Of his desire for a single son, Gabbana says: "I want only one child because I would like him to have all my attention, all my affection. I'm 42; when I was 28 I wasn't mature, now I have developed the patience that I didn't have before ... I would dedicate much more of my life to my son than to my work. I would get into the office at 11 and leave at 5.30. I would take him back and forth from the day care centre, take him to the park. Why not?" Dolce: "Exactly, why not?" Gabbana: "You know why not. Because as a believer I'm conflicted, even if I don't have anything religious about me."

He spells out his qualifications for the woman he seeks as his putative child's mother. "I am looking for a woman who would have the same ideas as me about educating and bringing up a son. She wouldn't have to be a friend. I'm looking for a decent and respectable person to share the journey. We'd do it by IVF treatment. There are lots of places where one can do it, even Switzerland."

Both men see drawbacks to the option of adopting a child. But whatever route they take, Dolce and Gabbana will have to leave Italy if they are to acquire the joys of parenthood. Although the obvious source of their difficulties is Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government, and the hardline priests and cardinals who exert powerful influence on it, the designers chose to locate the blame in a very different place: with the gay rights movement itself.

Despite the iconoclasm of their work all these years and their urge to have children, the designers recoil from challenging the right of the Church to dictate the rights and wrongs of such issues. And in the collapse of their relationship they find a reason for distancing themselves from the campaign for gay marriage.

"The problem is," says Dolce, "that gays damage their own cause by cross-dressing at demonstrations. They are not serious. Excuse me for saying it, but the gays are total idiots." Gabbana: "Let's say a minority are idiots." Dolce: "OK. A minority of gays would like the world to believe the homosexual world consists of transvestites in wigs who talk about marriage and frighten people." "I wasn't frightened," interjects Gabbana. "With you it was like being married ..." But of course they weren't actually married - for which they heave a retrospective sigh of relief.

Dolce: "When I go to the weddings of friends, I feel bad on their account. How can they swear before God that they will stay together all their lives? Who can tell?" Gabbana agrees: "To sign on the dotted line! Who needs it?" Along with a disdain for the marriage contract they share, surprisingly, amused contempt for what Mr Zapatero has achieved for gays in Spain.

"What's happened in Spain is ridiculous," says Dolce. "The whole thing! Until two years ago, Spain was worse than Italy. Zapatero has used the gay issue for his own political ends." Gabbana insists: "The whole issue of gay marriage is a lot of nonsense. The priority is to get people to understand what homosexuality is, that it is not remotely an illness. It should be explained as far back as primary school that gays are no different from anybody else. Within three generations the whole climate would change."

Recalling the challenges of coming out, Dolce says that his Sicilian mother was a model of acceptance. "She was fantastic," he remembers. "I was 19 when I told her. My mother and sister were washing the dishes. I said, I'm gay you know. She said, 'So what? It'll pass.'"

Gabbana's experience was very different. He says that his mother "always knew" that he was gay, but that he went through the torments of the damned trying to steel himself to tell her. Her reaction when he finally spilled the beans was raucous. "She didn't take it well at all when I told the newspapers, even though I was already 35. She threw a hysterical fit and burst into tears. Her problem was, what do I tell the neighbours?"

One last question remained unanswered. Do either of them really want kids? Or was it just another wistfully camp notion, and a cute way to get on another magazine cover?