In an age of disposable fashion, does couture still matter? That was the question before me on a chilly day in January when, jet-lagged and seeking answers, I wandered the busy streets in this fashion capital where of-the-moment trends are everywhere, passed from luxury designer house to mass-retail shop window at the speed of Instagram. Even the dogs were dressed in puffer jackets, a staple runway item in many recent fall/winter ’17 collections.
I had come to witness a fashion ritual so exclusive that few know of its existence and even fewer can attend. Dolce & Gabbana’s Alte Artigianalità (High Craftsmanship) is the luxury label’s way of showing its most intricate couture designs to some 350 clients from around the world and a handful of invited fashion journalists.
Decades into the life of their Milan-based fashion label, founders Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana turned their attention in 2012 to Alte Artigianalità, a three- to four-day destination event that now consists of Alta Moda (its women’s couture show), Alta Sartoria (for men) and the jewelry exhibit Alta Gioielleria. Ahead of the frenzy of Milan’s fashion week, when the label’s ready-to-wear collection must compete with Italy’s many other famous fashion houses, Alte Artigianalità is a chance for Dolce & Gabbana to take center stage and showcase the hundreds of hours that go into designing, cutting and sewing its most exclusive designs.
The immersive agenda involves lavish dinners, Dom Pérignon toasts, dance parties into the wee hours and, of course, extravagant fashion shows. After experiencing the up-close world of Dolce & Gabbana, clients have the chance to buy the one-of-a-kind garments and accessories, which, like all couture, can cost the price of a luxury car or small house. (Dolce & Gabbana representatives declined to discuss the exact prices of the couture pieces.)
“The Alte Artigianalità are a dream, something made of wonderful clothes, princesses and magical places,” Dolce said. “Our intent was to create a sort of ‘club’ of people who know each other and come together for very special occasions in which the line between fantasy and reality blurs.”
Dolce & Gabbana’s Alte Artigianalità occurs in Milan each January as fashion journalists begin a season of crisscrossing Europe and the U.S. for major fashion weeks. The label hosts another round of couture shows in July at other Italian destinations, which in the past have included Taormina, Capri, Venice, Portofino and Naples.
The Alte Artigianalità are a dream, something made of wonderful clothes, princesses and magical places.
— Domenico Dolce
“The designers are extremely proud and patriotic Italians, and they want their guests to see the best and beauty of Italy,” said well-known couture client Susan Casden, wife of Beverly Hills real estate magnate Alan Casden. After attending previous Alte Artigianalità gatherings, she was asked by the fashion house to model in last month’s Dolce & Gabbana’s fall/winter ’17 ready-to-wear runway show in Milan with her daughter, Alyssa Fung. The show earned high praise for featuring models of all ages and body shapes, people who actually wear Dolce & Gabbana clothes.
“All our collections are the result of our love for fashion, for life and for people who surround and inspire us every day,” Gabbana said. “We try to keep our creativity alive, traveling, watching old movies and doing research. It is a fundamental part of our work.”
In Southern California, Dolce & Gabbana (with its signature sartorial moves — leopard prints, floral prints and appliqué, pajamas and pinstripe suits) has a loyal following. Clients from the L.A. area regularly make the trek to Italy for Alte Artigianalità. And just this week, the label held its millennial-packed party in Beverly Hills, where actress, singer and fashion icon Zendaya made headlines wearing a sheer Dolce & Gabbana bustier and bold skirt.
I also think they are at the top of their game right now — better than ever.
— Susan Casden on designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana
“The designers love to dress women and they appreciate we are not all alike,” said Casden. “I have found their clothes to be romantic, sexy, fun and yet they also make the most wonderfully fitted serious pantsuits. I also think they are at the top of their game right now — better than ever.”
For actress and poker player Jennifer Tilly, another Dolce & Gabbana client, the brand’s clothes have a timeless quality. “In the ’80s, they weren’t making giant shoulder pads,” she said during a recent phone call from New York. “They were doing their own thing.”
Tilly has had a long relationship with the label and was also part of the attention-getting Milan ready-to-wear show. “Back in the ’90s when I was a movie star, I used to go into the showroom and pick out clothing from the look books. These days I’m doing what’s interesting to me,” said Tilly, who still acts but more recently has become known for poker. “I’m really happy.”
And what’s most interesting to her?
“I want to go to Alta Moda shows and play poker,” said Tilly, who owns a pair of Dolce & Gabbana earrings that took her two years to pay off. “It would be my dream one day to have an Alta Moda gown.”
We love Giuseppe Verdi. We think he is one of the greatest composers of all times. He is a bastion of Italian history and culture.
— Domenico Dolce
While most luxury-brand couture presentations focus on women’s attire and accessories, Dolce & Gabbana added a men’s collection a few seasons into its Alte Artigianalità events.
“It was a natural process,” Dolce said. “It was our customers’ wives and husbands who started asking for custom-tailored Alta Sartoria pieces. Just like women, men today look for special cuts, unique designs, hand-painted prints, special linings or just simple-yet-dreamy lounge clothes.”
Reminiscing about her previous times at the Alte Artigianalità event, Tilly, who missed this year’s gathering, said, “I think that’s what true art is. It’s not, ‘How many units am I going to sell?’ They’re creating art.… It was really the most amazing experience of my life.”
I discovered this for myself on an afternoon at Laboratori del Teatro alla Scala, the gigantic facility where the opera house has sets and stage pieces built and where Dolce & Gabbana had its Alte Artigianalità women’s couture show, dinner and after-party. There, Dolce and Gabbana, each dressed in casual menswear, walked a few journalists through racks of velvet, chiffon, denim and cashmere garments, explaining their looks and inspiration. The designers, who aren’t strangers to controversies in the media, said the collection was inspired by Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.
“I’m obsessed about details, whether of a piece of clothing, a set for entertainment productions or simply a well-set table,” Dolce said. “It is at once an obsession and a gift I learned from my father, who was a tailor and passed on to me passion for work and the importance of details and discipline.”
I saw for myself how details mattered to Dolce and Gabbana — from the grand staging of the runways to 24-karat-gold suit pinstripes.
“All our collections are the result of our love for fashion, for life and for people who surround and inspire us every day.
— Stefano Gabbana
Hours before the Alta Moda show, their team, many dressed in what appeared to be white lab coats, put the finishing touches on 100 women’s looks, one runway standout after another — a multi-layered corset gown; hand-painted denim trousers with crystals and micro-jet beading; a cape embroidered with fringe; a sweatshirt in cashmere with a chinchilla fur collar and cuffs; and a kimono in silk organza embellished with mink fur detailing and embroidered with sequins and crystals.
For the men’s show, 101 looks were created, among them, a peak-lapel, two-button red floral velvet brocade jacket; a silk twill robe in a print from old playbills of “Otello” by Verdi; a gray velvet tailcoat rimmed with soft astrakhan and embellished with floral motif embroidery; and grey velvet slippers embellished with a silver cross and crystals. Not to mention details such as 18-karat gold round glasses, exquisite top hats and a bow tie made of fringed black jacquard silk. As if this wasn’t enough, by the label’s count about 70 new pieces of jewelry were featured.
As I sat at the Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria (the men’s show was presented on the stage of the grand opera house, which opened in 1778), the relevancy of couture, so often a far-off fantasy, became real for me. In look after look, I saw that fashion is not only art, fashion is life and passion and finding the music in everything. I saw paintings come alive before my eyes on runways. It was as if Queen Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rihanna had been channeled by Dolce and Gabbana.
And, of course, there was Verdi.
“We love Giuseppe Verdi,” Dolce said. “We think he is one of the greatest composers of all times. He is a bastion of Italian history and culture.”
“We looked into his private life and let ourselves be carried away by his most intimate and refined self,” said Gabbana, who first went to La Scala when he was 8 years old. “The Ricordi historical archive has allowed us access to Verdi’s private world. The archive’s vintage playbills, musical scores, sketches and letters inspired us in the creation of some of the pieces we presented on our runway.”
Gabbana said they ultimately wanted to present an original and perhaps unknown side of Verdi, adding that one of the intriguing discoveries about the composer, who spent most of his life in Milan and lived in a suite at the Grand Hotel et de Milan, was finding out “that his work is very emotionally charged just like our fashion shows and collections.
Verdi may have died in 1901, but through the designers’ homage, I saw his spirit and rediscovered the magic of art and fashion becoming one.
Days after being embedded in Dolce & Gabbana’s world, I thought about how the Italian fashion house I first discovered decades ago (thanks to being a Madonna fan) had built lasting relationships with its clients and how the brand was about family, love and Italian culture. Was I correct at all?
“For sure,” Dolce told me. “And we would add passion and love for our work.”