Dolce & Gabbana The most famous duo in fashion may not always dance to the same beat—or even in the same room. But they do know perfectly well how to play off each other to stunning effect. And as they celebrated Domenico’s 50th birthday in Milan last September with a star-studded fete, it became spectacularly clear that the party at the Dolce & Gabbana disco is just getting warmed up.
A conversation with Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana reminds me of rafting—except my wild ride is on torrents of words rather than water. English, Italian, and the verbal shorthand born of a very close quarter-century relationship tumble together in an idiosyncratic jumble. Pity the poor transcriber. Still, one does one’s best. The three of us are talking in a leopard spot–draped salon in the designers’ Milan headquarters. Lunch awaits in the zebra-patterned room next door. There are big, important-looking pictures all over the walls, plus two prints of a Steven Klein portrait of Madonna, signed to each of them by their favorite collaboratrix. “Of course, one each,” Gabbana says archly. “Dolce & Gabbana is not one.” There are times when you could be forgiven for thinking such: They have that finish-each-other’s-sentences habit of longtime co-habitués, even if Dolce now lives downstairs from Gabbana and his late-night disco-dollying. (Diana Ross belted “I Will Survive” at discophile Domenico’s 50th birthday bash last September in Milan, so he tolerates the bass line seeping through the floorboards.) But the two are funniest when they tartly beg to differ. Dolce loves Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA in Mamma Mia! (2008); Gabbana feels the chubby former 007 will be lucky to work again after croaking his way through “SOS.” Speaking of croaking: Domenico and Stefano are both fighting colds. Snow came early to Milan this winter.
TIM BLANKS: An early winter. How fitting when the news is so bad everywhere!
STEFANO GABBANA: Everywhere. It’s worldwide.
DOMENICO DOLCE: I look at the TV, and the most interesting interviews with financial people are in Japan. It’s a mistake to think things are as bad everywhere, because in Japan and China there is more cash than in the States. They are full of liquid assets. The big problem is that all the world wants to copy the American system.
SG: For me, the future isn’t coming from the USA, like it was before. I’ve been saying this for three years. But business is bad everywhere. The rich people still spend, but more carefully. The problem is the people in the middle—and women. With men, it’s different.
DD: You know why? Because my male customer is between 30 and 40—no wife, no girlfriend, living his own life, and spending all his money on himself.
SG: The money hasn’t changed, it’s the mentality.
DD: This moment is interesting. The worst times can be the best if you think with positive energy.
SG: We started in a crisis—both the men’s and the women’s collections.
DD: Maybe we go well with crisis. [laughs] When we launched the women’s collection in 1986, there was the bombing of Libya, and all the Americans cancelled their appointments. They had to leave for Switzerland to take a plane back to the U.S. And then there was the invasion of Kuwait when we launched the men’s collection in 1990.
SG: So when the shops say we don’t sell like we did before, the customer has changed, blah blah blah . . . I’ve heard this song since 1986.
DD: Today in Corriere della Serra there was a story about this financial crisis bringing people closer, making friends and family more important.
SG: Yes, but I’m also tired of reading this stupid stuff. I’m sick of it. We said the same thing after September 11. We just continue to do our job in the same way, maybe putting more energy, more fantasia, more creativity into it.
TB: I felt that with your Spring collection—it was so lush, so rich. It felt very extreme. I wonder if you were thinking ahead to what was going to happen when you designed it.
SG: No. I think our customers don’t need anything. They just want something special. This is why we do collections—not just the Spring fashion show, but the pre-Fall and cruise lines too. The customers love to find something in the shop they don’t see in a magazine. This is the trick about the cruise and pre-Fall collections. Nobody knows about them. When you go to the shop, you really find something you don’t see anywhere else.
TB: Once I would have said that people want something they have seen, but you’re saying that’s changed. Are people more confident?
SG: About fashion, for sure. For three seasons we worked on volume, not shape, and in the end, you know what the customer said? No! All the magazines were saying it’s not about sexy, it’s about volume, but in the end, our women said no. It’s always the same—all men and women want to be sexy. In the last three seasons, when we tried to change shapes with the new volume, customers altered the shape in the shop to be tighter—like before.
TB: So that means magazines are out of touch?
SG: Magazines do what they want, but the customers don’t give a damn. Believe me, it’s like in the ’80s—there’s a big gap. What the fashion system says and what the fashion customer says are really two different things.
TB: What did the fashion system say in the ’80s?
SG: Armani, Ferré, Versace, big shows, tight trousers, miniskirts . . . So we did the opposite: very soft, romantic, the Sicilian-bustier look. We stood out just because we were so different. That sexy dress with the black corset was the essence of Dolce & Gabbana. But you know, it’s an evolution, month by month, day by day. We love to change. My favorite piece is the bra from 1984. [He points to that very item of clothing, mounted and framed on the wall like a holy relic, right under a huge Julian Schnabel painting] And we continue to do it. One season it’s bigger, or we change the color, the stitching, and everything. But I love looking for something different.
DD: When we sketch the show, it’s a dream. I stay with my feet on the floor when I dream, but we are completely free . . . I don’t know. I can imagine a transparent suit for men. But at the end of the day, you know what we sell? Style. The essence of Dolce & Gabbana is the corset for women, the white shirt and very fitted trousers for men.
TB: Surely that’s disappointing for you then if your dream is big, gorgeous shearling coats [from the Fall 2008 collection] and people still want the black suit with the white shirt.
DD: I’m a customer of Dolce & Gabbana. I like a lot of clothes by Dolce & Gabbana.
SG: [needling] Why don’t you buy the shearling?
DD: If you open my wardrobe, it’s very boring. I have 10 black suits. One is one-button, one is two-button, one is shawl-collared. Maybe the trouser is bigger for the sneaker or finer for the crocodile shoe. So there is a lot for men.
SG: But you know what people wear. The shearling coat is very masculine and very sweet at the same time, but to actually wear that is difficult.
DD: We talk too much about this shearling, but it opens the mind to move somewhere. And in this moment of crisis, when people are afraid, if you don’t make the dream . . .
TB: Once more with shearling. I’ve been thinking that you’ve been going back to your roots, to
Visconti’s The Leopard , especially with the spirit of the Spring shows.
DD: Dolce & Gabbana at the moment is very strange. I think it’s the same for every designer.
After you go out, you come back inside.
ll men and women want to be sexy. In the last three seasons, when we tried to change shapes with the new volume, customers altered the shape in the shop to be tighter-like before.—Stefano Gabbana
SG: We are so different. Eighty percent of Domenico loves to go somewhere new, to develop an idea, and the other 20 percent goes back to the roots. I’m the opposite: 80 percent from the roots, 20 percent from the future. So it’s a fight all the time. But I say, “Okay, I love your trip. I agree with you, it’s very new for Dolce & Gabbana.” But I need to do it so it’s recognizable.
TB: So he’s the dreamer, and you’re the realist?
SG: No, no, it’s not like that. He is more projected into the future, and I am more attached to my roots, and the balance is Dolce & Gabbana.
DD: I want to dance. I want to live.
SG: And I say to him, “No. You come here.” And he says to me, “No. You come with me.”
TB: So you’re the man, and he’s the little boy. Is that the way you were in your relationship as well?
TB: [to Dolce] You reinvented yourself when you came to Milan from Sicily when you were only 18.
DD: Yes, I started my second life. I love the new. I’m a very curious person.
TB: [to Gabbana] Did you reinvent yourself?
SG: No. I was born here. I grew up here. I don’t change. I think he discovered himself as a different person. Maybe I’m more Italian than him, because I love to stay.
DD: I like time. Now is not like two minutes later. And it’s never like before. Repetition doesn’t exist.
TB: Well, that’s a big fat existential moment.
DD: This is the problem sometimes, because he doesn’t want to change anything. But maybe what you discover next is much better.
SG: But not all people are ready to understand the new. You think it’s easy, but it’s not. People love to recognize, to feel comfortable in something. Ninety-five percent of humanity is like me. Maybe I’m stupid, but I’m like this.
TB: That said, your Spring collection for women was a startling mix of the familiar and the strange, and as brocade-heavy as an empress’s closet.
SG: We start every season with a piece of paper, two lists—“Yes” and “No.” And always it’s “No brocade, no animal prints . . .” It’s too easy to do the brocade. We do the list because we are not young. We are old chickens in the system. We’ve done this job for 24 years, you know.
DD: And we design too much animal print. So, “No animal print,” and “Yes a white shirt with lace,” “Yes a new shoulder,” “No brocade . . .” But finally, maybe I need some brocade.
SG: Or then maybe I need to do it in a corset, and in the end . . .
TB: The whole collection is brocade!
DD: Yes, it’s very funny.
SG: When we came back from the holiday, we thought a jacket would be really nice in duchesse satin, or in silk Mikado, but because the shape was really new for us, we felt we needed something to make people more comfortable. He said, “Brocade.” I said, “No. Fuck brocade.” But he was right.
TB: But if you say you’re not going to do the corset and you’re not going to do brocade, and you keep coming back to them, aren’t these things a prison for you?
SG: Yes, okay, but if we start from that point, we don’t do anything new. We need to start from an opposite point. The jacket with the strange shoulder in black Mikado was beautiful, like a sketch, but I felt we needed something more romantic. And it was shocking in the brocade, a geometric shape with a touch of romance. And with a bow and a necklace, you could imagine Claudia Cardinale in a remake of The Leopard.
like time. Now is not like two minutes later. And it's never like before. Repetition doesn't exist. —Domenico Dolce
TB: For the Spring collection, you made your women very fierce, in this strong, flat silhouette, and you made your men soft in pajamas.
DD: Women are more even on fashion and style, 50-50. For men, it’s 80-20 style and fashion.
[There is some city talk . . . Dolce’s New York apartment, his love of the city’s openness, in comparison to London, which they are equally fond of, even though they find it quite closed.]
TB: Do you ever get bored in Milan?
SG: I don’t have the time to be bored. We do 14 collections, including D&G children. Plus all the accessories, sunglasses, D&G jewels, perfume, and now makeup. And Domenico took care of the underwear this morning. I forgot. We split sometimes when there’s not time. But I can’t imagine it without him around. Oh, my God!
TB: You say it’s getting faster and faster. Is it getting harder to manage?
SG: It’s technology’s fault. What used to take one day now takes three hours. And the other five hours . . . You’re doing more, more, faster, faster. Everything is too quick. Sometimes I would like to stop. I love to move, but not as quickly as now. Cruise, pre-Fall, on and on . . . You think the customer understands them? Needs them? I don’t think so. Only the fashion system understands. But I don’t work for the fashion system. I work 80 percent for the customer.
TB: You own your own company—nobody owns you. And it’s a billion-dollar business. How’s that for a responsibility?
SG: If you tell me I have 3,600 employees, I’m not afraid, but I don’t feel comfortable. But if you don’t tell me anything, I don’t think about it. I know what we are. I know what we do. I would love to think the same way I did 20 years ago, because I don’t want to lose the sense of freedom. I don’t want to change my life for this big company.
TB: It’s trying to staying pure, isn’t it?
DD: No, pure is impossible, because we have meetings every two weeks about the business all over the world. But if you use this information like anxiety, you kill the creativity. So, first, you are free. We have a huge company, and we make what we want.
TB: Do you wear only your own clothes?
SG: No. I like to buy different things. [pointing at Domenico] Oh, look at the face. Look, look!
DD: Because he wants to lose money. He’s so rich, he loses his money on other designers.
TB: Which designers do you buy?
SG: Swimwear from Vuitton, an Hermès sweater, this shirt by Pucci . . .
DD: He buys them and then he gives them away because he doesn’t wear them. Sometimes I think he does it just to annoy me.
TB: Do your boyfriends ever get jealous of your relationship?
SG: If so, it’s too bad for them. We are really good friends—that’s it, like brothers. We are family. I say Domenico is the first person in my life. If you don’t like it, it’s your problem.
TB: Do you think your relationship is unusual?
DD: Very unusual.
SG: Our relationship is also a very good example for everybody in the world, gay and straight. Because our love story continued, without sex and without living together. Why not? He was the first big love story in my life. Why do we need to cancel that? And I don’t want to forget it.
TB: Do you think you’ll end up together again?
SG: But we do live together. No, not together, but he lives on one floor and I live on another. I don’t know what he does in the night with his boyfriend. And I don’t care, really.
DD: No, listen to me. Let me tell you about last night. You were supposed to call me. My boyfriend had a fever so he couldn’t go out, and you said, “Ciao. I’ll call you later. We’ll go to dinner.”
SG: And I forgot and I didn’t call him.
DD: And I’m waiting for dinner. Yesterday I didn’t eat, and I told him that. And I waited. And on Saturday night I stayed home because my boyfriend had a fever, and I fell asleep on the sofa in front of the TV, and then I wake up and I hear the noise, boom, boom. I think maybe it’s the air conditioner. I turn off the TV and it’s boom, boom, boom, over my kitchen.
SG: Because Giovanna [Battaglia, erstwhile house model, now a contributing fashion editor at L’Uomo Vogue] was there, dancing like Madonna in the “Give It 2 Me” video.
DD: Boom, boom, boom. I think, maybe he’s fighting with some people. The day after, I called him: “Did you organize a dance yesterday in your home?” No. Nothing.
SG: I had 10 people in the kitchen—friends of mine.
DD: Boom, boom, boom.
SG: We drink and smoke before we go out. And when she arrived, Giovanna wanted to dance.
TB: What do you think is going to happen to you, in 10 years, say?
turned 50, and I'm very happy at this moment. I dreamed this job . . . maybe I'm more wise, more rooted. Next year is the first year of my new age. —Domenico Dolce
DD: I don’t know. I only think about this afternoon. Tomorrow is another day.
SG: In this moment you need to think about now. Maybe tomorrow morning, not afternoon.
TB: Well, what would you like to happen?
SG: What might happen, I don’t know, but I would love to continue my job, because this is my life.
DD: I don’t want to stop, but I think there is a time when the creativity stops. At the time when you understand that it’s not your moment anymore, you move aside for another actor. Like in the theater.
SG: But I would love to stay on in the backstage.
TB: You could be Clint Eastwood. He’s 78, still directing, still acting.
DD: You need to be very intelligent. And you need to not be egotistical.
TB: What about Madonna?
SG: The product that she sells is herself. We don’t sell us. I sell people something from my hand, from my mind. Not my person. It’s different.
TB: Do she’s in a trap?
DD: No. She’s Madonna. She’s one name, one history. She’s very strong.
TB: When you read her brother’s book, did you think, Oh, I’m a bit like that?
SG: No, because I’m not. I’m not called Madonna Ciccone. My name is Stefano Gabbana. I’m a different person. Every person is different in the world.
TB: Do you think you have to be quite hard to be as successful as you’ve been?
DD: I don’t work for money. That’s not why I do it. I don’t care about money.
SG: We continue in this job because we love it. When we started, we didn’t wish to become popular. We were ambitious, but not for money. We just wanted to express ourselves.
DD: Every season we look at all the shows by other designers. The designers we love a lot—I don’t want to say which, but there are three—make me angry with myself. Why don’t I design my collection much better than this? My competition is not with the others, it’s with myself.
SG: I remember when Azzedine Alaïa, for example, did a fantastic collection in the ’80s, and I said, “Wow, why can’t we do this?”
DD: Why didn’t we think of this? Are we stupid? Sei un cretino?
SG: I love Azzedine’s work, but I would love to do it before him, you know? But we’re not jealous.
DD: If you envy other people you never grow. I love two or three designers a lot. For me, they are new energy. But I’m old . . .
TB: Excuse me?
SG: No, we are not old in age. Old because . . .
TB: Because you’ve been around a long time? I feel like something happened a few seasons ago for you. It definitely felt to me that you just decided, “Fuck that. I can do what I want to do now.”
SG: Yeah, because we are more mature.
DD: I turned 50, and I’m very happy at this moment. I dreamed this job—I came to Milan and my dream came true. So maybe I’m more wise, more rooted. When you are 30 or 40, you are like . . . [makes gasping sound] So this is my new age. Next year is the first year of my new age.
TB: Thank you very much. That was a long interview, wasn’t it?
DD: We talked about life.
would love to think the same way I did 20 years ago, because I don't want to lose the sense of freedom. I don't want to change my life for this big company.— Stefano Gabbana