Here’s a fantasy to savor: You are wealthy beyond common comprehension—and far beyond mere lottery-winning daydream. You might own a vast oil field, a huge natural gas concession, or maybe some tech company that the Nasdaq can’t get enough of. Perhaps you are the scion of an immensely wealthy family concern, or a Saudi princess, or a Russian who made economic hay when the Soviet Union collapsed—then got out before the ruble did, too. The details are immaterial. But the bottom line is that your bottom line is outrageously perky. You are the one percent of the one percent. And you like to look good—no, you like to look unique.
So here’s the question: What are you going to wear? For you, the boutiques of Bond Street and Madison are like Gap. Red-carpet clothes are overexposed by actresses who—can you imagine?—get paid to wear them. Even the couture collections in Paris are a touch déclassé, for where’s the mystery in wearing a dress that anyone can see on a Style.com show gallery?
This is an extremely niche (and, it goes without saying, extremely privileged) rationale—socioeconomics demands it—but it does exist. And for the last five seasons, Dolce & Gabbana has served its subscribers with the Alta Moda collections. These began in July 2012 in Taormina, Sicily; continued 12 months later in Venice; and then moved onto Capri in 2014. Those winter collections were interspersed by summer collections, shown in January in Milan immediately after the Paris couture shows. They were born of what seemed at the time the perverse decision to absorb D&G, the commercially successful but—the designers said then—creatively unfulfilling second line into their main ready-to-wear offering. As Domenico Dolce told me after their final D&G show in 2011: “We don’t want to be the richest men in the cemetery. We love trends, but we want to stay in our mood, our style. If you appreciate it, I appreciate it.”
Alta Moda is Dolce & Gabbana—Sicily-infused, lace-dripped, Baroque, wantonly Catholic—but on diamond-spiked steroids. A roster that now stands at nearly 200 clients supports a full, freestanding atelier in Milan. Each collection is accompanied by a jewelry offering—also handmade. The manner in which it operates is willfully anachronistic, for the sake of fantasy: All communication between client and atelier, for instance, must be handwritten. And instead of a quick in-then-out show, each presentation is staggered over several days to allow appointments and several lunches, dinners, and a closing party—each event an opportunity for clients to wear their pieces as well as to buy more.
Unfortunately, part of the deal for journalists invited to attend Alta Moda is that naming these clients is verboten. But we can quote them. “Paris couture has become unsatisfying: It is not what it once was. Now you are just a number to them, and there is no relationship with the house. Here, it is different—it is like a special club. And it is fun.” This, as said by the client (and, I’m pretty sure, princess) who sat alongside me earlier today, handily crystalizes the sentiment of the Alta Moda guests.
This Friday Dolce & Gabbana presented what aficionados argued afterward might be the most sensually overwhelming Alta Moda collection yet. Last July, after Capri, the designers decided to take their inspiration from La Scala—Milan’s 18th-century opera house—and arranged a meeting with its artistic director, Alexander Pereira, in November to ask permission to use the house’s vintage ballet posters as motifs in the collection. More in hope than expectation, Dolce also inquired if there might be any chance of holding their show in the theater—something never done before—because, he said: “If I hadn’t asked the question, it would have kept bothering me.” Pereira agreed, and Gabbana added: “Afterward, I was trying to keep a straight face, but in the car home I was screaming. For us to be here is amazing—like touching the sky with your finger.” The designers said they have both been coming here since they were age 7 or so—Dolce’s regular box is number 17. “La Scala is Italy—it is Verdi, Pavarotti, Toscanini, Rossini, Bolle,” said Dolce. “And it is more than Italy, too—it is Nureyev, it is Callas.”
The show was interwoven with performances from the dancer Roberto Bolle and members of La Scala’s company and school, choreographed by him. The first movement of clothes homaged the attire of ballet: Typically teamed with mink shorts or silk cady trousers and flat, jeweled boots, there was a series of feminized men’s corpetto jackets, in silk brocade or soft alligator, decorated with gemstones and painted leather curlicues that came lined in mink with a silk raffia-effect trim. Slowly, the focus panned from stage to audience. A series of 15 or so black dresses, some cantilevered at the hip, some with eye-ambush detail at the neckline, all sensuous, slunk past. Two dresses, their skirts amplified with golden boning, were one-offs made in silk tulle hand-painted with florals or etched with silver-streaked orbs—vintage fabrics sourced by the Alta Moda team. Those vintage stage bills were used in a finale of tulle fantasy-ballerina gowns. Accessories included mink clutch bags and a pair of shoes handmade of filigreed gold, with what appeared to be a ruby inset in each toe: Each weighed about a pound.
During the show, clients noted the pieces that most caught their eye. And at a lunch of cotoletta alla Milanese afterward held in the foyer of La Scala under the eye of a statue of Rossini, they began to order—via a staff of Alta Moda ambassadors—or made arrangements to view and commission personalized versions. As one client said at that lunch: “What I like is that I know what I buy here is mine, for me only. It is exquisite. And to be here to see it is beautiful, too.”
During the last two years, the Milan Alta Moda shows have ended with a dinner, then a party—typically raucous—and then the guests disperse back to their real (unreal) worlds. This season, however, another 24 hours has been added to the schedule to allow for the Alta project’s newest category: Alta Sartoria.
Held at lunchtime today, this is a version of Dolce & Gabbana’s amplified couture, but for men. It came about, said Gabbana, after the husbands, partners, or otherwise significant masculine others of Alta Moda clients began asking for pieces of their own. When one female client from a small nation in Asia bought a gown hand-printed with a re-creation of a Canaletto at the Alta Moda Venice show in 2013, her husband asked for a jacket in the same material—but the designers were initially unable to provide it because they did not have the rights to re-create the painting on a second garment. They got it to him eventually, then decided to create this new masculine Alta venture.
“They have their own style of life,” said Gabbana, “and this allows them to have total creativity in choosing what they want for that life. So this is not just a fashion show: The clients can choose what they want—anything—in any color they want, or material. Or they can ask for something different. It looks grandiose and magnificent, but we are trying to present it with simplicity. We want a simple, friendly relationship with our clients.”
Held in the newly refurbished primo piano of Palazzo Labus, the 16th-century building (refurbished in the 19th century by the studio of Piermarini, which also worked on La Scala) on Corso Venezia that houses the 25-tailor Dolce & Gabbana Sartoria, this men’s collection was barely less extravagant than the women’s that preceded it. Yet it began gently, with a series of classical suiting—often double-breasted, clinically fitted, in canonical patterns, with foulard ties, pocket squares, and floral buttonholes. An astrakhan hat and scarf teamed with a frogged double-breasted overcoat, and shiny pinned slippers augured an acceleration of va-voom: white suiting with cavalry flashed trousers, kaleidoscopically brocaded and pinned evening coats, an outrageous purple-lined evening dressing-gown coat worn with mink mittens. One look starred a fox bomber jacket that Gabbana had originally commissioned for himself—“and it is fantastic, amazing. But when am I going to wear it?” The show eddied to its finale on a tide of reinterpreted evening classics—white tie, shortened tailcoats, tuxedos—with more look-at-me slippers. My favorite looks incorporated the Sartoria’s customizable silk pajamas—one of its strongest-selling categories—into a deeply louche approximation of daywear. The overall emanation was bohemian tsarist gilded by Fabergé. When Domenico Dolce walked the runway afterward, he clutched his head as if to fend off the applause.
Tonight, Palazzo Labus will host the final installment in this two-day, both-gender, entirely immersive wardrobe proposition for the 21st-century supranational superrich. The dress code? “Express Yourself”—which entirely sums up the more-is-more, artisan-realized, quintessential excess of this entirely atypical fashion project.
—Luke Leitch, Style.com