Ilona Stolie is getting dressed for the sixth time this morning. Hidden behind a white organza curtain in the Villa Pignatelli, a Doric-columned, 19th-century Palladian residence on the Neapolitan seafront that acts as showroom and salesroom for Dolce & Gabbana’s summer Alta Moda collection, she enjoys a rare moment of solitude in the midst of four days of shows, parties and parades.
Stolie pulls back the curtain. This angular blonde beauty is, literally, radiant: wearing a mid-calf-length gown, hand-sewn with golden pins and sequins that reflect the shafts of evening sun through the window, she glows. The embroidery cascades around her. “It is very beautiful!” she says, “but…not quite right for me. And a little heavy!” She retreats behind the organza, where her two friends and a sales agent help her change once again.
Twice a year, the Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana throw the most glamorous party in fashion. It’s not just for fun. Behind the embroidery, the sequins, the ruching and the frills, there is a new business model. Dolce & Gabbana, which is already big in the ready-to-wear market, is taking a radical approach to the traditionally French-dominated world of haute couture.
Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana met on a Milanese dancefloor in 1980 and held their first fashion show in 1985. Last year their privately held company earned €1 billion ($1.1 billion) in revenues. They employ 4,500 people and have 323 stores.
In 2012 they began this tilt at the Parisian couture houses. To do it they established a 40-seamstress dressmaking atelier in Milan, as well as a jewellery atelier, a women’s tailoring atelier, a men’s tailoring atelier and a showroom.
That was hardly novel. Every Parisian couture house has an artisan-packed atelier with which to realise the whims of its clients. The difference between the traditional French approach and what the Italians are doing lies in the relationship with the clients. At Paris’s fashion week, the shows presented by the celebrated cluster of designers who have been granted membership of France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture typically last around 20 minutes, after which clients are invited to spend upwards of $150,000 on a dress. That’s it. According to Stolie, a regular in Paris, and particularly keen on Valentino, Dior and Chanel: “The shows are wonderful. But immediately afterwards, you feel empty.” Each Alta Moda collection event, by contrast, spans four days, taking in collections of jewellery, menswear and womenswear, as well as multiple dinners, discos and sightseeing tours. “The atmosphere in Paris is completely different to Alta Moda. This is so…cosy.”
The specific appeal of the hard-nosed but velvet-gloved Alta Moda model, says Coco Brandolini, the aristocrat charged with managing Dolce & Gabbana’s couture operation, is that clients are required to spend not only money but also extravagant amounts of time to be part of it. Between shows, clients who want to communicate with Alta Moda staff about their orders are asked to do so by letter. “The designers really insist on this to show whomever comes into this world that it is a slow experience, step-by-step, and not something that can be rushed. At the beginning people were ‘oh, but we have to write you an email’, but we resisted that.”
The shows, and their popularity, are growing. The first one, held over three days in Taormina, Sicily, attracted around 80 clients. This July’s visit to Naples – via interim summer collections in Venice, then Capri, then Portofino alongside annual winter collections all held on the home turf of Milan – have seen that number swell to nearly 400.
These are not events for people who like their glamour understated. Their spirit is of unabashed extravagance. One client, who says he throws parties at the Cannes Film Festival with a budget of €5m, tells me in the cluster around a Martini bar that this must cost at least as much. Still, that would be a modest marketing budget for a collection – 50 or so pieces of jewellery, 99 women’s outfits and 98 men’s outfits – whose total retail price is, a cautious tally suggests, around €30m.
Anyway, Alta Moda is not expected to make a profit. It has become to Dolce & Gabbana what the Spirit of Ecstasy is to Rolls-Royce, a figurehead project whose collections now influence the whole brand. It also gives the designers scope to experiment with techniques and materials unconstrained by budget. “In Alta Moda, we make what we want,” says Dolce. “We are totally free.”
Via San Gregorio Armenio is a steep, narrow, cobbled alleyway lined with family-owned shops that specialise in selling meticulously crafted and painted terracotta nativity scenes, chilli-pepper good-luck charms, and statuettes of Italian celebrities, including Dolce & Gabbana themselves. It bisects the heart of Spacca Napoli, the historic centre of Naples. “When we first came here we saw that every store has a different character,” says Dolce. “We thought this is artisan, and therefore Alta Moda, too. Generations of skill have gone into developing each establishment’s style, all with a different character. That is exactly what we want to highlight about the creativity here in Italy, the uniqueness, so we were determined to have the show here.”
On day one of the show a fleet of several hundred Mercedes Benzes collects the guests, fresh off the plane, and transports them to the amuse-bouche, the jewellery show. The main course is the show of the Alta Moda collection, which takes place on the evening of day two. The collection is dedicated to both Naples and its most famous beauty – Sophia Loren.
The show starts at dusk. Loren herself is here with her sons and grandchildren. Crowds line the streets and hang three-deep out of the windows of the stone tenements above. “The queen of Naples!” and “The most beautiful woman in the world!” they call as she passes through them. Tomorrow Luigi de Magistris, the recently re-elected left-wing mayor of Naples who has worked closely with Dolce & Gabbana to organise the event, is set to present Loren with the keys to the city. The designers – who have cited her as their key reference since their very first collection in 1985 – have craftily aligned the fashion ceremony with a municipal one. Once safely through the tumultuous crowds, Loren, flanked by grandchildren, settles on a gold-painted, red-velvet throne in a courtyard where she regally accepts the approach of clients who come to pay their obeisances and take selfies.
The show starts. Models emerge in a steady stream down the steps of a church at the top of the street. The clothes skitter between direct references to Loren – a jewel-encrusted body with a sequinned sash reading “Miss Eleganza”, in homage to the 15-year-old Loren’s victory in the 1950 Miss Italy competition; a silk Napoli football shirt with “Sophia” in scarlet feathering stitched on its front and “Maradona” above the number 10 on its back. That outfit is accessorised by a football sequinned with “Naples” in a cursive script. There are more wearable pieces rooted in Dolce & Gabbana’s exuberant style: leopard-insert coats bordered with scarlet roses on aquamarine; a Bardot-neck red gingham blouse above a pair of gold-hemmed-and-belted scarlet-sequin trousers; a fitted skirt studded with silver pins, and transparent and ruby-red stones that clatter as the model passes by. It’s not the easiest gig for the models: high heels on cobblestones slow their progress, but they all make it to the top of the street, where they gather in a crowd. There is an enormous bang from a building above and golden confetti rains down upon us.
The following day, the clothes are on racks in Villa Pignatelli. An elderly American couple ascends the marble staircase to a flurry of attention from the aproned attendants. These are regular clients who are happily marinated in the Alta Moda formula. The woman is looking for a particular golden skirt from last night’s show. She is also interested in a ruched dress in clenched undulations of black silk. As she searches for it her eye is caught by another gown, also silk, in hand-painted florals. “I’m not so sure honey,” says her husband, as he accepts a Diet Coke and a velvet-upholstered golden chair to drink it on. She spots the skirt she is after. It is worn by another client – young, Chinese, and pneumatically perfect – who got there first. “Look, honey!” she says. “That’s the dress. That girl is trying it on – look at the dress but don’t look at her.”
After the catwalk, this otherwise languid couture experience is spiked with urgency: the dresses revealed in the show are sold on a first-come, first-served basis, and are never made for more than one client. According to Stolie some of her fellow-customers – “especially the Chinese”, she adds darkly – have refined the buying process to a cut-throat art; some reserve dresses when they are still on the catwalk. Others buy up to 25 pieces at a time. Stolie recalls a friend who spent €500,000 at the last show in Milan saying, “I have three ex-husbands. They are going to leave money to the children, so I may as well spend mine now.”
Thanks to the after-show party, Stolie arrives at the Villa Pignatelli later than planned. Her first-choice dress, a spaghetti-strapped scarlet-sequin gown worn by a frizzily coiffed model styled to resemble Loren, has already gone. Instead she chooses a black dress, buttoned high at the back and with two softly pouffed shoulders. She has already reserved it, but lingers to look at others. She tries another black dress traced with a wicked grid of yellow pompoms, a gamine top-stitched suit whose soft shoulder is an homage to the masculine tailoring of Naples, a sheer skirt with rose embroidery, a dress in seashell sections of aquamarine paillettes, and those gold-belted scarlet trousers. Each change elicits intense Russian debate behind the white curtain. In the end she adds only the suit to her purchase.
Her taste reflects her origins. Born to modest means in Latvia – “my mother was an economist” – she now lives in Moscow, Monte Carlo and London with her husband and children. She leans, she says, to couture purchases in black. “I am from a Catholic family,” she explains: “And my grandmother was very religious. Every Sunday, when I was a child, I sang in the choir at church in Riga. I always dreamed of having beautiful dresses, but something simple. When I see these they remind of my childhood, and my heritage.”
Over the next two days Alta Moda runs its meandering course. During the day a special pop-up store on the seafront, restocked every few hours, does a brisk trade in special edition non-couture womenswear and menswear. That evening the men’s show, Alta Sartoria, happens on the battlements of the Castel dell’Ovo out in the bay. Silk kaftans printed with racing boats, embroidered silk all-in-one racing-driver suits, a tuxedo made of scuba-suit neoprene and originally accessorised with a golden scuba tank before the designers realised it was too heavy for the model to carry – these are some of the asides in a collection dominated by richly decorated tuxedos. Stolie wears a cream jumpsuit and chats with fellow clients as she watches from the front row. Later there is another dinner, another dance floor and another firework display.
On Sunday, the final night, the closing party is held on a pontoon that juts out from a private beach below the city. As the Gypsy Kings do their thing on stage, Chinese financiers, African property tycoons, Indian industrialists, American hedge-funders, Irish bankers, and a client whose Instagram account says she is married to the “Bill Gates of the Alps” cut a rug alongside each other once more. Many of these clients, both male and female, are wearing clothes that were on the catwalk the day before. And it strikes me that what Dolce and Gabbana have built with Alta Moda is a self-perpetuating club for the super-rich whose uniform is couture. Every year, in a new Italian venue, the clients come to buy these extraordinary – and extraordinarily extravagant – clothes, which they can wear only in the company of their peers.
Ilona Stolie is wearing a leopard-print jumpsuit and Reebok sneakers to dance in. Her hair is crimped and frizzed just like the model whose scarlet dress she so wanted, and she sways to the flamenco guitars as she talks.
“Do you know Eriko, from Japan? We met here and now I am planning to go to Japan to visit her. And others too: every year it’s like we are on holiday together. We eat, we dance, we become friends. So yes, I think that is part of the plan that Stefano and Domenico had: to make a place for us to make friends.”
By coincidence someone interrupts at that moment with a thunderous “Ciao”. It is Gabbana, wearing a €2 “I love Napoli” T-shirt that one of his assistants bought him in a street market. He kisses us, big smackers on both cheeks, then heads towards the DJ booth.
“You see?” says Stolie, starstruck. “He’s a real guy and he enjoys what he does. You know, when you buy a dress at Alta Moda it is not only because you like it. And it is not just because it is made only for you. It is also because it helps you remember these moments. I will have my dresses for many, many years. And every time I look at them I will remember my time here. When you buy the dress, you buy the moment.”