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Living la Vita Dolce & Gabbana

10 minute read
Marion Hume

“CIAO! CIAO!†It’s lunchtime in Milan, Italy, when most Milanese traditionally settle into a nice plate of risotto. But inside the Dolce & Gabbana flagship store on Via della Spiga, the mood is frantic, with shoppers young and old slapping down credit cards for the label’s signature $2,900 pin-striped pantsuits and $3,500 fur-trimmed coats. It seems there are not enough salespeople to handle the traffic, so Alberto Addis, the store’s visual merchandiser, is lending a hand, greeting two women who have wandered past the acres of shiny black-glass walls and Murano-glass chandeliers into the leopard-print VIP room. They’re in search of a $23,200 shimmering Swarovski crystal–covered dress that’s been photographed in all the fashion magazines. The problem is, the dress has been sold. Addis slides open a leopard-print panel to display a full-length, polar-white Mongolian lamb coat ($10,260) that might please instead. No, no, they want the dress. He hands them off to the manager.

Back out in the store, two teenage girls are carefully sizing up a pair of jeans with broadtail patch pockets. “Ciao !†Addis says when he spots them. He doesn’t know them per se, but he quickly explains that the friendliness is part of the Dolce & Gabbana strategy. “ Other designers, they are very snob. Dolce and Gabbana are never snob,†he says. “They are friendly. Ciao! Ciao!â€

Even after 20 years in business, Domenico Dolce (the shorter, bald one) and Stefano Gabbana (tall and angular) remain incredibly accessible. Although their company boasts wholesale revenues of more than $1 billion and both designers live in splendor in the same central Milan building, Stefano on the sixth floor, Domenico on the fifth—never mind the houses in Roquebrune, France, and in Stromboli and Portofino, Italy—Dolce and Gabbana live what they consider an “approachable†life. Gabbana, 43, still rides around his native Milan on a Vespa (albeit a leopard-print one). And Dolce, 47, who hails from a small town near Palermo, Sicily, still walks to work every day. One even gets the sense that they remain starstruck by the celebrities who wear their clothes—although they readily admit they have Madonna on speed dial.

“The boysâ€â€”as they are referred to affectionately in fashion circles—met at a Milan nightclub in 1982. It was at a moment when, thanks to Giorgio Armani, Italian fashion had come of age. Dolce, who comes from a family of well-established tailors, had been hankering for a job in Armani’s design studio. When that did not happen, he went to work for a relatively unknown designer named Giorgio Correggiari and got his new boyfriend a job too. But they had bigger dreams than just working behind the scenes at a small company. They saw the success of Armani and Versace, and they wanted a piece of that glamour too. Eventually, they decided to go for it and start their own business, with a little help from Dolce’s family company, Dolce Saverio.

Pooling their savings—some $2,000—Dolce and Gabbana signed up to show their small collection with a group of four other young designers. Word spread around Milan, a few editors and buyers took note, and by March 1986 they were staging their first solo show, “Real Women.†Dolce’s sister Dorotea and his brother Alfonso worked the door. Joan Burstein of the London boutique Brown’s came and snapped up the collection of romantic, Sicilian-inspired dresses and strictly tailored pantsuits that were very much in contrast to both Armani and Versace—then the opposing poles of fash ion in Milan—and to the dark, asexual stuff the Japanese were showing in Paris.

“There were two extremes,†Burstein remembers. “ There was tailoring and corsets and the sexy bits and then these marvelous full-skirted dresses, which I thought were so Neapolitan. We didn’t know then that Domenico was Sicilian.â€

Today it’s hard not to recognize Dolce’s Sicilian roots, so ingrained are they in the fashion iconography of the late 1980s and ’90s: Isabella Rossellini posing as an actress in the style of the neorealistic cinema that her father founded; Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington dressed as showgirls falling in love with Italian boys in New York City’s Little Italy; Monica Bellucci re-enacting Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The designers’ ad campaigns alone—most shot by Steven Meisel—are a lesson in vintage Italian style.

Twenty years later, Dolce & Gabbana, the brand, still has only two shareholders: Dolce and Gabbana. The company is still very much a family affair too. Dorotea and Alfonso Dolce are directors of Dolce & Gabbana Luxembourg S.á.r.l, which controls the empire, and of Dolce & Gabbana Srl (based in Milan). Dolce is CEO of the latter, while Gabbana is the chairman. Stefano’s brother Maurizio also works for the company, although not on the corporate side.

With more than 100 boutiques worldwide and over 2,000 employees, Dolce & Gabbana S.á.r.l. has become a global fashion powerhouse. To prove it, the boys recently bought and renovated the Metropol, a former cinema in Milan that will serve as their show space and a sort of epicenter to the empire. An empire that still makes more than 58% of its revenue from ready-to-wear at a time when most luxury fashion brands make up to 80% of their profits from leather goods.

Although big luxury conglomerates have come calling, Dolce and Gabbana have never even considered selling out. They turned away suitors like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole when they were running the Gucci Group. Maintaining total control of the business they founded has, Gabbana says, been essential for their creativity and way of working.

“Freedom means not having anything that forces you to do what you don’t want to do,†says Dolce. As to how the two divide the task of designing, it’s similar to the way they speak, finishing each other’s sentences. While Dolce is more hands-on—he could tailor a suit by age 7—Gabbana is more attuned to street trends. It has always been thus; ever since the street-smart Gabbana became entranced by Dolce’s southern Italian roots and began embroidering upon that exoticism—the romance, the corsets—forcing Dolce to re-examine a Sicilian heritage that has become the leitmotif of the brand.

The only person with a financial background in the core corporate lineup is the one without the family name. Cristiana Ruella rarely invites media scrutiny, even though she looks like an Italian Demi Moore. An economist by training, she was working as a commerciale (an accountant-lawyer) when she met the pair she still calls “Mr. Dolce and Mr. Gabbana†to discuss their finances.

Despite Ruella’s having little interest in fashion when she was asked to join the burgeoning business in 1991, she took a leap of faith, “not because of zebra and leopard prints,†she laughs, referring to the prints that reappear in almost all their interiors and their work spaces, “but because of the possibility of the numbers.â€

THERE HAVE BEEN big decisions of late, born of the need to nail down a fast-growing corporate structure for the next 20 years or more. In business terms, the problem inherent in designer brands is, of course, the designers themselves and how the brands they have founded might continue in their absence. Dolce & Gabbana’s glossy annual report addresses that. “Our plans for the future?†the designers are quoted as asking. “To carry on working with the same commitment and determination so that our brand continues to grow and expand and, perhaps, in the very distant future, to go on without us. In the early years, our dream was … to keep the brand going from one season to the next … The goal has changed: we want our brand to live forever.â€

With their recent numbers, chances are very good that it will. Dolce & Gabbana leather-accessories and footwear sales rose 35% from March 2004 to March 2005, for example. “I’m surprised people are so surprised,†Ruella says. “To me [the impressive year-on-year rises] are quite normal. We grew in our own way. Perhaps the hard part, the fashion, we already did, and now we have to exploit the easier part. What is sure, we prefer to follow our own street.â€

That “streetâ€â€”one not without risk—has led to the expansion of wholly owned factories (now completed) and the decision to recall all licenses (except those of fragrance, opticals and watches), including one for the highly lucrative D&G line, which currently generates more than $536 million and will be produced in-house starting in 2007.

The big talk in fashion now is the Chi nese market, and here, too, Dolce & Gabbana is doing things its way—without a local partner and with vast shops in the tourist destination of Hangzhou as well as in Beijing and Shanghai.

“We feel we can’t leave such a market in other hands,†says Ruella. In any case, she adds, the Italians and the Chinese are made to do business together. “Both can have a dinner and speak about everything else without losing for a second why we are there.â€

Ruella doesn’t see success in terms of dreams. To this pragmatist, the reasons for success are straightforward. “The secret of this company is no secret,†she says. “Mr. Dolce and Mr. Gabbana provide clothes for lots of women to wear. Yes, we must manage a big company with prudence, but we never speak about ‘if we do this, we will find more customers.’ Customers want to find what Mr. Dolce and Mr. Gabbana design.â€

Back at the Via della Spiga store, the lunchtime rush is showing no sign of tailing off. Alberto Addis is straightening a shiny alligator bag that a customer has left askew, moving an eel-skin shoe back to its right place. There is no icy sense of “please do not touch†here; everything has been handled. “It’s always like this,†Addis says. “Our customer, maybe she comes to buy, maybe to touch. It’s O.K.â€

Of course, the girl stroking a desired piece longingly today could be the customer for that $23,200 minidress tomorrow. And that’s understood in an empire started, after all, by a pair who 20 years ago were themselves the kids with their noses pressed up against the glass.





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