WALL STREET JOURNAL | ELISA LIPSKY-KARASZ DOMENICO DOLCE ’S earliest memories of growing up in the ancient Sicilian town of Polizzi Generosa are of napping in his father’s tailoring shop, warmed by the heat of a coal stove. By the age other children were playing soccer in the cobblestone streets, Dolce—who had watched his father, Saverio, stitch everything from wedding gowns to suit jackets—had picked up a needle and thread. “I was 6 when I made my first pair of pants,” he remembers. “And I would help: If a man had one shoulder that was higher than the other, I stretched the fabric. I learned many tricks.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong apprenticeship, and today Dolce, 56, continues to employ those skills as he helms the fashion house he co-founded with Stefano Gabbana, 52, a Milanese native who met Dolce in 1980, after studying graphic design. Nearly 30 years after their first runway show, their venture has grown into a global brand, represented by archetypal figures who seem plucked straight from Fellini’s imagination: Sicilian widows, baroque aristocrats, Adonis-like sportsmen, lace-adorned ingénues, roguishly handsome gangsters and sirenic housewives. Dolce & Gabbana offers women’s, men’s and children’s wear, perfumes, cosmetics, watches, eyewear and jewelry. The designers even dress the soccer team A.C. Milan for any off-field engagements.
Three years ago, they added to this list Alta Moda, a biannual couture collection of one-of-a-kind, decadently decorated, handmade gowns that look like pieces of art and command similar prices—$40,000 and up. Last fall, the duo launched a corresponding men’s collection, Alta Sartoria (which translates as high tailoring), bringing the designers’ take on Italian glamour to a bespoke men’s wardrobe. For the first time, everything they sell can be customized, from a jacket’s buttons to hats, bags and shoes. “Nobody thinks about couture for men,” says Gabbana. “This is a new kind of relationship with the clients—they can make what they want. For every coat, they will know that it’s half Domenico and Stefano and half them.”
Despite the collection’s extravagances, the designers intend it as a return to the basic values of Saverio Dolce’s day. “We are doing Alta Sartoria just for the love of Italian tradition,” says Dolce. Rather than a customer simply buying something premade off the rack, he can select, say, the superfine purple vicuña fabric and gold buttons for a one-off three-piece suit, with matching velvet slippers, gold cuff links and rings, all of it handmade to his measurements by the designers’ studio of longtime tailors, jewelers and cobblers. Until now, orders for these unique pieces could be placed only in Milan, in a dedicated atelier within a 16th-century palazzo that houses Dolce & Gabbana’s Corso Venezia flagship, decorated with furniture from design legend Giò Ponti. Starting this fall, clients will be able to order Alta Sartoria in New York City, at the brand’s Fifth Avenue store. “We are learning, with Alta Sartoria, a new approach for this [type of] customer,” says Gabbana. “For us it’s strange—but very interesting.”
“These people are very private,” says Dolce of their global clientele, which includes customers from the Middle East, Russia and China as well as Switzerland, Singapore and the United States. “None of the men have the same style.”
The line also represents an important shift in their contemporary business strategy: growing the luxury components of the brand while shuttering their lower-priced line, D&G, which once littered high streets with T-shirts, belts and jeans in its trademark sans-serif logo. “Alta Sartoria is helping position them at a high level and showing the men’s consumer that Dolce & Gabbana has evolved far beyond sportswear,” says retail consultant Robert Burke. “It’s a one-stop shop for that very high-end, luxury client who takes the way they dress very seriously.”
Creating such an exalted fashion line wasn’t something they’d conceived of when they first launched. “We were just two guys whose dream it was to make clothes,” says Gabbana, who describes his role as providing a creative framework for Dolce’s technically inspired feats. The pair, who were once romantically involved but separated in 2005, have made a business of playing yin to the other’s yang, and they often speak as though they are one person.
Gabbana: “We are restoring…”
Dolce: “…the tradition of real elegance.”
Gabbana: “The fashion world is confused about the word tailoring.”
Dolce: “Everyone has a tailor—they are normal, like someone just cooking a nice dish. But the problem is the proportion. I have a short leg and a long waist. Good tailoring…”
Gabbana: “…is like a corset for a woman; it changes your proportions.”
Yet their style of tailoring would probably never be found on buttoned-up Savile Row (except, perhaps, their dapper suits in gray Prince of Wales check wool or their velvet tuxedos). Among the ensembles at the line’s first runway show were a Bordeaux-colored croc overcoat with matching croc pochette case and lace-up shoes; a dramatic ankle-length, robe-like coat in black astrakhan; a floral-print silk and velvet nightshirt and matching pants worn with a tuxedo shirt, a cummerbund and a bow tie; and a green silk jacquard jacket shown with a velvet bow tie, croc belt and croc shoes, all in verdant hues. But, the designers insist, the shows are merely intended as a launchpad for their clients’ imagination—nearly anything is possible.
Gabbana: “Alta Sartoria is a dream. A lot of customers are asking for brocade jackets. We don’t live this kind of life. I wake up and make food for my dog. But these people live a different life.”
Dolce: “Oh, I love it. This morning for breakfast, I wore a brown silk taffeta robe with a velvet lining, and crocodile and suede slippers. For me, it makes it a good morning. It changes your life.”
Gabbana: “I can’t.” (Rolls his eyes.) “I wear black jogging pants, white socks and a white T-shirt. But he influences me—two days ago, I stopped in a Japanese shop and bought a tiger-print kimono to wear at home. He said, ‘A kimono?’ ”
Dolce: “That will inspire the next show—Madame Butterfly!” (Laughter.)
Dolce & Gabbana estimated that its revenues last year were over $1 billion. Such a stellar performance is presumably what attracted the attention of the Italian government, which in 2007 filed charges accusing Dolce and Gabbana of tax evasion and sought to have them incarcerated. After years of court battles, the pair were finally cleared by Italy’s highest court last fall. “If you make money and become rich and famous, some people in Italy become envious,” says Gabbana. “It was hard. But I was never worried, because I knew we hadn’t done anything wrong. When we won, my reaction was just ‘OK.’ Domenico jumped on the table, he was so happy and laughing. But I just said, ‘OK.’ ”
Meanwhile, the designers hope that the launch of Alta Sartoria will give men the freedom to explore their own identity, through the medium of fashion. For these two, more is at stake than the natty cut of a lapel.
“Globalization has destroyed things like elegance and tradition,” says Gabbana. “Fashion can make men afraid—but you won’t lose any power because of a baby-blue jacket lining.”
“This is about individuality: Choose what you want,” Dolce says, tapping the table with his fist and shooting an intense look. “Men can buy their own ideas.”