The Sicilian Unfolding of Dolce & Gabbana
The now globally recognized Sicilian style of Dolce & Gabbana is the result of thirty years of careful cultivation by the duo, who revisited childhood memories to develop a wholly unique aesthetic. Built around a cinematic fantasy of Sicily, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce are known for their signature uses of black lace, corseting and lingerie, tailoring and roses. Intriguingly though, these Italian and Sicilian themes took several collections to manifest in their designs as the pair instead drew from much farther afield sources (primarily Japanese design) before realizing their talent lay in reworking reminiscences into fashion form. The slow evolution of their designs through the first five years of their career (1985 to 1990) provides a clear foundation for the development of their signature aesthetic.
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In 1980, the 18-year-old Milanese Gabbana met 22-year-old Sicilian Dolce through their employer, designer Giorgio Correggiari. Three years later they established a designer consulting studio together. First presenting their designs together in a group show during Milan fashion week for spring/summer 1986, Dolce & Gabbana’a pieces were described by the New York Times as having “a Japanese flavor”—loose, wrapped pants worn with baggy jackets and conceptual jewelry. Showing on the official calendar for the first time in October 1986 for spring/summer 1987, they established themselves as new designers to watch with clothes made of jersey and elastic silk in dark, muted tones that were tied, wrapped, and twisted in unconventional ways—called “Transformation,” it harked back both to Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto as well as their compatriot Romeo Gigli, who was known for wrapping chiffon and jersey to create pre-Raphaelite effects. Less romantic than Gigli, these early Dolce & Gabbana designs were defined by a certain sparseness—ornamentation limited strictly to a long strip of snaps that could be left exposed or used by the wearer to manipulate the shape of the dress or skirt (clothing came with instructions on seven different ways they could be worn). The following collection featured garments scattered with buttons and loops, allowing for the same inventiveness of dress; Dolce said at the time, “A dress should live the personality of the woman who wears it.”
Their fourth collection—for spring/summer 1988—was the first to heavily trade upon the tropes of Dolce’s Sicilian heritage and post-war Italian neo-realist films. Described by the Washington Post as “monasterial,” the ad campaign for the collection was photographed by Ferdinando Scianna and featured the mixed-race Dutch model Marpessa Hennink in a series of picturesque locations around Sicily—nuns, ornate crosses and barber shops provided a suitable backdrop for the black bustiers, skirt suits and fitted scoopneck bodices over full mid-calf skirts. The strictly black palette was supplemented with a few strict white blouses, dickeys and collars. The first incarnation of what was to become known as ‘The Sicilian Dress’ appeared in this collection—a modern reworking of the black slips worn on film by legendary Italian actresses like Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani (both who later modeled for the company) worn as outerwear. Unlike many of the other “Sicilian” inspired looks in this collection—which had the effect of a dour, poor relative—this dress was all about sex appeal, pushing up the breasts and emphasizing the hips. For Dolce and Gabbana, the polarity between the virgin and the whore would become a common theme throughout their career—using their designs to show how these polarized characters could simply be seen as differing facets within one woman.
For Dolce and Gabbana at that time, a Sicilian “evokes the antique image of the Mediterranean woman, who in many ways reflects the personality of the modern woman; strong but vulnerable, engrossed in her daily problems, in her struggle for the attainment of her aims but never neglecting her inner life and her dreams.”In an interview in 1987 they stated, “For us it is not the esthetic image of a woman that is important, but rather her spirit”; yet by continuing to refine these themes—with their muted palette, stretch cotton off-the-shoulder sheaths and billowing, gathered chiffon milkmaid skirts—the pair’s clear aesthetic was credited with introducing a new persona into fashion: the Sicilian peasant sexpot. Lingerie-style slip dresses and bra tops became an integral part of all their collections from that point on; their autumn/winter 1988 collection opened with a parade of models all wearing bustiers and girdle-style panties (an early incarnation of the phalanx of models they always close their shows with now). Decades after heavy-duty bras and girdles had become unfashionable, these covered-up styles were a huge revelation to the fashion press, not least for how they molded and shaped the models’ figures into 1940s-style pin-ups. The overt sexiness of these ensembles was offset by carefully styles accessories including braided coiffures, shawls, lace collars and old lady-handbags, which further reiterated the archetype of the Sicilian peasant as well as calling to mind the faded elegance of Visconti’s The Leopard.
Just as they enjoyed playing with the virgin/whore dichotomy, Dolce & Gabbana also investigated the divisions between male and female. They expanded their designs to include menswear-style suits and button-down shirts. Velvet pantsuits and frilled white blouses appeared for autumn/winter 1988, while their spring/summer 1989 collection was split between “models dressed either as natty Sicilian boys—in cream and ivory raw silk suits complete with tie, vest and cap—or Sicilian señoritas adrift in wisps of black chiffon or virginal white shirts and petticoats trimmed with crisp embroideries.”
Described in their early years as “minimal” and “romantic” designers, Dolce & Gabbana stuck to a small palette (black, white, mulberry, cream) with little embellishment beyond openwork lace on a blouse, a delicate patterned lining or an ethnic embroidered shawl. A shift towards more elaborate looks began with autumn/winter 1989. This collection included their first use of a rose motif—here printed on chiffon and organza as an ode to Anna Magnani and her 1955 film, The Rose Tattoo (Isabella Rossellini modeled the collection in a 12-page story for Vogue Italia). Roses would become so intertwined with the Dolce & Gabbana brand that they launched a perfume, Rosa Excelsa, in 2014. The duo also added black beading and fringe to their signature bra tops. By the following season (spring/summer 1990), their Sicilian peasant was ready for a party with bras and sheer pants fringed and encrusted with bright jewels. Accompanied by dusky organzas and scrunched Lycra knits, the rainbow beads were a novel touch and a sign of Dolce & Gabbana’s future; a fashion press sensation, they appeared in countless editorials as a defining look of the new decade.
In the last ten years Dolce & Gabbana have become equally as well-known for brightly printed sundresses and the ornately embellished gowns they produce for their Alta Moda line—all of which appear to be a sharp departure from their earlier, more funereally toned collections, yet all share the same starting point. Since October 1987, when they premiered a Sicilian-inspired collection, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have mined every facet of Sicilian life (real and fictional) to compose an oeuvre that has defined the island as much as it has defined their career. In 1989, when Dolce had just turned 30 and they had shown eight collections, the company was a $20 million business; their turnover in the business year ending March 2017 was 1.296 billion euros (1.53 billion dollars)—proving that the romantic, Mediterranean aesthetic they popularized is beloved worldwide.