It was around 1am, and the drinks, penne and adrenaline had magnificently loosened up the vocal cords on stage. Hits from Adele, Queen and Elton John were being lovingly, if imperfectly, recreated. It was like a live television set, only better-dressed. This was a party done wild and exotic and with no compromise on detail: a six-screen mega-production that had all the grandeur of a localised version of The Voice. There were interstitial screens playing stingers (short, radio-station-like music hits), there was an MC, there was a live band, there were golden, microphone-shaped trophies dotted across the room, and, on stage, a hand-picked selection of Dolce&Gabbana’s VVIP clientele.
This here, inside Metropol, the Milan club owned by Dolce&Gabbana, was the grand send-off to one of the most extravagant and exclusive experiences in international fashion: Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria.
Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana began presenting the men’s and women’s haute couture collections some eight years ago, as a sort of luxe, bespoke counterpoint to Paris’ dominant couture shows and the jet setting-rise of ready-to-wear cruise collections. D&G’s Alta Moda and Sartoria shows – which actually encompass three- or four-day experiences – have been presented everywhere from London to Tokyo to New York to discreet pockets of Italy. And each of these events have been a sort of sartorial Olympics for those shoppers who hold the brand dearest: a chance to see and shop one-of-a-kind creations, right off a runway that takes the idea of “invitation-only” to an entirely different sphere.
But, of course, the runways and the shopping are only one part of this outsized creation. Guests are also treated to an itinerary that regularly includes private art gallery viewings, trips to the beach, five-course dinners, and masked balls. (This event, in Milan, included lunch on stage at La Scala, which, for those not versed in virtuosos like Bellini, Puccini and Verdi, is the equivalent of being privately invited onto the pitch at Camp Nou.)
In its most dramatic form, the business of luxury is, really, the business of loyalty: forging an affinity between shopper and brand, so much so that the very things that give each an identity – like the gait in which one walks, the way one dresses for a meeting, the way one cuts their hair, the way someone greets their guests at a dinner – becomes intertwined. And, when it comes to their most valued clients, Signori Dolce and Gabbana do this dance well. Few brands can do something so personal on a scale so grand.
Though, in our current moment, the idea of a “destination show” is a far-flung fashion memory, it’s not difficult to say that this biannual event manages to feel something entirely more wonder-filled than even the most dizzying and inventive cruise or couture shows.
Here, you arrive at Malpensa airport discreetly. Instead of a typical transfer service – from airlines that are no stranger to high levels of service – the brand insists on sending one of its own private drivers, each of whom feel as though they’ve been cast for, say, a Light Blue fragrance commercial.
Discussing all of this glamour and pampering is not to suggest that there isn’t a totally-real undercurrent of adrenaline to the whole exercise. Once the whispers started spreading in ultra-wealthy circles, peppered with details from these otherworldly Dolce vita itineraries, a glammed-up smorgasbord of the world’s most wealthy fashion fans began flying in, at their own expense. There have been seed-round-flush Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, South American industrialists, nouveau-riche Chinese businesspeople, old-money fund managers, and, though very discreetly, more than a few royals. It’s as pure a concentration of wealth and power you can imagine – and they’re all vying for one-of-a-kind pieces, marking Alta Sartoria as not only an elite social gathering, but an event that’s amongst the most dandy (and silent) competitions on the planet.
With company like this, it’s a shopping holiday where you most certainly will plan every outfit to the hour. On stage at Metropol on that closing night in December, one American client, who simply said that he worked in finance, could be seen wandering confidently around the club wearing a literal golden crown, one that was perhaps procured from Alta Gioielleria, the brand’s high jewellery collection.
But it’s not just an arms race to be the best-dressed in a room in whatever far-flung location the brand has chosen that season: even during the runway shows, clients can be seen requesting their chosen pieces on the now-legendary WhatsApp groups whose existence the brand won’t officially confirm or deny. The thinking is that these chat groups are where the one-of-a-kind Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria masterpieces are allocated – on a first-come, first-serve basis.
So it was at the setting for this Alta Sartoria: Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the Ambrosian Library, home to the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana gallery. After weaving through the backstage pre-production area, you could look left and see Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, right and see Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus. Again, a spectacle of spectacles – the most personal of personal.
“We won’t know why we got permission to show here,” Gabbana said before the show began. “But we got it.”
The designers described the show as, “the culmination of a dream”. Though Milan was on the list of more grounded locations for Alta Sartoria, what became clear is the bond the designers had with their city.
“In a few hours, our sartorial creations…will become everyone’s heritage.”
The collection that followed was as lavish and romantic as the brief – Renaissance-level, renaissance-inspired couture. There were luxe coats dipped in criss-crossing patterns of 24-carat gold, more velvet than you could ever hope to wear at La Scala, and, on one ornate cape, a recreation of the fruit that appeared on Caravaggio’s nearby canvas.
The clients stared, they filmed, they WhatsApped, and soon after, they owned.
Earlier this year, a few months after the theatrics at Metropol and Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Reuters reported that the designers had received offers for the group.
“But we have no intention to sell,” said Stefano Gabbana.
And, for a brand built on intimacy, and on a singular, controlled fantasy, that was little surprise. Much like the DNA of Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria themselves, the most private world of Stefano and Dominico feels destined to remain personal – by invitation only.