Inside fashion’s most colourful cult: the Alta Moda/Alta Sartoria shows by Dolce & Gabbana

Historic Palermo provides backdrop for Italian fashion duo’s latest extravagant display of one-of-a-kind fashion pieces for their faithful following

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 6:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2017, 5:58pm

Hundreds of locals lined the streets to watch the extravagantly dressed guests descend onto the Piazza Pretoria in Palermo - it’s a red carpet so opulent as to rival the Oscars or the Met Gala Ball. The President of Sicily is there, the champagne is flowing, camera phones are out as nubile models (and a few of their millennial generation clients) slink their way around the central fountain bathed in golden light wearing colourful outfits inspired by Sicilian folklore, arts, architecture and hot-blooded island sensuality.

Dolce & Gabbana’s signature Italian glamour and impeccable couture hand craftsmanship within their Alta collections were underlined by plenty of lace, regal gold, trompe l’oeil and bright plumes of feathers. Folksy costume elements and bright hues – borrowed from traditionally decorated Sicilian horse and carts, come with sequins and embroidery on ultra feminine dresses and extravagant floral headdresses.

Red carpet crowd at #Palermo @dolcegabbana #altamoda #dglovespalermo ???

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Models circled the central fountain with all it’s once scandalous nude statues, in outfits that played with sex appeal, religious iconography and Catholic primness. Big skirts, hourglass shapes and then a bright dress clattering with bright orange Siclian corals seemed more artwork than fashion.

About some 300 clients sit in the audience, but a few younger, genetically gifted ones join models on the runway – it’s a “thing” that Domenico Dolce & Stefano Gabbana have been joyfully experimenting with on their catwalks lately.

Flaunting it: Melania Trump wears US$51,000 Dolce Gabbana jacket at the G7 in Sicily

The Italian design duo recently courted controversy by defending loyal client, US First Lady Melania Trump (and themselves) against social media haters (as she tours the world wearing their designs). However, this hasn’t deterred those loyal to the cult of Dolce & Gabbana; and nowhere is this more evident at their Alta events. Here elite devotees of almost religious fashion fervor form a close-knit, unofficial (and very high net worth) club ready to spend eye-watering sums on the best these designers have to offer.

We’re talking about prices that start in the tens of thousands of euros for the simplest items, easily edging up to hundreds of thousands. That night, we hear that urgent shopping goes on until 4am for some of the 50+ clients from China, Hong Kong and Macau in attendance. Of the 100+ outfits they showed, only a handful remained un-purchased.

The next evening in front of the exquisite Duomo Monreale – a famous example of the mixed Arab, Byzantine and Norman styles of Sicily, there was another treat for the eyes with the men’s Alta Sartoria collection. Standing ovations are not uncommon.

A symphony of Western suiting, silky Middle Eastern dishdasha, flowing shirts, robes and cool streetwear showed off technical expertise and the best Italian fabrics for men. Some outfits were clearly Arabic, Turk and Norman inspired. Again the runway had a few surprises: among models, a handful of clients and oddly, British reality TV star Spencer Matthews (of Made in Chelsea fame).

As always, there was plenty of decorative motifs, gold, embroideries and embellishments – this time referencing the famous 6,000 square meters of interior mosaic of Monreale - designed and crafted by Greco-Byzantine artisans in glorious geometric shapes, stars, discs and arches that show the harmony of different religions and cultures in Sicilian history. Dinner followed under grooved stone arches of the Cloisters inspired by Islamic art. Dancing ensued and I spot a young Chinese client already wearing a flowing striped shirt encrusted with jewels on the shoulders, debuted 2 hours ago on the runway.

With the runway-to-retail trend that’s been stirring up the ready-to-wear industry, Dolce & Gabbana have managed to do better in their couture where their most impatient clientele – many of them Chinese - can also pre-order. Since each outfit from the Alta lines are unique and can only be purchased by one person, some clients are eager to bag the exclusive outfits before they even hit the runway. The hunger for fashion is no less urgent here for artisanal and bespoke, and the designers have worked to accommodate – a tactical agility which has benefited business to no end.

The 3-4 day affair of cocktails, shows, dinners and parties is unparalleled exercise in “la bella vita”, Dolce & Gabbana style. Paris couture week shows, which I missed this season, seem snooty and almost bland in comparison.

As one of Italy’s most diverse regions, Sicily, with its compelling multi-cultural history (having been ruled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans) provides fitting setting for this cultural melting pot of guests. Whereas major fashion week audiences are still dominated by Western faces (mostly buyers and press), the clients at these Alta events reflect a more diverse map of emerging world wealth: groups of rich Asians, Middle Easterns, Africans and Americans make for a colourful mix. The Alta client list is a veritable list of eccentric oligarchs, tycoons types and their families, hailing from all corners of the globe.

There’s also the playground vibe that you don’t get much in fashion – albeit here it’s for the millionaire and billionaire clients that are so fascinating to watch. Officially, the brand keeps quiet about actual names, but after regularly attending these Alta events and a little social media stalking, this summer had Sheikh Abdulrahman. American TV show host Steve Harvey, his fabulous wife Marjorie and their daughter, as well as Hong Kong tycoon Pansy Ho and Hollywood actress and poker champion Jennifer Tilly in attendance.

For the designers, this season was a homecoming of sorts. It was under the balmy heat of a Sicilian sunset that Dolce (a native of a town near Palermo) and his longtime business partner (and ex-boyfriend) Gabbana, got initial support from Dolce’s family at the very start of their business over 30 years ago, when they had barely enough money to buy fabric. And the brand’s first ever Alta Moda event in 2012 was held in Taormina, another Sicilian city. Remembering that event, with it’s smattering of curious potential couture clients and celebrities; it’s hard not to marvel at how far they’ve come with their Alta collections.

It’s been a following of the faithful growing stronger each year. Many are bringing families, and multi-generational set of clients. And from talking them, it’s the fun-filled, unique Dolce & Gabbana way, as much as any clothes that bring them back again. “There’s this intimacy with the designers and the shows are just otherworldly,“ says one Chinese male client I meet in line for the loo (yes, there’s some comfort in the democracy of queuing up for the toilet), “where else do you get to party and talk with these famous fashion designers who remember you?” He then turns back to his WeChat video chatting a Beijing friend, after making me wave to him.

So adorable. Domenico Dolce dancing with the children at #altamoda #altasartoria closing party. @dolcegabbana #dglovespalermo

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Closeness with the super-rich Alta clientele seems genuine. Dolce is seen dancing with several of them, then with a group of their children at the big closing party, the smell of fireworks still lingering in the air after a heart-stopping display. The talkative Gabbana is making the rounds, all the while live streaming on social media and instagramming (an obsession of his) the night away.

They must be exhausted after four days, but the freedom of this is energizing too. As one of very few 100% independent, big fashion label founders, Dolce and Gabbana are ever the non-conformists in fashion – doing what they want, how they want, where they want and with whom they want – and their Alta clients are ever more enamored.