A peek inside Dolce & Gabbana's glamorous Alta Moda show in Milan
Jing Zhang joins VIPs at LA Scala Theatre for spring-summer haute couture collection
There has been plenty of movement at Dolce & Gabbana in recent years. There was the folding up of their lucrative D&G diffusion line in 2011, the debut of their Alta Moda couture collection a year later, and a tax controversy that the design duo were cleared of last year. Things are never boring in the Dolce & Gabbana camp.
The latest development is joining the world of ultra-luxurious couture - a smart move for the label, with independent, destination shows outside fashion week schedules garnering a faithful, well-heeled clientele who adore their extravagant, romantic aesthetic. This season they even launched Alta Sartoria, a men's couture line.
The spring-summer Alta Moda show was held in Milan's La Scala Theatre, a historic temple of dance and opera - a first for the theatre, too. The audience comprised selected VIPs, clients and a handful of journalists. While the dress code was black - sober 1960s elegance à la Jackie Onassis - faithful Dolce clients couldn't resist the urge to go full out.
Women wore long ball gowns in bright island hues and body-con mini-dresses, and sported big hair and glossy lips with precious jewels draped around necks and dripping off earlobes. What recession, you might ask, in the midst of all this unapologetic extravagance.
Mexican-born Deborah Hung, Dolce & Gabbana fan and one of Hong Kong's most high-profile couture collectors, has been a regular at the Alta Moda events since the very beginning.
"Every Alta Moda is a surprise," she says after the show, "and they make it so grand. I think you always expect a nice experience, not just a show."
"Taormina [Sicily] was their first trial, by the Venice show, [the label] was already taking shape of what Domenico and Stefano want for their Alta Moda. The recent ones in Capri and Milan show signs of a very mature Dolce Gabbana signature."
This collection was influenced as much by the location as the designers' imaginations. The procession of outfits were inspired by ballet, opera and theatre. Guests were treated to a surprise, with Italian-born ballet dancer Roberto Bolle, étoile (star) at La Scala and principal with American Ballet Theatre, performing to open each "chapter" of the collection.
Fittingly, this collection was all about drama, from strapless gowns with huge tulle skirts decorated with famous show sheets from La Scala performances such as Romeo and Juliet, to gem-encrusted ballet flats worn with white tights and short puffed ballet breeches in golden jacquard.
This might not be the most practical attire for an evening out on the town, or even at your most lavish Saudi wedding, but since when did everyday practicality figure on couturiers' agendas?
Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce clearly wanted to offer sweet escapism - a fairy tale experience in times where reality can seem too heavy. Angelic white laces, organza, tulle and layers of chiffon dresses featured golden, heavily embroidered bodices. Models' ballet buns were dressed with theatrical headpieces and crowns that were apparently very popular with clients in the buying salons afterwards.
Gorgeous wearable pieces included Astrakhan outfits, a dusky rose-coloured button-up coat or a chic black sculpted '50s skirt suit. The most covetable dresses were off the shoulder, in a classic Dolce hourglass silhouette; a simple red shin-length version with frayed hems caught the eye.
Despite recent economic uncertainty in Russia with the ruble taking a tumble, there were still several of the country's ultra rich at the show in Milan (pointed out to me by a Russian editor). A strong Middle Eastern and Arab contingent especially appreciated the Italian brand's penchant for bold glamour. The presence of Asian couture clients inches ever forward, with several Hong Kong- and China-based women in the fold.
"This show is so beautiful and elegant," says Yvette Yuen, a Hong Kong socialite and managing director of Occasions PR company, "Dolce is always my favourite brand. All the dresses are stunning, especially the off-the-shoulder pieces - just stunning, breathtaking."
It was Yuen's first time at one of the label's Alta Moda shows, but she said its ready-to-wear creations had always attracted her with their sex appeal. "The designers really know how to shape a woman."
Yuen's favourite pieces were the more simple, wearable dresses, "A lot of the pale blue ones I like, very womanly yet light in all that chiffon," she added. "Then there are the off-the-shoulder ones, also the chic black dresses."
More melodramatic looks had high-neck lace collars and big operatic capes evoking bygone eras and theatrical costume. Renaissance-worthy outfits rich in gold brought to mind Catholic churches and royal weddings. And who could ignore the huge gemstones embroidered onto outfits in baroque patterns, or whimsical accessories such as the ballerina earrings and embroidered tights.
"I like that every collection has a beautiful and real theme and you see that reflected on every piece," says Hung, post-runway. Her favourite signature details included "the embroidery, hand-painted fabric and the Dolce & Gabbana cut … I like when they do the clothing very feminine, sensual and chic."
Last season she bought an Alta Moda piece. This season it was her husband, Stephen Hung, who picked up several pieces from the men's Alta Sartoria debut line.
For the tiny handful like Hung and Yuen who can afford couture, being demanding is de rigueur, especially at these prices. Each unique piece is made from scratch and to the clients' exact proportions, with alterations in details to suit their tastes.
"I like something that makes me look unique and special," says Hung, "something that fits me perfectly and screams my personality. Also, I look for designers who put a lot of work onto the clothing, [making it] like a piece of art.
"The client base is quite global and the great thing they have done is to create this 'Dolce Gabbana family' feeling with the same core VIPs, planning great parties and gatherings in addition to the fashion show."
It was a breathtaking show and collection, no doubt. A poetic celebration of the stage, but grounded in meticulous craftsmanship and uncompromising attitude to detail.
That aside, it is perhaps Dolce & Gabbana's ability to draw a select few into their fantasy world that really speaks to the brand's magic. Loyalty for the Alta Moda line, after just two years of existence, is fierce.
The private performances, dinners and parties with designers - yes, there's actually a good likelihood of Domenico Dolce twirling you around the dance floor to '80s Madonna at the afterparty - all work to reinforce the feeling of a private club of elite global fashion fans.