DOLCE & GABBANA: ART HOUSE
Dolce & Gabbana are the go-to designers for those who like their timeless glamour with a healthy dash of sauce. The most flattering 1950s silhouettes, corsetry, just enough black lace and the occasional flash of animal print are their stock in trade. They make the actors, pop stars and models who don their creations look like they’ve fallen out of an Italian movie or an Old Master painting: an alchemical mix of contemporary chic, cultural heritage and raunch. Here they talk movies and muses, the joys of art collecting, why they won’t be opening an art foundation any time soon and what they’ve learned from Facebook.
There are certain things artists from bygone eras seemed to do so much better. Sex, for instance. Just think of all the athletes with their pert pecs, straining arms and taut flesh rippling across ribs that the Greeks carved in smooth white marble. And how Donatello picked up the baton in the Renaissance, with his bronze statue of a beguilingly girlish David or Michelangelo’s elegant marble version of the biblical hero and his later mannerist paintings of men with impossibly pumped-up physiques.
For titillation and game playing, look to Watteau. The 18th-century genius of rococo painting created the rural idyll as erotic theatre, with aristocrats frolicking beside masked Harlequins and Columbines. Or his successor in sensuality, Boucher, who upped the stakes with paintings of courtiers flashing their undies to crouching voyeurs, and pearly-skinned girls dallying with fawning youths in a frisky free-for-all.
Today you wouldn’t go to galleries to get an eyeful. Sex, so the maxim goes, is everywhere. But if you want good old-fashioned eroticism and the body beautiful, the best place to look has to be Dolce & Gabbana. Their ad campaigns riffing on the lost ideals of Old Masters, from Michelangelo to the neorealist film-maker Federico Fellini, are legendary. The Italian double act have conjured the shades of Italian baroque and French rococo decadence in images snapped by the likes of Steven Klein (the tattered glory of an old palazzo where gilt-framed paintings line the walls), Steven Meisel (languid 18th-century debauchery with white-wigged Marie Antoinettes and a golden youth wearing nothing more than Roman laurels), or Mariano Vivanco (those shots of the Italian football team in the showers were idealised male forms if ever there were).
For Domenico Dolce, the beautiful men who grace their campaigns are, “a classic, timeless kind of beauty”, not to mention, “an incentive to take care of one’s wellbeing and one’s body”, as Stefano Gabbana points out. It’s part of an aesthetic that goes back to Domenico’s formative years, growing up in Sicily with a father who was a tailor and a mother who owned a fabric shop. “Sicilian baroque has influenced us greatly. But also the rigour of classic Greek temples,” says he. Stefano, who grew up in the north of Italy but adores the rough-edged southern isle, concurs: “Sicily is a place that combines many different things, both culturally and artistically. This is precisely what makes it so appealing – its ability to put together so many different types of stories.”
Italian culture (with an occasional flirtation with France’s friskier creations) is the designers’ lifeblood. Asked if he could resurrect any artist to collaborate with today, Domenico says it has to be, “Caravaggio and his play on light and shadow”. Indeed, many of Dolce & Gabbana’s images recall paintings by this 16th-century bad boy, who created heated scenes of intense drama with extremes of dark and light. Stefano, on the other hand, is more interested in recent cultural legends, the pop art mavericks, “Andy Warhol and Keith Haring”.
And if they could only look at one artwork for the rest of their life? It seems they’re similarly divided along a heritage/pop split: Domenico says it would be, “certainly a classical piece, one that is universally recognised as a work of art. Perhaps Michelangelo’s La pieta, or Caravaggio’s Il ragazzo con cesto di frutta. Impossible dreams… ” For Stefano, it’s Keith Haring again.
That the designers’ taste in art should be divided between timeless greats and pop is no surprise. A mixture of classic style and pop playfulness has long been their invincible signature look. The hourglass silhouette with its nipped-in waist and ample décolletage is famously irresistible to those who spend their lives in the glare of the cameras.
Dressing Madonna and all her dancers for the 1993 Girlie Show tour in costumes that took their cues from such varied influences as Victoriana, commedia dell’arte and Marlene Dietrich’s 1932 film Blonde Venus, was one of many landmark moments in their career. Most recently she turned up in their sultry 2011 campaign playing the Italian mama with the beautiful boy on her arm, like she’s just wandered in from a scene from Visconti’s Bellissima. That movie’s sex-bomb star, Anna Magnani, being one of the designer’s long-standing touchstones.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, Dolce & Gabbana were turning their “little princess” Kylie into a sparkling space-age-gladiator-cum-Hollywood goddess, for her Les Folies tour – including chain-mail slips and a headdress with feathery wings, making her a pretty, petite Hermes. They’ve clad everyone, from Isabella Rossellini, a woman with serious Italian-cinema pedigree, to screen siren Scarlett Johansson, the face of their first make-up campaign, whose striking resemblance to Anita Ekberg, the star of La Dolce Vita’s best-loved fountain scene, cannot have been lost on the designers.
Fellini’s neorealist masterpieces have long been a major influence. Dolce & Gabbana’s elegantly suited men and women with their 1950s look could easily have sauntered from the set of La Dolce Vita, while the cobbled streets and fading grandeur of palazzos that their models pose within might be any of the out-of-the-way spots the oddball heroes discover in La Strada. What are their favourite Fellini moments? “The snowfall in Amarcord comes to mind,” says Stefano. “All of Fellini’s films are part of everyone’s heritage, every single frame,” Domenico states. “There are so many – the men sitting outside of the bar in I Vitelloni, Mastroianni and Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita, Anna Magnani’s ride on the motorcycle with her son in Mamma Roma, and many more.”
In terms of the images they surround themselves with in their daily lives, the designers inspirations are democratic and far ranging. “Our work is very visual, so we get inspired by everything. We like admiring classical painters, we follow contemporary art, we observe how young people dress on the streets or in clubs,” says Stefano. “We also pay attention to what people share on Facebook,” reflects Domenico. “Today everyone communicates by writing and exchanging words and images. I am very interested in this change in communication between people.”
But what about artists working today, do they think anyone now can measure up to history’s greats? “Only time will tell. But among contemporary artists I like Richard Prince and Damien Hirst,” says Stefano. For Domenico, “We are living in a historical moment that is both interesting and stimulating for the art world because there are numerous types of expression – photography, digital art… Every era certainly has its great names, and ours will, too.” And, he notes, fashion is also getting its dues: “I recently discovered an interesting work of art by Giuseppe Veneziano presented at Venice’s Biennale – an image of Christ wearing Dolce & Gabbana underwear.”
Art and fashion have, of course, got very cosy in recent years. In addition to the innumerable artist-label collaborations, the French fashion mogul François Pinault is one of the most powerful collectors on the planet. Italy’s cultural heritage, from Rome’s Colosseum to the chapels of Florence or the murals of the Sistine Chapel might be foremost in the world, but it also has a long history of patronage, begun by the Medicis, the merchant rulers of 15th-century Florence, which other fashion houses, such as Prada, with its foundations in Milan and Venice, continue today.
This kind of collecting isn’t something you’re likely to see from Dolce & Gabbana any time soon, though. “Absolutely not,” says Domenico. “We are simple art buyers and collectors.” Stefano agrees: “We are not interested in using art for communication purposes; we consider art to be private and we are fortunate to be able to do so.”
“We buy things we like, each one following his own taste. I would love to buy certain pieces that I can’t afford… art is expensive,” Domenico points out. They seem a little reluctant to say which artists they specifically collect, but does their “molto-sexy” style extend to their taste in art? “Perhaps it is limiting to define our style as ‘molto sexy’; [we would] never describe an artist simply as ‘molto sexy’. Art involves all of our emotions, and they are what I listen to when I choose a work of art,” Stefano explains.
When it comes to their current muses, though, the designers are in emphatic agreement: “Women!” they say in unison.
by Skye Sherwin