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“There is so much ugliness in the world,” Domenico Dolce told a table of guests onstage at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala early one afternoon in December. “It is important to focus on beauty, too.” It was the luncheon after Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda runway presentation. Just behind the designer, a set from Davide Livermore’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (the premiere of which, the following evening, would mark the opening of La Scala’s season) had been transformed For a few hours it was an elaborate banquet: gilded, covered in flowers, navigated by a team of liveried waitstaff, and occupied by several hundred couture-clad clients. These “leaders in the cause of beauty” (as Dolce and Stefano Gabbana like to call their Alta Moda audience) picked at their risotto alla milanese and took turns posing on the spot where, an hour before, the newest finery—159 looks for the whole family, inspired by 12 different operas, from Madama Butterfly and Turandot to La Traviata and Rigoletto—had made its maiden voyage across that fabled stage and into their hearts (and, with any luck, eventually their closets).
Over Dolce’s shoulder, a woman dressed in a spiderweb-style headpiece and the kind of snug black lace frock the designers built their multi-billion-dollar brand on was attempting to scale a towering gold cross for a photographer. Another enlisted her date (clad in Alta Sartoria, the men’s arm of the enterprise) to rearrange the tiers of the watercolor-toned gown she’d procured last July at the Alta Moda show in Sicily; they were hanging over her seat back like a peacock tail. Everywhere, elaborately outfitted people vied for Dolce’s and Gabbana’s attention. This was part of the deal: What Alta Moda offers—along with exquisite attire—is the kind of one-on-one designer-client relationship that’s otherwise unheard of in this era of online preordering.
About those orders: They’re not exactly “add to cart.” The Alta Moda acquisition process is relatively secretive. Dolce & Gabbana reps would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a much discussed WhatsApp group for placing dibs during the show, though it’s well known among attendees that by day’s end most ensembles would be spoken for. “As a client, you need to get in with Domenico and Stefano to truly get first crack at the clothes,” one fashion editor told me. At lunch, the designers did the rounds like the happy couple at a particularly successful wedding. “I just loved that lynx coat,” one guest purred. “It’s lined in mink,” Dolce answered. “It would look perfect on you.”
The questions most people have about Dolce & Gabbana’s biannual four-day Alta Moda extravaganzas are as follows: Is that couture? How much do these clothes cost? Who gets to go? What are the clients like? The first three answers are: Yes, the Italian equivalent of couture; prices vary, but Alta Moda creations have been reported to kick off around $45,000; clients, their entourages, and a small cadre of fashion editors. The last question is difficult to answer. Since launching their Alta Moda operation in 2012, Dolce & Gabbana have welcomed several hundred of their most enthusiastic customers to these events, and while those invitees may be united in pursuit (one-of-a-kind regalia, exclusive experiences) and by a relative lack of budgetary restrictions, they are apt to differ in nearly every other way.
At the show, you need only pull out your D&G opera glasses for proof. The actress Jennifer Tilly ("Family Guy," the Chucky films) shared a box with a soon-to-be Real Housewife of Beverly Hills named Sutton Stracke. Across the way were Russian fashion designer Ulyana Sergeenko; Cristiano Ronaldo’s wife, Georgina Rodriguez; and Emma Thynn, Viscountess Weymouth. Anna Netrebko, who would perform the title role in Tosca the next evening, was on hand in crystal-tipped sunglasses and a tangerine boa.
Christine Chiu, her husband, Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery founder Dr. Gabriel Chiu, and their 17-month-old son (“Baby G”) wore coordinating Alta Moda and Sartoria designs, as they would for every event of the four-day weekend. The first Alta Moda they went to was in Capri, Christine Chiu said, and added that her husband claims he has never seen her happier than when she was “dancing without a care in the world with Domenico on a tabletop with tambourines in both hands during one of the after-parties.”
The parties are worth pulling out couture for. The first night, clients poured into Palazzo Clerici to view the Alta Gioielleria collection under frescoes by Tiepolo. The next morning was Alta Moda at La Scala. The third day, Alta Sartoria was held at Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, in front of an original sketch by Raphael. Sunday night brought a final karaoke blowout replete with professional backup acts. (Jennifer Tilly sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”)
“Each Alta Moda and Alta Sartoria weekend extravaganza is like attending your ‘crazy rich Italian’ cousin’s wedding,” Gabriel Chiu said, citing the decor, entertainment, decadent meals, locations (chosen for the most cinematic scenery), and “sincere Italian hospitality.” It encapsulates what clients love about the brand: a kind of ultra-exclusive cultural immersion that celebrates Italy—the people, the art, the history. It also is something of a biannual reunion for the designers’ acolytes, who leave both better dressed and edified in the traditions of their confections’ creators. “It is our duty and responsibility to pass on to the next generation the education and appreciation of our cultures,” Christine Chiu emailed me after the show. “Alta Moda is storytelling and community building in their most extravagant form.”
And like a celebration hosted by an indulgent family member, the price tag isn’t really a matter for discussion—or it’s beside the point. “We never want to know how much something will cost when we’re working on Alta Moda,” Dolce said before the show, “because if you know the price, you stop yourself,” and you might let practicality intercede on beauty. “It’s like when you make a baby, you’re not thinking about how much that will cost.” Plus, said Gabbana, “our customer doesn’t care.” They don’t ask how much something costs, a journalist posited. “No,” said Gabbana. “They just ask, ‘Can I have it?’ ” she furthered. “Exactly,” said Gabbana.
“We are fashion designers, ” Gabbana said, “but our intent for the next 100 years is to leave a style of life.” That means extending beyond clothing, to homewares, and supermarkets, and a more-is-more-is-more approach in line with their particular brand of la dolce vita. A healthy couture business goes a long way in terms of setting the tone. “This is why we love making prêt-à-porter and Alta Moda, jewels, shoes, panettone, spaghetti,” Gabbana said. “We love to discover, to study many different things. We started this job 36 years ago because we really loved it. We haven’t changed.”