Dolce & Gabbana: Epiphanies, NFTs and high fashion in the digital age

Chris Anderson

24 September 2021

Having contributed to medical research institutions attempting to combat Covid-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana explain how, out of the darkness, came a collection characterised by light

“The time has come for everyone to stop and think about what is worth living and working for”

24 September 2021 | Chris Anderson

E

very company had to adjust to life during the pandemic. For Italian style magnates Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, the power duo behind the eponymous fashion label, lockdown provided time to regroup, reflect and re-emerge in a flurry of colour and positivity.

“The crisis has deeply affected us,” Dolce, who turned 63 in August, tells me as the UK approached its so-called ‘Freedom Day’. “We stopped for a moment to think about the really important things in life – our families, our loved ones, too many times taken for granted.”

Dolce and Gabbana met through compatriot designer Giorgio Correggiari in Milan in 1980. The pair established a consulting studio in 1982, before launching their first women’s collection under the brand name ‘Dolce & Gabbana’ in 1985. For Gabbana, 58, the past 18 months have also been a time of introspection.

“We’re often overwhelmed by the events and the speed with which they happen, by the rules of things like marketing and finance,” he says. “The time has come for everyone to stop and think about what is worth living and working for.”

Domenico Dolce (right) and Stefano Gabbana

Early on in the pandemic, Dolce and Gabbana made the decision to tackle Covid-19 head-on, making generous donations to medical research institutions that were attempting to combat the virus. “We immediately realised that we had to do something,” says Gabbana. “We’d already been collaborating with the Humanitas University for some years, funding scholarships for students of the MEDTEC School to earn a degree in medicine. This is why we thought to keep supporting Humanitas University, whose excellence and humanity make it a special entity, with several initiatives.”

“We understood that in any case, it was worth doing something,” says Dolce, in reference to assisting the university. “Even a very small gesture can have enormous significance. Supporting scientific research is a moral duty for us.”

Humanitas University, located close to Dolce & Gabbana’s headquarters in Milan, became the location for the maison’s SS21 fashion show – held during the summer of 2020, as soon as the hosting of live events became possible.

Dolce & Gabbana's SS22 men's collection

Like most of the fashion industry, Dolce & Gabbana had to switch to promoting their shows and clothing online – something that fostered within the pair an appreciation for digital technology, and all the possibilities presented by its various mediums.

“We think that now, more than ever, we could consider ‘digital’ as a major trend,” muses Gabbana. “We truly believe in the importance of the human touch, but it’s also true that now we can explore and take advantage of the wide range of possibilities that online offers. We’ve always looked to the future with positivity, because there’s always something to learn, even from difficulties.”

Testament to Dolce & Gabbana’s eagerness to explore those digital possibilities, the brand has recently announced an exclusive NFT (Non-Fungible Token) collection in collaboration with UNXD, a curated marketplace for digital luxury and culture. NFTs, most easily described as digital assets that represent real-world objects, are bought and sold online and will form Dolce & Gabbana’s Genesis Collection which, from September, can be bought exclusively through UNXD.com.

Dolce & Gabbana's FW21 women's collection

Technology, it seems, has also informed the brand physically. See the label’s FW21 collection, with its space-age influences and sci-fi-like aesthetics, for evidence. It’s a collection that's rooted in ’90s messaging and street culture. A collection, I venture, that might just be D&G’s most nostalgic ever. An upshot, perhaps, of the fact that it was created during a pandemic, when everyone was looking back for a sense of reassurance and wistfulness?

“It’s not about nostalgia,” counters Dolce. “Tradition and innovation have been two essential topics for us since the very beginning – when we first started, we were transported by innovation; then we discovered that we still needed our roots.

“We wanted to understand, in an era like this, where there is a new digital generation, how we might be able to talk and have a better dialogue with our experiences, traditions and the handmade, and combine all of this with innovation. Also, tradition has no meaning if there’s no innovation, and vice-versa. Just as there’s no Dolce without Gabbana!”

Dolce & Gabbana's SS22 men's collection

Appropriately for a collection that looks as though it’s travelled back through time, the show announcing the women’s FW21 collection was held in partnership with the prestigious Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa. If the setting was about as 21st century as it gets, the clothes on display belonged very much to the last decade of the 20th century: vinyl puffers, graffiti-printed tie-dye, shiny metallics, and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘90s Fashion’ and ‘90s Supermodels’ accounted for the majority of that seen on the catwalk.

“For this collection, we were inspired by the corsets that Prince used in his video for Cream, and the bodysuits often worn by Madonna,” says Dolce. “There’s also the famous ’90s bodysuit with stones and diamonds of Naomi Campbell, and the bra with stones and diamonds of Linda Evangelista.”

The focus on tech may have also been a strategic play to engage the attention of the TikTok generation, among whom 90's fashion has become something of a style bible. “Young people told us, ‘We love the clothes of the 90s,’” Gabbana reveals. “For us, it was quite a shock – you’re talking 30 years ago! We called this collection Next Chapter, because of the way it embraces technology, and that’s why we cooperated with the IIT – one of the most esteemed scientific institutes in the world.”

Dolce & Gabbana's SS22 men's collection

The men’s side of the FW21 collection has also been informed by cultural values of a younger generation. “It reflects that idea of ‘maximum freedom’, which the new generation taught us,” says Gabbana. “The freedom for a man to be able to put on nail polish or make-up, or wear clothes that no longer have any particular gender definition – jackets, coats, trousers… this comes directly from new social media trends, and what we’ve seen on TikTok and Twitch. We’d like to connect ourselves with this new generation not as teachers, but as students who are learning too, constantly challenging ourselves.”

Ordinarily, travel would be a requirement when researching a new line. During the pandemic the options were limited. Scrolling smartphones and tablets became one solution.

“The way we’ve been living this past year, we’ve observed what’s happening through social media,” says Dolce. “In the past, when designing a collection, it was normal to travel to big cities like London, New York, Milan, Shanghai or Tokyo to look for inspiration. More recently, it became a necessity to do this online.”

Dolce & Gabbana's FW21 men's collection

The SS22 collection feels like a natural progression from FW21, embracing the 2000s, with the theme of technology continuing via a focus on lights – specifically, the luminaire shows that take place in southern Italy, usually in early July, when cities illuminate their famous buildings with colourful bulbs and lamps.

“The Luminarias are a very Italian tradition: a celebration of light, family and craftsmanship,” explains Gabbana. “This is the most important message of the collection. Light is a great therapy for this dark moment. Now we need to see light, joy and happiness in the eyes of people.”

It will certainly be a joy to be decked out in the handmade, multi-coloured embroidery in the men’s collection, which features bright photographic prints on silk, and hip-hop influences embellished on denim. It is, you might argue, a far cry from the signature elements (slim-line silhouettes, hourglass dresses) on which the Dolce & Gabbana empire was built.

Dolce & Gabbana's FW21 women's collection

“Dolce & Gabbana’s DNA is the union of multiple elements,” argues Dolce, talking about what he believes are the key themes that best characterise his company’s designs. “The harmony of opposites, femininity and masculinity, sensuality and austerity, the use of black and the use of colour. Also, the sacred and the profane, the most eccentric print, the simplicity, the lace; we are all of this.”

Gabbana elaborates, explaining from where he believes some of his brand’s key visual motifs originated. “At the beginning of our journey, back in 1985, we referred to codes born from a mix of the North and South [of Italy]. I am from Milan; Domenico is Sicilian. He loves linearity; I love colour. From this meeting our aesthetic was born, made up of very different contrasts and elements. All of this has remained our strength and our constant, the basis on which we work every day, never losing sight of what’s happening around us.”

Dolce & Gabbana's FW21 women's collection

And yet, for all of their willingness to embrace digital technologies, and stake next year’s success on a futuristic, otherworldly aesthetic, it’s obvious that both Dolce and Gabbana believe in the value of the here-and-now, of human interaction and the magic of live, in-person shows.

“For us, the fashion shows represent the real experience and they must give a dream to those who participate,” says Dolce. “It’s for this reason that we bring so many looks to the catwalk; in this way, we have the opportunity to inform each other better and to fascinate. The moment of the fashion show is everything, and the dream of fashion shows is fundamental for all of us in the field – stylists, buyers, journalists, we all need it!”

“To us, the handmade and the human represent a fundamental value,” says Gabbana. “They translate the love we have for our work and the construction of every single garment to the search for a perfect balance between the harmony of shapes and attention to detail.”

Dolce & Gabbana's FW21 women's collection

Just as fundamental to the output of Dolce and Gabbana – as seems to be the case for every designer born on the Apennine Peninsula – is the role played by Italy itself.

“For us, Italy is the place where everything started and where everything always comes around, like a circle that closes,” says Gabbana. “Each region has a story to tell, a folklore that reveals the soul of the territory and of the people who live there – pearls of rare beauty that have to be known; treasures of priceless craftsmanship. What we try to do with our collections is to tell and transmit to new generations our love for these peculiarities.”

Read more: The emerging designers to know from London Fashion Week

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