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How yacht owners inspired Dolce & Gabbana to open bespoke menswear atelier

Superyacht owners in the Caribbean provided inspiration for Dolce&Gabbana’s latest adventure, reports Peter Howarth

Dolce&Gabbana has always been a fashion house with strong ties to the sea. There are clues to this in its collections – a love of the colour blue (see its new watches), chunky fishermen’s sweaters, which have been a staple of its menswear since it was launched, as have fishermen’s caps. 

It’s also true in its advertising campaigns, which have regularly featured sailors, family groups on the beach, and, of course, the image that launched the career of the world’s most famous male model, David Gandy, when he posed in the skimpiest of white swimming trunks in a small inflatable boat in Capri to promote the fragrance Light Blue. 

This summer there are two new Light Blue scents, one for women and one for men, inspired respectively by Salina and Lipari, two of the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily. Dolce&Gabbana has roots in the culture of the island. “I think of myself as Sicilian first, Italian second,” says Domenico Dolce, “because being Sicilian is a state of mind.” 

Dolce grew up in the town of Polizzi Generosa, near Palermo, where his father had a tailoring studio. “During the day my father would measure up the nobility, while in the evenings he’d make clothes for the local farmers,” he remembers. “Both types of customer took great pride in their appearance, which was an education for me.”

Stefano Gabbana hails from land-locked Milan in the north of Italy but he remembers Sicily exerting a pull when he first got together with Dolce 30 years ago. “He wanted to move forward, to leave Sicily behind, but I was very curious and interested in the island, so I convinced him to rediscover those elements that were attractive and intriguing.”

Gabbana says his view of Sicily and the Mediterranean has been formed largely by his love of Italian neorealist films such as Stromboli, Paisà and Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles) and Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). “The real starting point for the men of Dolce&Gabbana was the men of Luchino Visconti in films like The Leopard. We loved the innate elegance of his vision of masculinity.”

Today, Sicilian island life still hangs like a ghost over everything the designers create. A few seasons ago they were casting real Sicilians to act as their catwalk models, not professionals, and last winter’s men’s collection was inspired by the invasion of the island by the Norman kings in the 11th century. This summer, a new fine jewellery collection for men again suggests traditions of the south with cufflinks in the shape of red “cornicello” horns and gold pirate’s skulls and crossbones. 

But, it turns out, a recent development for the house was prompted not by the Med, but by the Caribbean. “I was in the Caribbean,” says Stefano Gabbana, recounting a trip he made last year to spend time on his own boat. “And I saw all these incredible, big yachts in the harbour. So I said to my captain, ‘Find out who the owners are and I’ll go round and knock on the doors with some clothes!’” 

The chief officer of his boat replied to his jocular request that he could not disturb these owners. Their boats are their ultimate refuge; they do not want publicity, indeed they do not want what everybody else can have.

So the design duo decided it was time to add another dimension to their story. They have opened their first atelier for bespoke menswear (Dolce&Gabbana Sartoria). Housed in the 16th century neoclassical palazzo that is home to their flagship menswear store in Milan, but separated in a luxurious annexe, the Sartoria atelier comprises a series of rooms that have been conceived to feel like a private residence.

Again the nautical theme is evident. The space features furniture from the 1925 liner Conte Biancamano, and the recessed ceiling lights, created by Giò Ponti, that were used on the 1927 cruise liner Augustus. The intention, says Dolce, is for the place to have the spirit of an “apartment, with a sofa – where you can have a scotch or gin and take your time”.

Dolce talks enthusiastically about how the garments they can make here – from shirts to shoes – are “outside fashion”. This is not the world of ready-to-wear, where the same garments are available the world over. Here, customers are encouraged to “talk a little –about their personal dreams”, in the way men might confide in their barber, says Dolce. It is an intimate, confidential place in which a new attitude to your wardrobe can take shape.

Delightedly, Dolce cites a recent customer whose expectations were altered by a visit to the atelier. “We had a very famous politician arrive. He came for a suit but he ended up buying a brocade jacket, pyjamas and a waistcoat. I was so happy to see him making choices for himself. When you have the opportunity to choose, that is when you can discover your personal style.”

Dolce&Gabbana Sartoria is available at Corso Venezia 13, Milan, visit dolcegabbana.com

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