Thoroughly Modern Madness

Somewhere in Los Angeles, nearly 7,000 roses and 2,500 carnations are wilting and 300 pounds of grapes are shriveling, having sacrificed their beauty to the lavish vision of Dolce & Gabbana. Scores of the lush fruit-and-flower arrangements decorated a series of elaborate parties staged last week by the Italian design team of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana to celebrate the realization of a long-held desire--a boutique on America's street of dreams, Rodeo Drive.

"All of what you feel is impossible to have," said Dolce, fresh from a walk around the Golden Triangle, "you can find on this street." With Rolls-Royces reflecting in the windows of Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Fendi and more, Dolce & Gabbana is only the latest Italian company to take up residence. Dolce looked as if he'd always lived here. Dressed in a black sport coat, weathered jeans, Union Jack T-shirt and sparkling new Converse high-tops, Dolce expertly matched the slightly slack uniform of countless L.A. musicians and actors.

Yet the city has mostly existed in his vivid imagination. His last visit was eight years ago to deliver 1,500 outfits for Madonna's Girlie Show tour--an association that made their label glitter in the eyes of stars everywhere.

The Dolce & Gabbana design aesthetic hovers over an imaginary place in Sicily where sexy, corseted widows mingle with natty mobsters in pinstripes and flamboyant, rhinestoned rock musicians. They've tapped into the universal fantasy world that exists only in movies, whether it's Dolce's favorite film, "Pretty Woman," or Gabbana's gritty Italian dramas from directors Roberto Rossellini or Luchino Visconti.

Whether it's in the cinema, fashion or home decor, such contrasts define the heart of the baroque-meets-modern Dolce & Gabbana world, one that Dolce was left to explain alone last week. Gabbana, while visiting Monte Carlo, ate tainted seafood and became too ill to make the 12-hour flight from Milan. The inseparable duo was now a solo act, and Dolce set out to impress the place that had for so long occupied his imagination.

Though most new stores throw cocktail parties as soon as the paint is dry, Dolce and Gabbana waited eight months after their boutique opened to celebrate at just the right moment and place.

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They aimed into the heart of Hollywood and landed at Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw's Pacific Palisades compound. The designers' longtime Italian decorator, Giorgio Fornari, covered the tennis court with an enormous tent, Oriental carpets, brocade ottomans and acres of flowers for a fashion show and luncheon benefiting the Children's Action Network and the Westside Children's Center. Upon seeing his backyard converted into a fantasy Sicilian garden, the famous director quipped to his wife, "Hey, Katie! Let's keep it this way."

Minutes later, 30 of the world's top models, such as Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb and Bridget Hall strolled down the thick carpets in beaded coats, low-slung corduroy trousers and delicate blouses as ocean breezes cooled some of Hollywood's biggest names. There were Oscar winners Geena Davis and Anjelica Huston; powerful socialites Wendy Goldberg, Kelly Chapman Meyer, Barbara Davis and her daughter, Nancy; the singers Gwen Stefani and Melissa Etheridge and more. Though most designers would be eagerly glad-handing every celebrity in the crowd, Dolce quietly mingled and looked most content snuggled on a red brocade couch between Capshaw and the event's other host, Rita Wilson.

"I don't believe the people were so easy, so friendly," he said Friday morning after the lunch. "I always dream [of] one day like yesterday, but I don't know if it will come true or not. I was very nervous in the morning." Usually, he said, Gabbana does the talking and socializing. "I'm a little bit timid. My English is not so good. I always have a little embarrassment."

Outside the shadow of his tall and talkative, lanky and dark-haired partner, the fair-skinned, compact and bald Dolce presents a much different picture from the silent, stern-faced persona he often projects at their runway shows. (People used to keep their names straight by remembering "dome" for Domenico.) Mention the Academy Awards and suddenly the designer who this year put Angelina Jolie into a classic white pantsuit--an upgrade from her gothic Oscar past--becomes animated and opinionated.

"The women are so beautiful at parties, at premieres," he said. "But what happens to them at the Oscars? It's horrible. I see the pictures and I say, 'Where do they find this?' It's like a bomboniera," he said, referring to those overly sweet candy souvenirs the Italians give away at weddings and baptisms. "It's so tacky."

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To look at a $19,000 beaded, embroidered and spangled suede Dolce & Gabbana jacket, it's hard to imagine either man at the drawing board sketching pure, simple lines. Yet Dolce does, as he later explained while touring an exhibit of modern architect R.M. Schindler at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"I like a home to be very clean, very modern," he said, adding that James Bond movies tend to feature his kind of futuristic dream homes. Of their three European abodes, the partners' Monte Carlo home reflects Dolce's minimalist taste, while a vacation home north of Sicily on the island of Stromboli is, Dolce said, "completely Gabbana--lots of color, baroque."

Their Milan home and design offices and the new Rodeo Drive shop's design reflect Dolce's modern architecture leanings, while their interiors feature the gilded, brocade-upholstered decor that mirrors Gabbana's love of the colorfully ornate.

"This is the Dolce and Gabbana mix--one part Stefano, one part Dolce," he explained. The Sicilian-born Dolce and the Venetian Gabbana apply the same chemistry to their clothing collections. Dolce, 42, who grew up in a village of 5,000 as a tailor's son, often concentrates on the details of a garment's structure; Gabbana, 38, a trained graphic artist, often focuses on a look's color and balance. Ever since their first fashion show in 1985, they've learned how to harness the power of their contrasting viewpoints.

As soon as they finish one collection, they begin gathering ideas for the next, wherever they go, said Gabbana by telephone from Milan. "We don't sketch a lot. We take notes all the time during the night, during day when I watch movies, when I stay with friends on a holiday, when I watch TV. This job is strange: You work all the time taking inspiration from everywhere. We take notes in a little book, and after one or two weeks, I take my paper, and he, too, into a discussion," he said. "Sometime we have the same ideas and sometimes not."

And if they don't agree? "There is a fight. Maybe for one color or one pair of pants or a jacket--because I have the conviction for my idea, and he has his, too," he said. "It's a positive discussion, not negative." The blended ideas are easy to spot in each collection, whether it's a precisely tailored pinstriped suit with a wild corset top, or an elegant satin jacket over a pair of shredded and pinned jeans.

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Neither man can imagine creating Dolce & Gabbana without the other. "For me, without Stefano, it is impossible to sketch," said Dolce. Gabanna, who calls his partner "his half," described Dolce also as his teacher, the man who taught him how to sketch and understand fashion. "We are one designer with two heads," said Gabbana.

"They have a consistent vision of who the Dolce & Gabbana woman is," said Jaqueline Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. "Probably one of the most important things for a designer to have is that. They don't confuse the customer and there's a genius in that."

It wasn't always so easy for everyone to see, recalled Donna Faircloth, one of their former U.S. public relations executives. "I remember in the beginning them doing leopard print and then seeing it again the following season," she said. "By the third season we thought, hmm, leopard again. They encouraged us to understand that this is their classic. Leopard is to us what taupe is to Calvin."

But the American public wasn't quick to pick up on their far-flung references, which made breaking into the boutique market here difficult, said Phillip Markey, a retailer who opened the first U.S. Dolce & Gabbana store in 1995 at the Houston Galleria. "When they first came here, they were on their knees asking for people to cooperate with them," Markey said. "It's a whole different game today."

Markey, who has introduced other Italian companies to Texas and the U.S., including MaxMara and Versace, watched as Dolce & Gabbana grew from a $125 million company back then to today's $350 million powerhouse with 450 employees and 978 points of sale. Along the way, they dropped almost every licensee and began producing all of their own merchandise. Markey's boutique is their only franchise--and their last. Though he has 1 1/2 years remaining on his contract, he's closing the boutique after this season.

"I have very bitter feelings about the whole thing, to tell you the truth," he said, citing problems with advertising and deliveries. "I believe the Italian fashion direction today is away from franchises and into company-owned stores." Markey weathered half a dozen top management changes at the company and three expensive remodels of his store in less than seven years before giving up. "They are probably one of the most difficult [companies] to work with," said Markey, adding: "It's a hard, tough business on the inside."

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But a lucky break can make you instantly successful. Madonna was already a fan by 1991, when she cooed over a Dolce & Gabbana blouse Warren Beatty gave her in the documentary "Truth or Dare." Later, she would have the duo wardrobe her concert tours. The designers began to build their company literally on the backs of stars, including Isabella Rossellini, Whitney Houston and, lately, musicians Dido and 'N Sync. No Doubt's Stefani, looking like their ideal Mediterranean woman in a sleek black gown and swept-back tresses, is a fairly new, but unabashed fan of their look. "I like the tackiness, the craziness of it--the leopard, the prints," Stefani said at one of their parties. "I love the sexiness of it, too."

To commemorate Hollywood's contribution to their style, the designers have collected 750 photos for a book they're calling "Thank You, Hollywood" and hope to release here soon. The book title could well have been on their lips again at the final installment of their L.A. blowout.

For last Friday's dinner party, they filled the former Bette Davis estate in the Hollywood Hills with more fruit, flowers, stars, sushi chefs and 1,400 candles lit by 30 assistants. In that atmosphere, the once-revolutionary leopard and giraffe prints, safety-pinned blue jeans and see-through lace dresses looked like classic celebrity attire. While the famous guests partied until 3 a.m., Dolce, a self-described spectator, quietly absorbed every detail of the scene.

"You know the flower, the Venus flytrap?" he said, hinging his palms open like a mouth. "I imagine the mind like this--open, and when I see everything--smack!"

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