MILAN, Italy — No longer just a love letter to Sicily, Dolce & Gabbana’s new collection opened its arms to the whole country — #italiaislove was the tag. It was an Italy that was instantly recognisable to outsiders. “I’m a ‘pizza e mandolino’,” Stefano Gabbana announced cheerfully backstage, using a term that was once applied, in a slightly derogatory way, to the cliché of the mamma-loving, pasta-chowing, god-fearing Italian, familiar from endless movies and sitcoms.
But Gabbana and Dolce have never been scared of a cliché. This entire collection gloried in them, exalted them in embroidery and sequins on outfit after outfit. Some were more recognisable than others, the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, obvs. But did we see the strongman from Fellini's La Strada? Fellini is, after all, almost as representative of Italy in the eyes of the world as pizza, gondolas and “That's Amore!"
Seeing Italy as others see her, edited down to a series of sights and experiences, has been the direct result of the duo’s Alta Moda initiative, Gabbana claimed. “Italians know what we have around us but we don’t appreciate it. We’re learning to, when we see customers coming from other countries loving the food, the fashion.” Which is maybe why the new collection’s raging Italophilia took a little getting used to. It was almost as though the designers were over-compensating for their fellow countrymen’s indifference. So the first look, a little yellow shift, was overwhelmed by a beaded church and gondola, a big sequinned flower, a scrawled 'ItaliaisLove'. Much of what followed was similarly embellished. An otherwise enchanting little black dress, embroidered with white daisies, was also burdened with a big sequinned palm tree.
But there was more method to this excess than plain old Italo-boosting. The designers were also telling the story of the tailors and dressmakers who, in the wake of WWII, when resources were scarce and Alta Moda was on hiatus, began to apply ingenuity to what they had at hand. They might make a dress out of a crocheted tablecloth, or they’d decorate a simple silhouette with embroideries from home, or hand-painted buttons. A man in Capri became famous for handpainting local scenes on white cotton, which he would then cut into blouses and skirts. Tourists bought them, took them back to America and those seductive clichés insinuated themselves into pop culture, helped by professional Italians like Dean Martin (who crooned louchely on the show soundtrack).
That whole scenario was there on Dolce & Gabbana’s catwalk, even if it didn’t change the fact that a plain, sleeveless, backless black dress with a flounced hem was like a breath of fresh air, or that a floral-print caftan, significantly unembellished, had Mariella Agnelli’s killer elegance. In actual fact, some of the most decorative pieces were equally stunning. You wanted to take home and frame a sleeveless little thing stitched out of what looked like a thousand raffia flowers.
The finale was dozens of summery white shifts, which closed down the back with big jewelled buttons. They were printed in front with classic Mondadori postcard images from the 1950s for destinations as evocative as Portofino, Como, Capri, Verona… “But there's no Bari,” wailed Anna dello Russo. “And where's Livorno?” cried one of her colleagues. Which just goes to show you can't please all the people all the time.
But, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana gave it a bloody good shot on Sunday.