Photograph by Luca Locatelli for The New Yorker / Institute
Stefano Gabbana, the fashion designer, leaned on the railing of his yacht, the Regina d’Italia, and smiled. His neighbors in the Portofino marina were enjoying an early-evening aperitivo on the deck of the Ester III—an enormous vessel, with a helipad on top and a transparent-frame swimming pool on the lower deck, that had drawn admiring stares from pedestrians on the quay all afternoon. The neighbors waved; he waved back. “A client,” he said, with the air of confiding an obvious secret.
It was a Wednesday evening in July, the week after most French and Italian haute-couture houses had defied a heat wave in Paris to show their latest collections. Temperatures had reached the mid-nineties in Milan, too, where, at the air-conditioned atelier of Dolce & Gabbana, designers and seamstresses had worked into the night completing the company’s version of haute couture, the Alta Moda collection. Launched four years ago by Gabbana, fifty-two, and his business partner of thirty years, Domenico Dolce, fifty-seven, Alta Moda consists of one-of-a-kind, made-to-measure pieces: virtuoso demonstrations of what can be achieved sartorially when the imagination of a designer and the spending power of his patron are given unconstrained expression.
The client on the neighboring yacht, a Russian woman who was relaxing with her family in the fading light, had sailed into Portofino to see the results of Alta Moda’s work. Since Alta Moda’s inception, the fall/winter collection has been shown outside of Milan. The first was presented in Taormina, in Dolce’s native Sicily; the event was relatively modest, with a performance of Bellini’s “Norma,” in the town’s ancient amphitheatre, followed by a fashion show held in a monastery turned luxury hotel. The next year, the party moved to Venice, where guests were ferried along the Grand Canal in gondolas to attend a ball in the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, wearing jewel-encrusted masks commissioned for the event. Last summer, Alta Moda hosted a weekend in Capri. Guests gathered on a rocky outcrop and watched as a flotilla of gozzi, traditional Caprese fishing boats, carried models wearing ball gowns with billowing skirts—some of them hand-painted with broad regatta stripes in blue and red, others richly patterned in the style of majolica ceramics.
This year, Dolce and Gabbana decided to invite their clients to Portofino, a onetime village of fishermen that has become a village of fancy people. The designers own neighboring villas on the secluded wooded promontory that forms the eastern border of the town’s harbor. These properties, and other sites around town, were to serve as the setting for the most ambitious Alta Moda getaway yet: a four-day weekend of fashion shows, dinners, and other festivities, culminating in a dance party with a dress code of gold.
Nearly a year of preparation had gone into readying the sites, and teams of workers were still laboring on the hill above the marina. “I am in just one room of my house,” Dolce said. He was sitting with Gabbana at the Regina d’Italia’s dining table, as a deckhand poured refreshments into champagne flutes. Dolce and Gabbana, once a couple, ended their romantic relationship more than a decade ago, but they maintain an affectionate bond that is augmented by the presence of handsome younger partners. A movie-night selection made by Dolce’s boyfriend, a gracious Brazilian advertising executive named Guilherme Siqueira, had provided the inspiration for this season’s Alta Moda collection: the 1999 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Michael Hoffman and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, which was filmed in Italy. Dolce explained, “When you see this movie, you go, ‘This is like a dream in Portofino.’ ”
He and Gabbana had been struck by the film’s vision of an Italian countryside populated with characters drawn from ancient Greek myth: Theseus, the mythological founder of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, the Amazonian queen. The forthcoming fashion show, Dolce said, was an attempt to imagine the result of a triple collaboration: “Homer, the visionary; Dante, the poet of Purgatory and Paradise, with Beatrice, la bellezza; and Shakespeare, with the crazy humor.”
This immodest undertaking would be set in a bosky area on the promontory that is protected as a nature reserve. These woods are down the hill from Dolce’s house, a villa that he bought about ten years ago. Fragments of ancient pottery have been discovered on the hill, including a chunk of marble engraved with a dolphin. (In Roman times, the harbor was known as Porto Delfino.) The villas, Gabbana noted, overlook the water through pine trees and olive groves. He said of the view, “You feel like you are in Greece.”
That week, the real Greece was edging toward economic collapse, and a deadline for establishing its terms of debt repayment to the European Union had been set for Sunday night—the evening of the gold party. The Dolce & Gabbana store in Athens had been closed. “To give respect,” Dolce said. “We don’t pretend the people there can buy a pair of shoes,” Gabbana said. He added that Alta Moda clients were unlikely to be harmed much by the economic tumult that was dominating the news.
“These people live in another world,” Gabbana observed. “I don’t live in that world.” He said he was sometimes surprised by the extravagances that Alta Moda clients took for granted. “Like when a customer says, ‘Oh, next time, when you come back, I want to show you my zoo,’ ” he said, his eyes widening. “My face was like marble,” he went on. “I said, ‘Yes, why not?’ But—zoo? I live in an apartment, I have three dogs, two cats—you know what I mean. For me, it was very new.”
Maintaining perspective was important. The Regina d’Italia—with its black upholstered daybeds piled with lynx throws, and its Astrakhan carpets underfoot—was a hundred and sixty-four feet in length. But the Ester III was almost fifty feet longer. Gabbana, who is estimated by Forbes to be one of the thirty richest people in Italy, with a net worth of $1.62 billion, said, “And out there”—a gesture toward the bay—“is another one bigger, and another one bigger.”
Dolce, who is also estimated by Forbes to be one of the thirty richest people in Italy, with an equivalent fortune, nodded. “If you start comparisons, you never finish,” he said.