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They say there is no such thing as a free meal, but ‘they’ must not know any fashion editors. That thought crossed my mind the last time I visited the San Siro Stadium, as a guest of design duo Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who happen to boast their own private bar there. Spiffily dressed waiters serve shots of Belvedere vodka, delicious Sicilian reds and pizzas topped with truffles in the bar, ideally located between the halfway line and corner flag, 20ft above the pitch. On my last visit, I had a good natter with Christian Vieri, three footballers’ wives and several even leggier au pairs, wearing Dolce certamente.

“I’m happy here. It’s the best place,” Paolo Maldini told me, as Alexandre Pato and Zlatan Ibrahimovic surged around below us.

We’re a privileged breed whose life is dotted with freebies, gifts, parties, after-parties and what the Italians have christened “un after after”, which does not need any translation. In fact, if you want to get away from the recession, then your best destination these days is surely a runway show, dinner or match invite from Dolce & Gabbana. Attending San Siro has become a regular treat for visiting fashion honchos — several editor-in-chiefs or fashion directors of the heavyweight men’s glossy style bibles always show up; and it’s another telling example of one of Dolce & Gabbana’s most evident virtues. They hate doing things on the cheap and, with a company that posted consolidated revenues of ¤1.1bn in the financial year ending 31 March 2011, they have the means to be, well, hyper-indulgent.

This January, during the men’s runway season, their club was packed for the latest AC Milan vs Inter derby, staged on a freezing Sunday night, when — to one designer’s dismay — Inter won 1-0.

“Last night’s game was a disaster. Maybe it was too cold or foggy. Ugh!” shudders Gabbana when I meet him and Dolce the following day in their central-city headquarters. Knowing their odd partnership, it’s no surprise they support opposing teams; Gabbana is a Milanista, and Dolce an Interista, though the latter has shifted sides since they leased their San Siro party space. “If you pay me I will change. I am a football chameleon,” laughs Dolce.

Apart from the game, the pair were in ebullient form after staging a spectacularly baroque men’s show the day before. It was in marked contrast to our last meeting in October, when Dolce & Gabbana suddenly announced the ending of its D&G label, breaking the news in a mass email to editors seconds after the models exited the catwalk.

There had been rumours since last March that they might pull the plug on the junior collection, but the dramatic ending still sent speculation into overdrive about the brand, especially after a long-running court battle, and coming shortly after Standard & Poor’s downgraded Italy’s debt rating. Even The Guardian referred to the decision as “baffling”, while several major department store buyers openly lamented losing millions of pounds in turnover by shutting their D&G in-store boutiques. “There goes a heck of a lot of business,” sighed Harvey Nichols’ then-buying director Averyl Oates.

Yet when we meet, the pair are remarkably sanguine about the move. “We think a certain moment is over. We have too many lines,” insists Dolce. Gabbana cuts in: “We want to concentrate on one line. On one!”

“We check the market,” Dolce continues in his heavily accented English with its peninsular syntax. “The last decision was that D&G come back home, that the D&G logo would come back to Dolce & Gabbana. Some people say that we are crazy like this, but for us it is normal.” He adds that they will gradually rebrand all of their 248 stores as Dolce & Gabbana.

With hindsight, the closure of D&G is not so mystifying. Among major league fashion houses, there are two main business models — a single signature line business or multi-collection houses. Everything made by Chanel, Christian Dior or Gucci, for example, essentially bears their single label, whereas Giorgio Armani also boasts collections such as Emporio or Armani Jeans, and Calvin Klein counts ck Calvin Klein and Calvin Klein Jeans among its stable. However, on balance, the classier labels tend to be mono collections. One could never imagine, for instance, Chanel Jeans or Gucci Sport. So, one school of thought views the decision to stop D&G as a way of Dolce & Gabbana consolidating their brand upmarket.

It’s a cool-headed strategic move from two designers who are renowned for their daring. Every Dolce & Gabbana show opens with the soundtrack from Luchino Visconti’s film on the Sicilian Risorgimento, The Leopard, to emphasise the brand’s southern roots. Though the house has always been a clever dichotomy of the minimalism and baroque, of the contrasting instincts of Dolce, the son of a tailor from near Palermo, and Gabbana, born to a modest family in Milano.

“My mother was a cleaner and my father worked in a laboratory,” recalls Gabbana. “I never knew what fashion was. I just loved Fiorucci at the time… I studied to be a graphic designer. I did the job for six months and I said this is not for me. I called a friend for advice, at the time it was a movement of the nightlife in Milan, it was the Eighties and this friend knew Domenico, which is how we met.”

Shortly after, they launched their label together, “Because we are opposites,” says Dolce. Gabbana cuts in: “I have an obsession about the south and he had an obsession about the north — this is the attraction.”

“I love minimal,” adds Dolce. “And I love the baroque!” yells Gabbana, setting the scene for their back-and-forth conversational style.

They are a study in contrasts. Gabbana is six inches taller, likes to ski, hates to cook and drives a black Smart car and two classic Vespas — one in gold, the other leopard print. Dolce is bespectacled, antique hunting, Sicilian cuisine loving, sport hating and drives a “small Mercedes convertible”. Dolce is the studio-bound tailor, who cut his first suits at the age of seven, Gabbana is the taste-master of global street trends.

For many years, they were the bad boys of Milano, famed for their front-rows and extravagance. They’re renowned for their sexually charged fashion shows, such as their spring 2011 women’s ‘wedding night’ show, when 50 models took a mass finale in not-remotely-virginal white lingerie, causing a collective intake of breath in their custom-made Milan theatre. A season before, the models were all in black, but similarly sizzling in lacy lingerie dresses and semi-sheer lace tops.

Last season it was Scarlett Johansson, the face of their Rose The One scent, that sent paparazzi into a piranha-like feeding frenzy. She was the star guest at their post-show dinner in their Milan restaurant, which with typical understatement, is called Gold. (I enjoyed a dessert of cannoli there, perched between Paloma Faith — head-to-toe in leopard print — and Felicity Jones, sultry in a ruby satin cocktail dress.)

Actors tend to throng to their shows, generally taking a pre-show bow and posing for the crowd of 300 photographers. Who got the biggest cheers from the audience at this year’s show? Morgan Freeman, fresh from his triumphant interpretation of Nelson Mandela in Invictus.

“I think few people can dispute that it’s hard to top Dolce & Gabbana when it comes to finding a red-carpet look,” the gentlemanly actor told me, attired in a sleek all-black, single-breasted cool wool suit.

It’s a feeling the designers share. “We sketched a lot of shirts; the pinstripe shirts, the white, the black, the brown shirts,” says Dolce, before Gabbana chimes in, “The checks too.” Dolce continues, “We do not know why, but then when the show comes… [both, simultaneously] we only use the white shirts!”

Dolce expands, “Because for us, the symbol of Dolce & Gabbana is a great black suit, or a fine black coat with a clean white shirt.” Gabbana adds: “Though we also prefer to be spontaneous, but with one message, very clear. Because people need to understand the message in one second.”

Where most designers rifle through four or five themes in each collection, this duo just pick one bold idea and riff on it throughout. Take their latest menswear show in January: a hyper-polished, ornately finished take on modern gentlemen’s attire, all with a Sicilian twist. A clever meeting of bullion — metallic braid typically seen on regimental gear — and strict yet dashing tailoring. Much of this impressive collection looked like haute couture for men, being so finely handmade and so opulently finished. Underlining the uptown mood, a score of waiters in tails and white tie served champagne in English-style open glasses.

All rather Downton Abbey, or rather, English country house meets Sicilian aristocracy, with exact two-button, deep-gorge suits in Prince Of Wales or herringbone wools. In other words, class is what will count in this autumn’s men’s wardrobe.

Their own lifestyle isn’t anything to sniff at either, especially when it comes to their famed summer home in Portofino, which completes a property portfolio that includes pads in Stromboli, Roquebrune, France and a “little place” in Courmayeur, where Stefano likes to ski.

They are permanently surrounded by stars — Madonna and Monica Bellucci smoulder in their ad campaigns; Justin Bieber partnered with them at Fashion’s Night Out 2011; Kylie Minogue and Naomi Campbell starred at Campbell’s book launch in their Milan flagship store. Yet they remain defiant iconoclasts, having famously posed in their Portofino seaside mansion as sex maniacs alongside cardinals and bondage babes in a notorious W Magazine shoot.

Nevertheless, the pair have gradually become part of the Italian fashion establishment. Few things summed that up better than their 2010 retrospective staged inside Palazzo Marino, Milan’s City Hall. “They might come from Sicily, but Dolce & Gabbana have helped make their adopted city a famous fashion capital, which makes all us Milanese very proud,” Mayor Letizia Moratti told me, standing in front of the boys’ looks from their opening show in 1990 — rugged country pants, farmer dandy white shirts and flat hunting caps.

“We began making men’s fashion because we literally could not find the clothes we wanted,” recalls Gabbana. “At the time, we were buying Japanese jeans and stocking up in boutiques for Catholic priests.”

Since then, the pair have built an empire by bringing “Sicilian style” to the wardrobes of the world. They helped revolutionise fashion with the first super-destroyed designer jeans, built a huge underwear division by using Italian stars, and today they even dress Lionel Messi.

Though quintessentially Italian, they love their regular trips to London, Gabbana to shop at Harrods and Selfridges, them both to dine — listing Hakkasan, Mr Chow and The Mango Tree as favourites — and Dolce because he’d like to buy property. They’re already busy in London, seeing as they dress Chelsea FC.

Still, when I ask which English club they support, Gabbana says “Chelsea! Oh, maybe Manchester United?” Before Dolce, laughing, adds a caveat, “I do not like soccer, but if someone pays me, I go.”

By ShortList.com

Image: Rex