Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana love Venice, and I’ve spent a whirlwind three days watching the city return their passion. Italian or not, most artists, writers, and designers, at some point in their career, pay inspirational homage to the city. “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go,” declared American novelist Truman Capote. I know what he means. It’s addictive. Once you’ve paddled down the Grand Canal viewing the Gothic palaces and temples, there’s no going back; you’re hooked on the romance and beauty that echoes around every corner. “Everyone dreams of Venice,” confirms Dolce. “It’s unique. For us, it represents the perfect harmony of opposites that attract; it’s dark and golden, joyful and melancholic.”
So here we are, screened, tested, and vaxxed for a D&G Doge-style carnival celebrating Alta Moda and the talent of Venice. I reflect on the good fortune that I don’t have to quarantine for 60 days on an outlying island as required during the 15th century to stop la peste (black death) from spreading. Hence the heritage of Venetians wearing decorative masks. Excitement is mounting as rumors circulate that Sharon Stone has been spotted shooting the new D&G campaign in St. Mark’s Square, but it’s the locals who are especially pleased. No one visited during the pandemic, which turned out to be good for the fish, which I can confirm are swimming in cleaner canal waters, but for everyone else, business trickled away. Now for months the glass island of Murano and artisans working the micro-mosaic furnaces have been dedicated to the show. There’s a gentle buzz in the air that the sleeping beauty is coming back to life.
The extravaganza begins with cocktails at the Doge’s Palace—the symbol of Venice’s erstwhile power whose pink marble–inlaid colonnades rise over the sparkling blue lagoon—to view the Alta Gioielleria. It’s a dreamscape of gems in every color you can imagine—and some you can’t—cushioned on bright silk and velvet. We see Baroque-style rings, pearls the size of small eggs, electric blue tourmalines, and festoons of rare diamonds like royal jewels line the monumental room beneath Tintoretto’s painted canvas of Paradise. Clients view miniature “Canaletto-style” precious micro-mosaics, pondering whether to add to their boat collection. That precious gondola would look darling with the Capri boat earrings with the enamel striped awning they bought a few seasons back. “Venice is a gem like a diamond,” says Dolce as we survey tables laid with pink brocade and laden with candelabras for dinner in the courtyard below. Kitty Spencer arrives wearing strapless pink, having taken a detour from her Positano honeymoon. When we walk down the stone steps toward dinner, a client in front trips, and her heel rips her chiffon gown. “Don’t worry,” says Dolce with a laugh, “I have my scissors. I’ll make it into a minidress.”
The next day models float to the Alta Moda runway on gondolas, the silver and blue shirts of the gondoliers designed to reflect the color of the moon above. No one does regal better than Helen Mirren wearing a gem-studded corset and billowing Renaissance-style crinoline. J.Lo emerges from the lagoon like a beautiful sea princess with hair piled beneath a golden crown. She’s Ben-less, but Dame Helen’s husband, film director Taylor Hackford, is adoringly filming Mirren’s every move.
Following the show, the party starts at the fish market beneath the stone arch of the Rialto bridge spanning the Grand Canal. For centuries this was the marketplace for spices, perfumes, precious stones, and silks; tonight the scent is heavy with sweet-smelling foliage, including roses, bougainvillea, pomegranates, and bunches of grapes tumbling from the wood loggia roof. There’s a family atmosphere as we roam around the marketplace, choosing dinner from a mouthwatering array of caviar and Italian dishes, plus Dolce’s favorite Sicilian gelato and dolci stuffed with ricotta and cream. Christian Bale, Monica Bellucci, and Sean Combs are proudly shepherding offspring who made modeling debuts in the show. Rain begins to drip through the rafters, but who cares? Dolce dances with Dame Helen, and the party continues.
Next the carnival moves onto the Arsenal, the heart of Venice’s ship-building industry for seven centuries, to watch the Alta Sartoria men’s show. The range of monumental brick buildings has been modernized and repurposed as a center of operations for Venice’s MOSE project, the flood system created to protect the Venetian lagoon from tidal flooding. Leopard print has gone viral here, and I succumb by wearing a beautifully tailored leopard-print jacket.
The beautifully executed 500-meter runway across the lagoon makes the models appear to be walking on water. And yet, not even Dolce & Gabanna can control everything. The weather hits a major glitch. Suddenly hailstones like giant diamonds, and very nearly as hard, are thrown from the sky, followed by a torrential rainstorm. Kris Jenner refuses to budge, waiting for the finale hiding under an umbrella. The rest of us leg it into a nearby warehouse for cover. Dame Helen shows her British mettle by running totally unfazed in soaked floor-length silver. She had looked bemused the previous day when a few people left the Alta Moda show after a couple of raindrops, muttering, “I don’t understand fashion people.”
The following scene was surreal; Vin Diesel, Combs’s children, and Doja Cat with assorted burly bodyguards all sheltered with guests removing shirts and jackets to drip-dry; others appeared later at dinner in chic borrowed black silk gowns. Emma Weymouth arrives with a wide smile, looking as if she’d taken a swim in the lagoon. We huddle laughing and sharing “wet” stories, some blow-drying the couture they’d bought the previous evening. It wasn’t long before we splash into another large-scale space decorated with the new Casa Sicilian blue collection design picked out in lights across walls; tables are laid with blue and white, lit above by vast glass chandeliers. The Champagne flows, with “Volare” blasting through the sound system, and everyone is seated and settled.
“I’ve worked in fashion for 43 years and I’ve never known anything like that,” says Dolce, looking relieved and holding his chest. “I can’t take the emotion.” The chat at my table was puppies; Gui Siqueira, Dolce’s partner, can’t wait to return to Fefe, their beloved Cavapoo. Expect D&G dog accessories soon. Dame Helen led the dancing again, this time with Ciara, before the place was transformed into a Studio 54–esque nightclub with dancers, music, and fireworks.
This morning the wonderfully entertaining tableaux end. For three magical days, the lagoon, carnival, palaces, paintings, and symbols of Venice have been reflected in the locations, gowns, and jewels. “We experimented this time, working with Venetian crystal and glass,” says Gabbana. “We never know if it’s going to work.” I can confirm it did. This was a joyous love letter writ large in precious gemstones and fabric into the memory of Venice. The show may be over, but the echo will remain. Alta Moda had been held in the city once before, eight years ago. Give it time; like all Venetian visitors, it will be back.