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When news broke in the Italian newspapers last month that Gucci Group had made an offer to buy the Milanese ready-to-wear company Dolce & Gabbana for $400 million, fashion insiders and analysts agreed that this could be a very good marriage.

"It's the right moment for Dolce & Gabbana," says Milan-based fashion consultant Carlo Pambianco. "The company has a good image and a good brand, and is at the point where it should grow internationally. But they need additional financial resources to do so."

Almost instantly, both sides of the rumor denied its intentions to put a deal together. Whether that's true or not, one thing is for sure: The story proved that the Milan-based ready-to-wear company is a hot property that's ready for major global expansion.

Unlike the house of Versace, which has lost its fashion cachet and slid into economic near-ruin since the murder of its founder Gianni Versace three years ago, Dolce & Gabbana has been flourishing steadily for most of the 1990s. In the last few years, the company brought back in-house the production of its underwear, beachwear, ties, scarves and knitwear lines. It wants to double its men's wear business in the next five years, plans to increase company-owned boutiques, such as those that just opened in Florence and Beverly Hills, and has recently launched www.dolcegabbana.it, with information about and images of the duo's collections.

And its list of ultra-hip celebrity devotees is ever-growing, including actresses Sigourney Weaver, Cameron Diaz and Salma Hayek, who regularly steps out in the designers' figure-hugging, rhinestone-flecked gowns, as well as hip hop superstar Mary J. Blige, who chose to wear Dolce & Gabbana for her U.S. concert tour this year.

"Our main aim for the future is to become a real 'maison,' with Chanel in mind as an example," Stefano Gabbana told FWD. "We like to think that the name Dolce & Gabbana in some years would have 'a life of its own' as a label, always connecting it to a signature style which could be maintained and elaborated as well by a team of young creative people even if we wouldn't be involved and present anymore as we are now."

To realize that dream, analysts concur, Dolce & Gabbana, which last year had retail sales of $288 million, will eventually have to sell to an international luxury group. While Gabbana admits that he and his partner, Domenico Dolce, "have been approached by different luxury groups offering exorbitant amounts of money," he insists that they "definitely do not have any intention to sell at the moment." As Dolce points out, an international conglomerate can "enforce and enlarge...production and distribution" of a small house like Dolce & Gabbana. But he adds, selling to such a group forsakes "one's independence." And neither Dolce nor Gabbana are ready to do that.

Or so they say.

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana met back in the early 80s when they were both working as assistants for a Milanese designer. "It happened in quite an accidental way, without the 'love at first sight' effect," Dolce remembers. But in time, he says, "we found out we share the same ideas and passions." They moved in together and in 1985, during the "New Talents" fashion show in Milan, launched the label, Dolce & Gabbana.

Of course, all didn't run so smoothly. In 1986, just before the showing of their first complete collection, their manufacturer pulled out. So they drove all the way down to Dolce's hometown in Sicily, and convinced his relatives, who owned a small mill there, to back and produce the line. Later, the pair bought a controlling stake in the Dolces' Sicilian business, which still manufactures the ready-to-wear line.

The company grew rapidly: lingerie and beachwear in 1989, men's wear in 1990, perfume in 1992, the younger, lower-priced D&G line and home collection in 1994, eye wear in 1998. And they began to dress the shiniest of the shiny set: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore, Elizabeth Hurley, Isabella Rossellini, and the most important fashion patron, Madonna. They first learned of Madonna's passion for their clothes when they came across a newspaper photo of her in a Dolce & Gabbana dress. Then she ordered another, and she mentioned them in her documentary, "Truth or Dare." She officially gave her stamp of approval when she ordered 1,500 Dolce & Gabbana-designed costumes for her 1993 "Girlie Show" tour.

Dolce, who turns 42 in August, learned his trade "growing up in a tailor's family." Gabbana, 37, was an advertising graphics designer before turning to his first passion, fashion. Though the pair works so well together that, as Gabbana says, "we both wouldn't be able to work on our own anymore," that wasn't the case in the beginning. "We would have never thought about the possibility of becoming partners," says Gabbana, adding, "Domenico above all was quite an individualist." And from time to time, they still do have their impasses. "One says white and other says black and neither of us will change our minds," admits Gabbana. The solution? "A third completely different color."

Their look is lush embellishment, curvaceous lines, high-voltage Hollywood glamour. Think Jayne Mansfield or Jane Russell or, their favorite muse, Sophia Loren in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with a subtle contemporary twist. Their role models are many: They cite Giorgio Armani for his "discipline," Azzedine Alaia for his "craziness," Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier for their "creativity."

But their greatest influence by far is Sicily, especially for Gabbana, though he himself comes from Lombardia, in the north. "Sicily is always our starting point. It represents a rich beauty, which amalgamates traditions, architectural styles and cultures of different people. It is passionate, full of colors, perfumes and flavors, of atmospheres and sensations. It's managed to maintain its proper identity, combining all those different qualities and influences, and that's maybe the reason why it is different from the rest of Italy."

And why Dolce & Gabbana is different from the rest of fashion.




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