On Thursday evening I found myself in the extremely private workrooms of Dolce & Gabbana's studio in Milan. Beneath a dozen chandeliers (banish thoughts of Dickensian sweat shops) 50 or so highly skilled seamstresses, all wearing white lab coats with black lace collars, were cutting, handsewing and embroidering in preparation for the label's Alta Moda show. With under 16 hours to go, they were in a cocoon of calm focus. Diptych candles filled the air with the scent of roses. Silk tulle and satin underwear hung from rails. It was intensely, headily feminine: an intimate passage from Zola or Proust brought to life.
Alta Moda is Italian for haute couture, which is French for made-to-measure, handmade, one offs. Couture is often used to mean "very expensive clothes" - and it's true that prices run to hundreds of thousands of euros — but expense is not its sole USP. Like champagne, couture must adhere to strict French rules to qualify as authentic. It is beyond anything seen in a designer shop.
Dolce e Gabbana's Alta Moda is, much as the French fashion establishment might not want to hear this, beyond most of what is shown during Paris couture week. Only a handful of journalists are invited. Instagramming and tweeting are banned. No actresses will be photographed in these outfits. "None of our customers wants to wear something that's been seen everywhere," says Dolce.
In one room, thousands of individual organza petals are being stitched on to green satin dresses or black wool skirts, and topped off with jewels. No laser cutting is allowed - unlike in Paris.
Flowers are everywhere, spilling out of vast vases, tumbling over dresses. Nine of the 65 outfits in the spring/summer collection were inspired by paintings by Van Gogh and Renoir. Reproduction rights have had to be negotiated and the designers were only permitted to reproduce them to a certain scale. This is Slow Fashion. A black net ball gown with pink silk flowers has taken four months to complete. "We make these pieces to last a lifetime," says Stefano Gabbana.
Even Dolce and Gabbana have been taken aback by demand. On one floor I saw groups of wooden and silk dressmaker mannequins, each engraved with a client's name and replicating their bodies. On another floor, I spotted an order for several skirts, dresses and lingerie. Couture underwear? "Yes. And couture pyjamas," exclaims Domenico Dolce. "We have clients who want couture for every moment of their lives. You can't imagine the lives they lead."
When the duo launched their Alta Moda line two years ago, it seemed like an anachronistic indulgence. Few designers can afford the investment, unless they work for a big house such as Dior or Chanel which use couture to promote perfumes and sunglasses. Dolce and Gabbana, who own their label outright, are adamant theirs will not be a publicity machine but an idealised version of couture as it was half a century ago. This ultradiscreet approach has attracted 100 repeat clients. The next day, I see them in action.
Shortly after midday, 150 or so guests are shown to their seats beneath bowers of flowers. The average age is between 35 and 50, many of them living in New York or London. Slim, immaculately madeup and fragrantly pressed into cocktail dresses from previous Alta Moda collections. Husbands are in evidence, often a respectful three paces behind their wives.
I spot a Yorkshire woman I met at Dolce and Gabbana's previous couture show in Venice, wearing the elegant, calf-length black fitted wool dress with a sweetheart neckline she ordered there. Since these are one-offs, each client knows it's first come, first served.
Being second means you will have to settle for a modified version to ensure no two women will bump into each other in identical outfits.
As the dresses file out onto the catwalk, there are audible gasps, especially when the black net ball gown appears. But every outfit is exquisite, from the pink silk pyjama dress with its burgundy piping to the classically elegant narrow-waisted black lace skirts and jewelled buttoned jackets.
Since launching Alta Moda, Dolce e Gabbana have sold around 15 wedding dresses. However, the biggest seller has been variations of that black wool dress, the original of which now resides in Yorkshire.
Afterwards, its owner tells me about the outfit she has just ordered - another day-dress in Wedgwood blue. Her cheeks are flushed with the chase. It's barely an hour since the show ended and already, the daywear has sold out.