Despite her dauntingly impressive, 24-carat family pedigree, which should allow her at least a bit of aloof social froideur, what radiates most from Coco Brandolini d’Adda is her immediate warmth and friendliness. She is sitting in the bijou kitchen of her colourful Milanese apartment. The large windows are open and she is facing the terracotta-tiled roof terrace of the building opposite, tapping away at her iPhone at an alarming speed while holding conversations in three different languages with a gaggle of assorted design assistants, hairdressers, make-up artists and me. Her espresso-brown eyes have a humorous twinkle and her tanned face is alive with curiosity and intelligence.
Coco is stepping in and out of Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda collection, which made its debut in 2012, and which Coco has collaborated on with the designers since its inception. Only there is one teeny glitch when it comes to wearing these exquisitely crafted pieces, which will be shown to a hand-picked audience of couture clients and international Vogue editors in a couple of weeks’ time at the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, a fifteenth-century palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Coco is five months pregnant and these dresses are tiny, certainly not conducive to the (albeit discreet) football sitting bang in the middle of her tummy. “Ah yes, that!” She laughs, patting the bump under her floaty black jersey skirt and T-shirt, a picture of bohemian, laid-back chic. “Well, my daughter Nina is already three, so I thought I had better get on with it.”
Thirty-three-year-old Coco and Bianca – her younger sibling, a model and actress – are the daughters of Count Ruy and Countess Georgina Brandolini d’Adda. Coco’s grandmother, Cristiana, is the sister of the legendary Gianni Agnelli, and her mother, Georgina, a Brazilian-born princess, was for many years head of public relations for Valentino, as well as the couturier’s right-hand woman and muse.
No wonder designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have enlisted this lively dynamo to work with them on their Alta Moda collection. “I don’t underestimate the value of my cultural heritage,” she agrees in her speedy mid-Atlantic lilt. “In fact, I’m very aware and proud of the influence it has on me. My views on fashion and taste are informed by it.” Indeed, her grandfather Brando Brandolini was pivotal in her upbringing. “As a young girl I spent a huge amount of time with him at Vistorta,” she says, referring to the country estate outside Venice, decorated by the Italian interiors designer Renzo Mongiardino, with gardens created by British landscape designer Russell Page. “He introduced me to literature, art, music and the opera,” she remembers. “He was incredibly stylish. I still have a lot of his shirts and belts in my cupboard.” It wasn’t just Coco’s grandfather who had a keen eye for beauty. Her grandmother, Cristiana, did too. “She was playful and eccentric and she dressed amazingly. Not just in couture – although she had a lot of that – but I remember her coming down to dinner in a nightgown with a kaftan and shawl draped over it, and layers of necklaces. I’d dress up in her clothes as a child. She loved paisleys and prints and checks, and would mix everything up. I loved her style.”
When it comes to making her own mark, Coco also likes to play with colour and print, mixing pieces by Dolce & Gabbana and Missoni with vintage finds from around the world; a melting pot of haute hippy chic which, she says, takes her two minutes to put together in the morning. Her walk-in wardrobe has the feel of a souk, boasting acres of long, floaty skirts; a mass of bags, belts, shoes, necklaces; patterns and prints galore; and shelves crammed with textiles, pashminas and pieces of fabric sourced on her extensive travels.
Although she graduated in political science and philosophy from her Paris university, it was fashion that captured Coco’s imagination. In 2001, she went to New York to work as an intern for Oscar de la Renta, a family friend. “I wanted to perfect my English and to know what it was like to live away from home,” she says. Three months turned into five years, and a job as De la Renta’s design assistant. She loved it but is the first to admit that her background and social confidence were a great asset in the workplace. “I grew up sitting on Valentino’s lap; I’ve been around these amazingly creative fashion people my whole life, so I feel comfortable with them,” she explains, as she prepares to dress for the first photograph of the day, slipping into a set of Dolce & Gabbana Fifties-style lingerie in palest gold silk, while a young seamstress who looks as if she has fallen out of a Zeffirelli film hovers with pins and a tape measure. “So,” Coco continues, “being with Oscar felt like being part of a family, especially as I was far from home.”
It was in the back rooms of the New York atelier that Coco really fell in love with the craft of fashion. “These wonderful Italian seamstresses would be sewing and cutting and I would be watching the entire time. I found it totally fascinating. I’d ask them so many questions about what they were doing; it really brought something out in me, a genuine passion.” As much as she was learning from the great American designer, he in turn had a lot to gain from having this scion of Italian nobility in his studio. Coco was bringing her world and influences to him. She and her friends, like Lauren Santo Domingo and Margherita Missoni (she and Missoni lived in the same building), were hanging out at openings and parties, as well as their favourite haunts, Bar Pitti and Frank in the East Village and clubs like Sway and Lotus. They were the new generation of stylish socialites that the magazines were falling in love with. “I also brought Oscar all my vintage finds to study. He loved seeing the way I mixed them up with designer pieces.”
Coco left New York for London to study drawing at Central Saint Martins. It was then that she met her future husband, Matteo Colombo, a financier working in private equity. Before long, she left London to take up a post as a design assistant at Nina Ricci in Paris, where she remained for two years before she and her new husband (she wore Oscar de la Renta at her wedding) decamped to Milan. Here she worked for Alberta Ferretti until she fell pregnant with her daughter, Nina. “My timing was great,” she jokes. “I was very pregnant and Tomas Maier offered me a job as a consultant at Bottega Veneta. I arrived in New York for the interview and you could already see my belly. He took one look at me, laughed and said, ‘Well, that’s a good way to start a new job!'” She laughs, as she is literally sewn into a black and gold brocade patchwork dress with circular pleats.
The walls of the apartment are testament to the couple’s artistic interests. There is photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto, prints by Chris Ofili and intricate drawings by Yuri Masnyj. In their cosy sitting room is a butterfly table by Fornasetti, a plum-coloured, hand-stitched Indian rug with a pale green leaf motif by Federica Tondato and a smattering of wicker chairs reminiscent of the ones on the leafy terrace of her grandparents’ home at Vistorta.
Picture credit: Pierpaolo Ferrari
It was Coco’s blend of beauty, breeding and creativity that attracted Domenico Dolce when they met at a party a couple of years ago. “Coco has a very special elegance for our time – it was this aspect of her character that immediately struck me,” begins Domenico. “It is as if she inherited the ways of women of the past.” This, combined with her knowledge of fashion, put Coco in a unique position to help them in their dream of creating a couture line.
“When I met Domenico,” she says, curling up on her brass bed between shots, “he told me about Alta Moda and said that he was looking for someone like me for the project. He wanted to recreate the world of Fifties couture and I, too, love all of that. We understood each other.” She immediately accepted, and found herself a member of a new fashion family. Coco lives close to the Alta Moda atelier, and has been on board from the beginning: researching, sourcing, suggesting and connecting.
“At first,” she tells me, “I was only involved in the design process with the team, but now I meet the clients and explain the collection to them. They may want a dress shorter, in a different fabric… I tell them what is and what isn’t possible.” Coco has a clear understanding of the world that Stefano and Domenico are reaching out to, both old and new. “People say ‘Russian’ or ‘Chinese’ as if it’s all new money and vulgar,” she muses. “But these women are beautiful, tasteful and well-educated in the intricacies of fashion.” Alta Moda dresses are one-offs; only one of each is made. They are exclusive to each paying client and will not be lent to celebrities for red-carpet events – the way couture was originally intended.
For this collection, presented in Venice (Alta Moda will always be shown in Italy, each time a different city), Coco not only immersed herself with the design team, researching all things Venetian, from Picasso’s harlequin paintings to fabrics, but also scouted the extraordinary locations, chose the glass and linen and arranged the guestlist. She researched every aspect of the show – even the masked ball. She brings her history, style and connection to these two designers. It’s rather like what Loulou de la Falaise and Clara Saint did for Yves Saint Laurent, and Ines de la Fressange and Amanda Harlech have done for Karl Lagerfeld; these aristocratic origins are like fairy dust for a design house.
The designers’ faith in Coco has paid off big time. Even the most sophisticated of clients who have attended couture shows for years had their breath taken away in Venice by both the clothes and the theatre of the presentation. As the models walked jewel-encrusted dresses through the historic grandeur of the rooms of the Palazzo Barbaro with its Murano chandeliers, guests cooled themselves with hand-sewn lace fans and champagne served in rose-crystal glasses by waiters dressed in eighteenth-century costume. The moment the show was over, a tasteful stampede ensued, making appointments for fittings the following morning.
The following evening, water taxis jostle to deliver their exquisitely dressed cargo to a ball rivalling those given in the Fifties and Sixties, where Onassises, Agnellis and Ruspolis rubbed shoulders with Maria Callas and Elizabeth Taylor. Prior to the event, the 150 guests were asked what they would be wearing and each received a mask of jewelled perfection, sent to their homes around the world. From the far side of the canal comes a boat carrying the Brandolinis. Coco, dressed in an empire-line dress of embellished emerald-green brocade (made for the occasion by Stefano and Domenico), stands at the front, her hair blowing gently in the breeze. A warm smile on her face, she surveys the scene, her right hand resting lightly on her bump. She wears no mask but, without a shadow of a doubt, she is the jewel in the crown of Alta Moda.