It's the last day of the men's shows in Milan and after a gruelling schedule of back-to-back presentations, events and dinners, you're expected to show up bright and early at the Dsquared2 show, which always starts at 9.30am. You'd think most editors and buyers wouldn't bother making an appearance but send their minions instead, yet the house is always full and the atmosphere is like that of a rowdy nightclub, in spite of the early morning start. This is because Dsquared2 shows are full-on spectacles, featuring a not insignificant number of scantily clad and perfectly chiselled young men — the tinier the trunks the better — who clearly help the crowd overcome any lingering fatigue from the previous night's revelries.
Even the label's most devoted fans would admit that the looks shown by the designers vary only slightly from season to season. But when you go to their shows you know you're in for a performance which can vary from a mental asylum, with the best-looking staff and patients you've ever seen, to a jail where the bathroom stalls and showers (naked convicts being the pièce de résistance here) are more prominent than the cells.
Dean and Dan Caten, the perennially tanned and fun-loving Canadian twins at the helm of Dsquared2, have been going at it for 20 years. A highlight of Milan Fashion Week, they always inject a dose of fun in what often feels like a city of big shows by brands that take themselves too seriously. This is not the case with the Caten brothers, who have been able to build a viable business without ever giving up on the element of fun that has become their hallmark.
As Dean puts it bluntly: “Life's too short to take it too seriously and if you can't have fun with fashion, then you can't really have fun with anything.”
“Fashion is about playing dress-up or being something, a persona, feeling an emotion that makes you feel sexy, that makes you feel tough and we're kind of big storytellers too, so I think we like to do the whole number,” adds Dan to emphasise the point.
The Canadian twins, who grew up with an Italian father and English mother in a relatively conservative family, fell in love with fashion as young children in a small town where exposure to glamorous clothes was not the order of the day. “I really liked my older brother's girlfriend's grey suede wedges that stood at the bottom of the staircase and I'd say to Dan that I'd love to fit into those,” says Dean.
“You know, in Canada you have to take your shoes off to go into houses and our brother was hot and sexy, and he had sexy girlfriends who had cool shoes and cool stuff. We'd go to the landing to see all the different shoes and there'd be this grey suede pair covered in diamonds and we were fighting over them on who would try them on,” explains Dan. “Our mother would see us and tell us to take them off.”
A career in fashion was clearly on the cards for the duo, who studied at New York's Parsons School of Fashion and then decided to decamp to the Italian design capital, an unusual move given their North American background and US-inspired aesthetic.
“First of all, our dad is Italian,” explains Dean about their decision to move to the country they've called home for more than two decades. “I think it was really important to us when we went over looking for factories that we stayed in the same place. You have to be present. You ruin the chance of having an amazing collection if you're not there.”
“Sometimes, we would see some other American designers who would come to their factory like twice, for like 10 days. And Italy is great. We get the best of both worlds and we go to London all the time,” adds Dan.
Their childhood cross-dressing experiments with those famous shoes ended up paying off in their early years in Milan as they struggled to finance their business. “We'd just moved to Italy and we didn't have a job. We were dancing in drag,” Dean says. “It was for fun but it also paid the rent. We saved our money and that's how we financed our first collection.”
They soon started attracting a loyal following among celebrities such as Madonna and pleasure-seeking high-flyers looking for well-fitting denim and workwear-inspired separates that, in spite of their seemingly pedestrian look, didn't skimp on quality.
The item that started it all was a pair of jeans, which is still a mainstay of the brand. “I think it's still our DNA. It's definitely always there because it's something that we love and wear. It's timeless,” says Dan. “It's also definitely the fact that we were forbidden to wear jeans because my dad was poor and he said jeans are for poor people so we always had to go to school with polyester pants and we were the laughing stock of the school. And I used to be furious because I just wanted to wear jeans. So I think not being able to have jeans makes us love them even more.”
This rebellious streak, however, has not prevented the duo from building a successful business that's now backed by Diesel's Renzo Rosso, whose company OTB (which stands for “Only The Brave”), also owns Viktor & Rolf, Maison Martin Margiela and Marni. “People like Madonna were already under our belt years before we got him, but with Renzo, it got bigger. It was like a growing step. We went to the next level,” says Dan. They recently moved to a much bigger space — the former headquarters of an electricity company — and their mini empire now includes a restaurant and an open-air lounge with two pools that's one of the hot spots in Milan.
As the two interact while showing me photos of the previous night's shenanigans at a party held in their honour — lots of six packs feature in their visual report of the night —it's evident that the two are so close that “it's almost like having the same brain,” as Dean puts it. “It's like we never go to work because we're always working. We're at home and we sit in bed, or chatting about stuff while we're driving. Our life is our job. We're always together when we do stuff or think about stuff. There's a lot of chatting. We've got it down now. To think it's 50 years we've been together… ”
It's been a wild ride for the duo, who managed to live the American dream in the most unlikely of places, their father's home country of Italy, where he left as a young man to look for a brighter future in a faraway land of opportunity. And it's refreshing to see how the two express the same level of enthusiasm as an up-and-coming young designer.
“We can't escape fashion,” Dean says. And why would you, if it makes you feel good about yourself, giving you a much-needed jolt of excitement — early wake-up calls and 9am fashion shows notwithstanding.