Walking the runway at Milan Fashion Week was a dream come true for Sylvia Mantella—but the glamorous 40-something businesswoman, whose catwalk turn appearance surprised and delighted friends back home in Toronto, was worried it might turn into a Sex and the City-style nightmare.
Invited to be one of 130 “real people,” and the only Canadian, modelling Dolce & Gabbana’s fall 2017 collection—alongside the likes of Jennifer Tilly, Sofia Richie and Lady Kitty Spencer—Sylvia couldn’t help but picture the famous scene in which Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) gets the chance to strut the catwalk, only to discover her “outfit” is a pair of sequinned Dolce & Gabbana underwear. Mortified, she trips and falls on the runway, where she’s stepped on by Heidi Klum.
“That scene went through my mind when we were at the fitting because there was an exact replica of the gold sequinned underwear hanging on a rack of about 400 pairs of bejewelled underwear,” Sylvia says, laughing. “I said, “I’m not wearing those!’ All his staff were dying laughing.”
A regular customer of the famous pair (she estimates 80 percent of her wardrobe is now Dolce & Gabbana), Sylvia, chief marketing officer of the family-owned property development company Mantella Corp. (husband Robert is CEO), says it all started with a What’s App message from the designers asking if she’d walk in the show.
“What kind of a show?” she asked. They clarified. She was stunned. “You’d have to be completely out of your mind not to say yes.”
Especially if, like the statuesque mom-of-three, you grew up dreaming of being a supermodel. “Ever since I can remember, I was putting on a pair of high heels and pretending to be Linda Evangelista or Cindy Crawford.” Yet after getting the call, “I didn’t tell anybody,” she says. “Just my husband, my kids … I wasn’t certain that this was actually going to happen. It seemed so far removed from anything I could ever imagine.”
She did spill her secret to friend and fellow Canadian Coco Rocha when they bumped into each other at New York Fashion Week. “I said ‘Any tips?’ She said ‘Sylvia, it is the scariest runway I’ve ever walked.’ I’m like ‘Coco this is not helping!’”
Thus primed by one of the world’s biggest supermodels, Sylvia flew to Milan. The fitting was touch and go: her flight was delayed and she landed at 1, only just making her appointment with Domenico Dolce at 3. But the designer was typically friendly and gracious. “He was waiting for me with about 70 assistants. I walked into this massive room, it must have been 5,000 square feet, and every piece—every shoe, every dress, every jacket, every crown—was there.”
Domenico handed her a Sicilian-style sheer lace dress he’d picked out, a bold jacket that he knew she could carry off—“he knows I can be a little bit over the top”—and then, because he knew she didn’t do flats, a pair of sequin platform shoes that he’d had made just for her. “It was very sweet,” she says. “They really listen to their clients.”
The rehearsal two days later took five hours. “They’ve never had so many people walk the show,” she says. “It was pretty chaotic backstage. We were just sort of spilling out on top of each other.”
The big day arrived and “it was epic on so many levels,” says Sylvia. “You just try to so deeply live in the moment because it’s so overwhelming.” Hair and makeup was provided by artists-to-the-stars Pat McGrath and Guido Palau; in order to get everyone done, the group had to be there at 9 a.m. for a 2 p.m. show. “The crazy thing is, I had zero nerves,” Sylvia says—despite the fact that the star-studded audience included the likes of Christie Brinkley, Pamela Anderson and Gigi Hadid.
So what was it like walking in one of the biggest shows in the fashion capital of the world? “You’re blinded by the light,” she says, “which I think was a blessing. If I could have seen the 600 or 700 people in the audience I probably would have had a mild heart attack.
“You don’t even see the photographers because there’s so much light in your eyes. It’s all you can see.
“They had [YouTube star] Austin Mahone singing live and he made eye contact with me when I got halfway down the runway. We smiled and I danced a little bit with him and I kept moving, it was great…When I see the show now, I can’t believe that that was me. It was really surreal.”
Some might see this as all in a day’s work for Sylvia, who will also appear in a book by Domenico (he photographed her before she left town) and has rubbed elbows with numerous celebrities at her own charity events. She readily acknowledges that she leads a bit of a charmed life. But still, she says nothing could compare to this moment.
“I’ve jumped out of airplanes, I’ve travelled the world, I have an animal sanctuary, I raise lions, jaguars and leopards…but walking the runway was so out of reach for me that it wasn’t even on my bucket list. I never thought in a million years it could happen.
“This is my Academy Award.”
Inside Sylvia’s Closet:
Sylvia’s first ever Dolce & Gabbana dress? “A strapless pink satin gown, baby-bootie pink, with a black bow. It was really spectacular and it was from runway. I still have that gown [from about seven years ago].”
First couture piece? A coral, form-fitting Giambattista Valli gown. “It was couture and I only ever wore it once, when I was photographed by Patrick Demarchelier seven or eight years ago. It was only 15 minutes—he walked in the room, sat down on a milk crate and shot me—he’s a genius, that was it. After that photo shoot I felt this is always how I want to encapsulate this dress.”