NEW YORK — When Columbus discovered America, he didn’t even know where he was, so the audience at the Columbus Day parade on Monday will have to be forgiven if they didn’t know Roberto Cavalli.

“Who is that guy?” asked one woman after another as Cavalli made his grand entrance as Grand Marshal on Fifth Avenue at 45th Street shortly after noon.

He waved and blew kisses as he straddled the bucket seat of a teal Alfa Romeo Spider convertible flanked by 20 models wearing the fall Cavalli collection and clutching onto the backs of 20 Ducati motorcycle drivers as they made their way uptown. Behind them read a giant banner, “Roberto Cavalli,” and behind that were Cavalli’s wife, Eva, his son, Daniele, and his daughter, Christiana, in the back of a green Lincoln Continental.

“Who is he?” asked another woman from the crowd, to which Heather Magidsohn, a publicist for the designer, responded, “Roberto Cavalli.” With an impressive flourish, she added, “Fashion designer to the stars.”

“I think I have a pair of his shoes,” the woman said.

On the next block, a young man ogling the models blurted out, “Look at that hot girl.”

“She’s not Italian,” his girlfriend retorted with an elbow to the stomach.

Cavalli was the first designer to lead the annual holiday parade, this year featuring 35 floats, including an odd statue of Columbus and another carrying this year’s Miss Columbus Day, who hails from New Jersey. Previous marshals have included cultural icons with Italian heritage — Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Franco Zeffirelli.

Alfred Catalanotto, the parade chairman, defended Cavalli’s selection from his perch on a golf cart that sped ahead of the parade.

“What is Italian?” Catalanotto asked. “Food and fashion. And I don’t know if it’s necessarily in that order.”

As the parade got under way, Cavalli said a strange feeling came over him. At Saks Fifth Avenue, he encouraged the Ducati drivers to rev their engines, which they did. He did it again after he hopped out of his car to greet Cardinal Egan at St. Patrick’s, and again, inexplicably, in front of a synagogue, and an encore at the corner of 57th Street at the construction site for Louis Vuitton’s new store, which currently features a billboard with its Jennifer Lopez campaign.“Let’s rev it up for Jennifer,” he yelled.

His family began a chant of “Roberto, Roberto, Roberto.” People in the crowd saw the Ducati procession and yelled “Italia, Italia, Italia.” Fur protesters dashed alongside the route, yelling, “Fur pimp.” Cavalli blew them kisses, too.

At last, as the parade neared its completion at 68th Street, someone recognized the designer. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was introduced to him and said, “Oh, I know the Cavalli style so well.”

“Oh, you should come and visit me in Florence,” he replied. She did not immediately accept his invitation.

“I don’t know exactly what it means to be a Grand Marshal, but I’m proud to do it,” Cavalli said, wearing a big sash. “I loved every moment of this. I sat there, thinking, ‘I’m Italian. Oh my God, I’m Italian.’ It’s a very strange feeling. We can be proud to be Italians. When I say I live between Florence and New York, it is because Florence is the capital of art and New York is the capital of reaction, and I like that mix. That’s what completes its perfection.”

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