Don’t call Roberto Cavalli a fashion designer — “fashion artist” is more like it, he says in his typical confident manner.
“Don’t ask me to sketch or fit a mannequin, that’s never been my style,” said Cavalli as he discusses his company’s 40th anniversary, which he and his wife, Eva, will fete with a gala dinner and party on Sept. 29 at L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
The designer chose to celebrate in Paris because he showed his first collection at a trade exhibition there in 1970.
“The strength of my fashion has been to distinguish right from wrong, ugly from attractive, good from bad — that’s how i became a great designer,” he said.
And those “great designer” qualities have generated a $250 million company with 60 signature stores and international stature.
Rarely betraying his conviction that fashion should be of the glitzy and high-wattage variety, Cavalli has always sworn by the maxim that “excess is success.” Hence turbo-charged vixens, Jane-in-the-jungle animal prints, modern geishas squeezed into bustier dresses, bimbos in wispy and billowy silks or bejeweled distressed jeans, head-turning itty-bitty pieces for night owls on the prowl — these are just a few of the themes that have charged down Cavalli’s runway over the years and walked miles of red carpet.
And even though Cavalli’s in-your-face irreverence isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and his more explicit collections are sometimes criticized as objectifying women, his few attempts to tame the pizzazz didn’t go down well with his die-hard followers.
About eight years ago, for example, when a tipsy editor reproached him at a postshow dinner in New York for having shown black suits, the designer candidly replied, “I make a mistake. I do not do that again.”
For Cavalli not only designs for that life; he lives it. Take RC, his purple metallic yacht that is a fixture in the Mediterranean and at the Cannes Film Festival, onboard which the Champagne flows as Cavalli entertains friends and celebrities attending the star-studded event. The same can be said for his sprawling and ornate villa outside Florence, where a zoo of animal-printed upholstery reminds guests of whose house they’re in. It’s also filled with an eclectic mix of important pieces, from a painting by Giovanni Boldini secured at an auction in New York to a rare collection of Gallé porcelains.
Sitting in his luminous, white-washed apartment in Milan, where surprisingly enough the only audacious touches come from his portrait by Julian Schnabel made with broken plates (Eva’s is in their Florentine villa) and a 17th-century wooden horse, the tanned designer is sporting an unbuttoned navy blue shirt and jeans. He methodically puffs on an electric cigarette, a surrogate to help cut back on nicotine, while he speaks slowly and with a slight native Florentine inflection.
Cavalli’s fashion journey started 50 years ago, when the strong-featured, black-maned “ragazzo” would flare up his blue Fiat 500 and face a tortuous, six-hour drive across the Apennines that would take him from Florence to Como. The reason for the journey to the lakeshore town, flecked with a concentration of high-end mills, was to perfect his printing skills and techniques that he then applied to finished sweaters that he made for other brands.
“I slowly started to learn more and more about the color combinations and the various techniques, which I started to apply to finished sweaters,” Cavalli said. “The requests started to flock in because printed sweaters were a novelty.”
Flowers, ribbons and a first taste of animal prints were his favorite motifs and eventually a Dalmatian-spotted rendition grabbed the attention of Krizia’s Mariuccia Mandelli. Guido and Odette Molinari, the parents of Blumarine designer Anna Molinari, also became aficionados and, later, Hermès wrote orders for Cavalli’s prints.
As the orders flocked in fattening his bank account, he was initiated to “la vida loca.”
“Those were the days, and thanks to my work, I managed to buy myself a nice home, cars and a helicopter,” he chuckled.
In the Seventies, he traded yarns for leather, proving to be an innovator and receiving requests for exclusives from Mario Valentino and Hermès.
“By printing swimwear and dresses, I was the first to treat leather like a ready-to-wear fabric,” he said.
That’s when the idea of going solo clicked.
“I believe it was July 1970 and I was flying back from Paris when I thought that if I did my own collection, I would be part of the fashion world,” he said.
So he created 30 pieces, which he presented 40 years ago at the rtw showcase in Paris held at the Porte de Versailles.
In 1972, he opened a small shop called Limbo in Saint-Tropez, which was so successful that the following year he was invited to show his leather wares in the storied Sala Bianca in Florence alongside Armani, Missoni, Krizia, Fendi and Basile.
“I was the number one,” he boasted. “I had the nicest exhibition hall of all, always packed with clients, including the chairmen of the biggest department stores.”
Cavalli, who turns 70 on Nov. 15, and Eva, 51, have three children together. Rachele, 28, collaborates with Roberto and Eva on the brand’s accessories. Daniele, 24, collaborates with Roberto and Eva on the men’s collections, and Robin, 16, is in the 11th grade at ACS Cobham International School in London. Cavalli also has two older children from his first marriage to Silvanella Giannoni. Tommaso, 42, manages the Cavalli-owned vineyard Tenuta degli Dei in Tuscany, as well as the wine and spirits business, and Christiana, 45, manages Cavalli clubs and the hospitality business.
During the 40-year run, Cavalli noted how his fashion “inventions” — namely printed knitwear and leather and a trail-blazing approach to denim via special treatments, embroideries and a stretch connotation —”revolutionized fashion.”
“From a fashion standpoint, my printed knitwear was one of the biggest inventions ever because I printed the finished product and the design would trickle off to the side or on the sleeve,” he said. “And I was the first to treat leather like a fabric.” The third invention, he added, was stretch jeans in the Seventies, which today is still to the brand what bouclé is to Chanel.
Cavalli would buy containers of old jeans from an American prison, which, after a good wash and disinfecting, he would dissect and then patch the parts together with pieces of leather.
“Huge success, from a number-one designer,” he mused.
Or, as he said in 2003, “After all, it means I was right on when I’m copied.”
But as Italian fashion boomed in the Eighties, becoming an increasingly rich, export-driven industry built by licensing and expansion, Cavalli admits that his star started to fade.
“Fashion moved from Florence to Milan, prostituting itself between industry and design, also due to [the approach] of Armani and Basile. In the beginning I resisted that change and refused to put my name on everything from a fragrance to tiles like most designers were doing,” he said. “For me fashion was still art, fantasy.”
So he stuck to his guns, contending in 2001, “Maybe it’s the reason for my success, because many designers have become too industrial. They care too much about production and money. I don’t care. For me, it’s just a pleasure to make a garment.”
In that light, he lauded the ascent of Japanese designers with their blacks and grays, and artsy constructions.
“Each garment was a piece of architecture, too somber for my taste but the clothes were nice,” he said. “I wasn’t capable of doing that type of fashion so I was out of fashion, but I still managed to keep my clients.”
Nor does he understand the ripples made by Miuccia Prada’s minimalism in the early Nineties, which he dubs as “boring.” Uninspired, he took a step back to dedicate more time to Eva, whom he wed in 1980, and their children. While the firm continued in business, he stopped showing the line formally until 1994.
This coincided with minimalism losing ground to a flashier fashion. Cavalli was back in full force together with Eva, who became creative director in 1994, taking over the stewardship of the runway shows, models and styling.
He launched men’s wear 11 years ago, more with the hope to change classic dress codes than out of passion.
“I always thought men should have more fun in dressing and use more fantasy, especially at night,” he said. “Otherwise, they all look the same with all those boring Armani-style jackets and shirts.”
Since then, Cavalli has consolidated his success.
“Roberto Cavalli is me,” he said of his signature collection. “I have built it all my life. It’s like my big baby and I’m its big daddy.”