Roberto Cavalli

Fashion Designer

United States • Milan

15 November 1940

Roberto Cavalli

Cavalli is a native of the Tuscan capital of Florence, born on November 15 1940. His father, Giorgio, was a mine surveyor by profession, and his mother, Marcella, a tailor. Marcella was the daughter of artist Giuseppe Rossi, a member of the Macchiaoli group of painters in Italy. The Macchiaoli movement was an offshoot of French Impressionists, and works by Cavalli’s grandfather are among those that hang in Florence’s esteemed Uffizi Museum.

When Italy was drawn into World War II,
military units from Nazi Germany arrived in Florence, and Cavalli’s father was slain. “Something happened between the partisans and the Germans and my father was involved,” Cavalli told a writer for London’s Evening Standard, Nick Foulkes, “so my mother took care of me and my sister. It made my character more deep, more strong.”

In 1957, Cavalli enrolled at Florence’s Academy of Art with plans to either follow in his grandfather’s footsteps or become an architect. He began dating a fellow art student, however, and those plans took a detour. “She was a classic, very pretty Italian girl,” Cavalli said of his first wife in the Evening Standard interview with Foulkes. “Her parents were dreaming for her to marry a doctor or a lawyer and I was just a poor art–school student.” Roberto married his first wife Silvanella Giannoni in 1964 and had his first two children. “I met a girl, the first girl I loved, and I married her with the first money I got,” he told us in 2011. “We first made love the night we married, after knowing each other for four years, and we had my first daughter nine months and ten days later!” After 10 years of marriage, Silvanella and Roberto divorced in 1974.

His fortunes improved considerably in 1960, when a friend was launching a knitwear line and asked him to hand–paint some of the sweaters. They proved a hit, and Cavalli began researching the art of textile printing in earnest. He started making T–shirts and jeans with a luxe–hippie look that caught on with young Italians. For a time, he worked for Mario Valentino, the Naples designer known for his well–crafted leathers and suedes. While there, he recalled in the interview with the Evening Standard ‘s Foulkes, “I had this idea to print on leather. I used glove skin from a French tannery, and when I started to print, I saw it was possible to make evening gowns in leather in pink—unbelievable.” Having patented his leather printing technique, he earned commissions from other design houses including Hermès and Pierre Cardin.

Cavalli opened his first boutique in Saint-Tropez in 1972, foreseeing the potential of the fishing village as a desirable destination for the fashion elite.

Cavalli formally launched his own women’s line in 1972 with an extravagant event at Florence’s Pitti Palace. His form–fitting, vividly colored clothes quickly became a hit with trend–setting Europeans of the more idle class. One of the first celebrities to wear his designs was the French film star Brigitte Bardot, and soon his eponymous boutiques were providing discotheque–wear for the jet–set crowd of the 1970s.

Later, Cavalli’s over–the–top designs would sometimes be compared to those of a fellow Italian, the late Gianni Versace, whose name became synonymous with embellished extravagance in the 1980s. “It would be easy to say that Cavalli is the new Versace,” asserted Foulkes in the Evening Standard article, “except that when he was alive it would have been more accurate to call Versace the new Cavalli.” Similarly, New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla claimed that Cavalli’s “feathered evening clothes, rhinestone–encrusted jeans, and python pants were precursors to the rock ‘n’ roll fashions of Versace and Dolce & Gabbana.”

During the 1980s, however, Cavalli seemed to lose his footing in fashion as other Italians, among them the Milan–based Versace and Giorgio Armani, began to gain a strong international following. Cavalli remained in Florence, by contrast, and did not take part in the seasonal presentations of new collections for spring/summer and fall/winter that were known as Milan Fashion Week. Moreover, his glitzy clothes were lost in the parade of more minimalist–chic wear that began to dominate fashion in the 1990s. “Cavalli refused to adapt his style,” wrote Vernon in the Observer, “and his label seemed destined to languish forever in a fashiony no–man’s–land, drip–fed life support by a dwindling trickle of ageing, tasteless, mindlessly loaded Euro trash.”

Cavalli’s second wife, Eva, is credited as the behind–the–scenes force in the renaissance of his design house in the 1990s. He met the former Miss Austria when she was 18 years old and a contestant in the 1977 Miss Universe pageant in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. At the time, Cavalli was 37, the divorced father of two, and a pageant judge, and the blonde Eva Duringer had been named in an unofficial pre–pageant poll as the front–runner for the crown. Instead she was the first–runner up to Miss Trinidad and Tobago, the first black Miss Universe, and won Cavalli’s heart. They wed and began a family, and as their children grew more independent in the early 1990s, Eva set her sights on improving her husband’s business fortunes. “I was thinking maybe to stop,” her husband confessed to Time International writer Lauren Goldstein. “But then Eva became interested so I started—for her—to involve myself again.”

Cavalli’s career entered an exciting new phase at the start of the Nineties. Devising a method of printing patterns onto stretch denim, in 1988 Cavalli launched a jeans line and presented his first printed jeans, that boosted his revenues considerably. He began showing his dressier line at Milan’s Fashion Week in 1994, and soon his racy, abbreviated chiffon dresses and signature zebra–print items were appealing to an entirely new generation of celebrities—some of whom were around the same age as his company. They included singers Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera, British soccer star David Beckham, and rap mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. “The celebrity connection is very important,” Cavalli explained to WWD ‘s Eric Wilson. “It’s more important to me personally than to anyone else because it makes me feel important. Sometimes in Italy you don’t know how important you are. It’s important because it’s adrenaline, and that’s what starts creativity.”

Cavalli’s clothes also caught on with a more difficult segment to win over. What Independent Sunday writer Rebecca Lowthorpe termed “the Cavalli cult” included “not only every big rock, pop, and rap star, from Madonna to Mary J. Blige, and the entire cast of Sex and the City, but, strangely, on fashion folk—traditionally the most resistant of all to colourful, busy clothes.” A Cavalli dress even became a plot point on Sex and the City, when Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie character was forced to clean out her overstuffed closet to make room for her boyfriend’s clothes. Their battle over space later escalates, and she tells him, “It’s Roberto Cavalli! I threw it out and I love it. What more do you want?”

Cavalli began courting the American market in earnest in the late 1990s. He began advertising in magazines like Cosmopolitan, and hired a management team to work with top United States retailers that carried his line, like Bergdorf Goodman. A Roberto Cavalli store with a posh Madison Avenue address opened in September of 1999. The effort paid off, and by 2002 Cavalli’s United States sales had tripled in just two years. Some of it, he believed, could be credited to a weariness with the somber minimalist shades that had continued to dominate women’s styles. As he insisted to People writer Galina Espinoza, “My fashion has become a success because other designers have become so monotonous.”

Cavalli has been the target of occasional criticism for what some consider an excess of fur in his collections. His men’s collection, re–launched in 1999, features clothes as equally spirited as his women’s line. The first attempt, back in 1974, was not a success, he recalled in an interview with Luisa Zargani of the Daily News Record. “The collection was too feminine, too colorful and artistic. I was not happy about it at all. I had tall and androgynous women walk down the runway wearing men’s clothes, but the final effect simply made no sense.” He retains a sharp eye for what a certain segment of the female populus wants to wear. “For a long time, designers tried to dress women like men,” he told Wall Street Journal writer Cecilie Rohwedder. “I changed that. I try to bring out the feminine, sexy side that every woman has inside her.”

Confirming his status as a pioneer in the denim world, Roberto Cavalli launched Cavalli Jeans (later renamed Just Cavalli) in 2000. Cavalli’s sportswear and jeans line, Just Cavalli, is also the name of a Milan restaurant that he owns. He designs housewares—not surprisingly, empress–red tones and zebra prints predominate—under the name Roberto Cavalli Casa, and also has accessories, fragrance, footwear, swimsuit, and eyewear licenses. He allocates money for marketing efforts only reluctantly, he told Lowthorpe in the Independent Sunday interview. “I never liked to spend too much on advertising,” he asserted. “All my life, I thought fashion should never be advertised like the washing machines.”

In December 2004 Cavalli sponsored ‘Wild: Fashion Untamed’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, an exhibition that examined the human fascination with animal skins, and animal references in clothing throughout history. “It’s not really that I love to use animal print, I like everything that is of nature,” Roberto told us in 2011. “I started to appreciate that even fish have a fantastic coloured ‘dress’, so does the snake, and the tiger. I start(ed) to understand that God is really the best designer, so I started to copy God.”

For its first re-design in 25 years, Playboy called on Cavalli to vamp up its famous bunny costumes in June 2005. “(Roberto) too embraces the good life, inspires an aspirational lifestyle for a jet-set crowd and of course celebrates beautiful women,” playboy CEO Christie Hefner enthused.

Set in a snakeskin-covered bottle, Roberto Cavalli Vodka was launched in September 2005. Followed by wines, restaurants and members’ clubs, these brand expansions confirmed Cavalli as the go-to designer for an elite lifestyle.

2007 saw the designer collaborate with some of the music industry’s leading female artists. Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez both asked the designer to create costumes for major concerts, while the Spice Girls wore a custom-made Cavalli wardrobe for their global reunion tour.

That November, Cavalli launched his first high-street collection for H&M. In the advertising campaign, shot by Terry Richardson, the designer asked, “How can I miss the party? I am the party,” before celebrating with models Erin Wasson and Jessica Stam in his Florentine villa. “Fashion can be glamour and fantasy, and at its best can even make reality a little more fun,” H&M’s marketing director told us at the time. “Wearing Cavalli’s creations is all about that.”  The collection sold out within hours of launching.

Another opportunity to collaborate presented itself in July 2008, as the house of Cavalli designed a limited edition Diet Coke bottle. In 2009 Cavalli appeared on The Martha Stewart Show and spoke for the first time about a desire to succeed in the photography world. “My dream in the near future is to create a big exhibition that would showcase my (photographs) from Africa and other exotic places. I used to shoot subject for my prints and my passion has evolved.”

Cavalli celebrated 40 years of business in 2010. The company was named the number one women’s fashion label on the Luxury Brand Status Index, released a celebratory coffe-table book and held an extravagant Parisian party attended by Heidi Klum, Kylie Minogue, Naomi Campbell and Taylor Swift.

In March 2012 Cheryl Cole became Cavalli’s latest celebrity muse, wearing a custom-made outfit for a performance on UK television show The Voice. “Cheryl is the perfect Cavalli woman, strong, confident and sexy,” the designer told us. “We used the signature Cavalli Fantasia and leopard prints to create a show-stopping outfit.”

October 2012 Cavalli’s launched the second high-street line, this time for Australian Target. Georgia May Jagger is also confirmed to be the face of the Just Cavalli perfumes from March 2013.

The designer is reluctant to retire, despite all that he has achieved. “Well, sometimes I say when I’m completely tired… but I feel a lot of responsibility to my fans: what they expect from me,” he told Vogue in 2011. “They expect a lot, but at the same time fashion is a part of my DNA. I could never live without it.”


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Below Roberto Cavalli Collection