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Roberto Cavalli, the unrepentant maximalist

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 24, 2024 5:00 am

Roberto Cavalli passed away last April 12 at age 83, leaving a legacy of sexy, maximalist fashion and handcrafted, bohemian-chic clothes. Known for his dictum that “Excess is Success,” he always found minimalism boring, dressing everyone thinking that life and fashion should be lived full speed ahead, preferably on a yacht like his trademark purple one that was emblematic of the luxury that his celebrity clients expected from him.

They lapped up his animal-print dresses, bejeweled distressed jeans and satin corsets with rock and roll flash—pieces that were unapologetically attention-grabbing and flesh-baring, playing to fashion’s fun and hedonistic side.

Bretman Rock at the MTV Video Music Awards

He built a global lifestyle brand through a blingy aesthetic that sold across classes and cultures through the decades—with several renaissances, thanks to his skill in reinventing clothes for different eras. Fans included principessas of the palazzos who wear it with irony, as well as the fashion-forward who mix it with streetwear. He has even been rediscovered by the Zoomers: Bretman Rock, the Filipino-American social media star, was seen in Cavalli’s tiger-striped gown from the year 2000.

His high-profile confidence and success belied his youth when he developed a stutter from a tragedy in his suburban town near Florence where he was born in 1940 to Giorgio and Marcella (Rossi) Cavalli, a surveyor for a mining factory and a seamstress, respectively. His father was one of a group of local men who were rounded up and massacred by the German Army in 1944 in retaliation for an attack by Italian resistance soldiers.

Roberto Cavalli SS 2024

It was traumatic for Roberto, turning him into a rebellious teenager until he found his calling in 1957 when he went to the Istituto d’Arte art school. It was in his lineage, after all, since his maternal grandfather, Giuseppe Rossi, was a well-regarded painter of the Macchiaioli movement and his mother handpainted the dresses she created in between selling coal to augment the family income.

Roberto Cavalli Resort 2024

Her industriousness inspired him to start earning money himself, finding a mechanical process to make her handpainting more efficient. After studying Como’s high-end textile firms, he began to print RTW sweaters for Mariuccia Mandelli of Krizia. His passion for animalia was already evident, simulating wild-beast pelts which caught Mariuccia’s eye. He always looked to nature.

Roberto Cavalli Resort 2024

“I started to appreciate that even fish have a fantastic colored ‘dress,’ so does the snake and the tiger. I started to understand that God is really the best designer so I started to copy God,” he said in an interview.

Before long, Cavalli had a studio, employees, a much-dreamed-of Ferrari and enough money to impress the banker father of Silvanella Giannoni, who was his inspiration to achieve so much at such a young age. They married in 1964 and had two children before divorcing in 1974.

Roberto Cavalli FW 2023

His breakthrough may have been in 1969 when he gatecrashed a party of the shoe designer Mario Valentino and bragged that he could print on leather even if he couldn’t, but went straight to work fast until he produced a sample which he patented and later debuted in Paris for the likes of Hermès and Pierre Cardin. At age 32, he presented his first eponymous collection at the Salon for Prêt-a-Porter.

The printed leather for garments did not really fly so for Palazzo Pitti, he designed patchworks of leather, brocade, printed textiles and denim which were cut out from worn-out jeans obtained from a US Prison. A wild mix of arte povera materials artistically composed using Italian craft skills was a big hit for the well-heeled, who were into the Boho-hippy-rock chic of Talitha Getty.

Victoria Beckham in a 2005 show

He eventually opened his first boutique in St. Tropez where he became a high-living celebrity and divorcee with a penchant for beautiful women, landing him as a judge in the 1977 Miss Universe pageant where he met his second wife in Miss Austria, Eva Düringer, whom he married in 1980. She became his model, business manager and mother to their three children, before divorcing in 2010.

Roberto Cavalli SS 2007

Cavalli’s maximalism fell out of favor in the 1980s when designers like Calvin Klein and Rei Kawakubo were the trendsetters of minimalism. He still had his clientele, however, and segued to a triumphant second wind in the 1990s when he reinvented luxury denim, creating the sandblasted look, as well as the Lycra-added stretch jeans that had a snugger and sexier fit. He personally distressed and printed an entwining snake on one to make the winning pair that Naomi Campbell modelled on the runway. By the end of that decade, he was a favorite on the red carpet as well as on stage, worn by Jennifer Lopez, Béyonce, and Christina Aguilera. On television, Carrie Bradshaw donned his giraffe print in Sex and the City.

Roberto Cavalli FW 2007

He stayed relevant in the 2000s, having the clout to mount a show on the Ponte Vecchio in 2006, being the first Italian designer in 2007 to snatch an H&M collection which sold out, and expanding to furniture and homeware, while opening clubs and cafes in cities ranging from Miami to Dubai.

His stores numbered close to 200 globally. He handed the designing reins to Peter Dundas in 2015, who was succeeded by Paul Surridge in 2017 then Fausto Puglisi in 2020.

Their designs stayed true to the spirit of the founder whose own life till the end reflected the glitz and high-wattage of his fashion collections.

He even had a son in 2023 with a new partner, Swedish model and actor Sandra Nilsson. He penned an autobiography, “Just Me!” however, where he wanted to show a different side, saying “The recital is over so I take the stage and introduce the real me. This is not a book about fashion, it is about a boy from a modest family who achieved success thanks to his willpower.”

He also reiterated his goal of a lifetime: “To make women beautiful.” Wanting to inspire the younger generation, he gave a talk to students in Oxford where he arrived on his private jet, telling them that “behind the fabulous yacht, the champagne, the parties, there’s a man called Roberto Cavalli who worked very, very hard to create this wonderful life.”