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A Life By Design

Fashion czar Roberto Cavalli spreads his cult of personality into ever-widening spheres
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009

(continued from page 1)

A lot of us would like to have Roberto Cavalli’s way with women. The Italian fashion designer, known for exuberant prints and suggestive cuts, is not only married to a Miss Universe runner-up and chummy with the many stunning celebrities he dresses, but apparently ladies are willing to accept, and even embrace his enjoyment of cigar smoking. The morning of the debut in New York City of the designer’s collection created especially for H&M stores, Cavalli arrived to a line of women that stretched around the block, some of whom had spent the night in sleeping bags to be the first admitted. Before entering the store, he deposited the cigar he was smoking in the gutter. One of his followers had the presence of mind to snatch it up and preserve it in a Ziploc bag. That cigar butt later appeared on eBay and fetched a price of $150.

Inspiring smoking tolerance aside, Cavalli can also be credited with convincing women to rediscover sartorial color and sexuality after the long, dark period of all-black dressing that began in the 1980s. His Cavalli look, with its return to femininity, struck a chord with such lovelies as Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Stone and Mischa Barton, evidently drawn by his philosophy that “a dress can change your life.” Perhaps more to the point the designer seems to understand, as Jessica Simpson put it, “what a man wants,” an appreciation sorely missing in so many designer lines that seem to be designed for making an impression at the fashion show, while ignoring the mundane precept of appealing to the opposite sex. At any rate, he has developed a cult of personality that has spread beyond the runway.

Pressed to share his secrets on the fairer sex, the 67-year-old demurs that it was only later in life that he developed this way with women. He does offer, however, that “I make women understand they should feel more
important with femininity, more confident. That is the best part of a woman. They start to love my fashion that brings out their own personality.”

The Florentine, who first burst into the fashion world in the 1960s with his outrageous prints, has enjoyed a multivaried career that took him from fabric maker to designer, with some forays into inventing processes of printing on fabric when the existing technologies wouldn’t suit him. He endured a period of withdrawal from the fashion scene in the 1980s and came back stronger than ever in the 1990s, seeming to have perfectly picked a time when the world would be ripe for his return. Now he oversees a diverse lifestyle empire that reflects his artistry, philosophy and flamboyant spirit in such arenas as wine and vodka making, boutiques, nightclubs, fragrances, horse breeding, men’s and children’s apparel lines and even a line of pet clothing. Asked what holds all these endeavors together, he answers, “The common thread is me.”

While charming and soft-spoken, Cavalli exudes a self-possession that is probably best illustrated by the television commercial in which young socialites fret about whether they will arrive too late for a party, while he intones from his perch on a flight of stairs that “I am the party.”

Somehow, coming from Cavalli, such a pronouncement comes off as no brag, just fact. He conveys this sense that he is doing the world a favor by making it a more beautiful place in which to live. Speaking on what impels his movement into ever-widening spheres, he says simply: “I love to see the people enjoy my lifestyle.”

And if one word could describe said lifestyle, it is fabulous. Beyond the meanderings in the fashion world and the horse breeding and nightlife, there is his villa in Tuscany, his helicopter and his 140-foot yacht. Both of the latter, he pilots himself and has outfitted with iridescent skins of his own design, which bring to mind his own fabric patterns.
It wasn’t always this way for Cavalli. Born in Florence during the Second World War, he lost his father before he was four when the German SS was doing a sweep of suspected resistance fighters. Cavalli says that he was never really clear why his father was shot, except that he was a mining engineer and so might have been thought to be connected to some plot.
The boy was then raised by his mother and aunts in the humble atmosphere of postwar Italy. There was, however, a tradition of art in his family as his maternal grandfather, Giuseppe Rossi, was a portrait artist of the Macchiaioli movement (an Italian forerunner to the French Impressionist movement), whose work is exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery. Cavalli’s mother was a dressmaker with an artistic streak of her own: she would sometimes paint on the fabric, in a foreshadowing of her son’s early successes. He also was endowed with drive: “I grew up wishing, dreaming.”

As a young man he enrolled in the local art institute with a view toward becoming a painter. It was not to be as he switched his area of study to fabric design. “I was never very great as a painter,” he says. “Much more of my artistry is in my ideas.” One of the first of those ideas caught on in 1960 when he was still a student. He made a series of flower prints that were a hit with Italian hosiery mills.

The evolution that would become the Cavalli empire, with its $50 million in wholesale sales, was not something that the young designer was imagining at the time: “I wanted to make enough money to buy my fast car. That’s what every young man wants—a fast car.”

He experimented with painting T-shirts and later printing on them, and by 1970 he was putting designs on leather and had developed the technology to do it with. He made patchworks of different materials. And when he brought the ideas to Paris, he was rewarded with commissions from such revered fashion houses as Hermès and Pierre Cardin. By the time he was 30, he was designing under his own name and showing at the Salon for Prêt-à-Porter in Paris. In 1972 he opened a boutique in Saint-Tropez.

But by the 1980s, he had left the scene. Not wishing to vie in the atmosphere of “minimalism and black, black, black” that pervaded the era, he relegated his business to custom orders. “I didn’t want to become a minimalist and compete.”
With the help of his wife, Eva (née Duringer), who coordinates his runway shows, styling and presentations, he successfully resurrected his flair for fun, fantasy and color in the 1990s. Since then, his career has been on nothing but a rising arc as his sensibility has been in demand for such varied assignments as the Spice Girls, the redesign of the Playboy Bunny uniform at the Palms in Las Vegas and the reimagining of the Michael Jackson look—sans white socks and single glove.

An inveterate cigar smoker, he has limited his intake to just a few a day as a concession to smoking regulations. His favorite smoke is the Davidoff Zino, sales of which he claims have doubled in Italy since it was discovered to be his cigar of choice. He most enjoys a cigar when he is relaxing on his yacht in the moonlight, perhaps with some music playing.

This serene scenario is not to suggest that Roberto Cavalli is slowing down. “I wish to create something different especially now in the new millennium,” he says. “I wish to be read about 50 years from now.”

Cavalli’s will to face life head on with unwavering joy shows through when he is asked to consider the danger of flying his own helicopter: “Life is dangerous, but if you live it being afraid…oh, my god.”

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