Roberto Cavalli: The Man Who Made Fashion Fun

Last Updated: June 14, 2024By

Roberto Cavalli: The Man Who Made Fashion Fun

 

When Italian fashion hit the global stage in the late 20th century, it split into two main vibes: the soft, touchable, and elegant style, and the bold, flashy, in-your-face look. Roberto Cavalli, who passed away at 83, was the king of the latter.

Italian textiles and leather were the backbone of both styles. For Cavalli, they offered materials like patterned and shiny leathers, clothes printed after being sewn so designs weren’t interrupted by seams, and fabrics with his bold prints. These prints included animal patterns, Renaissance and Baroque styles, or details from nature inspired by his own digital photos.

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Cavalli’s fashion was loud, blingy, and loved by everyone. People from fancy palaces could wear it with a touch of irony, while others embraced his celebration of bold heterosexuality.

A Global Icon

In the late ’90s, Cavalli’s empire grew. He branched out into clothes, shoes, accessories for all ages, home goods, perfumes, a credit card, and even cafes. In Florence, he bought the exclusive Caffè Giacosa and gave it the Cavalli touch.

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Despite his global fame, his heart was always in Florence. His mother, Marcella, was a dressmaker and his father, Giorgio, a mining engineer, was tragically killed by German soldiers in 1944. After the war, Marcella worked hard, first selling coal and then hand-painting dresses to make ends meet.

Cavalli had a tough childhood. He stuttered but eventually convinced his mom to let him attend Florence’s Istituto d’Arte. He never finished, but he didn’t need to. Inspired by his mom’s painted dresses, he explored textile printing, starting with Como’s high-end fabric makers. He began printing ready-to-wear sweaters for fashion houses like Krizia and Hermès.

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The Big Break

Cavalli’s big moment came in 1969 when he crashed a party for shoe designer Mario Valentino and mentioned he could print on leather. He couldn’t at the time but figured it out quickly. He debuted his printed leather garments at the Paris Salon du Prêt-à-Porter in 1970, and while people were impressed, they didn’t buy.

His next move was revolutionary. He bought a container of worn-out jeans from a U.S. prison, washed, cut, and patched them with leather and printed fabrics, showcasing them at the Pitti Palace in 1972. The mix of worn materials and Italian craftsmanship appealed to the Boho-chic crowd.

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Cavalli opened his first boutique, Limbo, in St. Tropez, and soon became a global sensation. He was known for his high-energy lifestyle and love for beautiful women. In 1977, he judged the Miss Universe pageant, where he met Eva Düringer, who became his second wife and the mother of three of his children. They divorced in 2010.

Keeping Control

Cavalli was hands-on with his designs, proud of the craftsmanship, and opposed to outsourcing. He disliked the ’80s trend of minimalism but stayed true to his flamboyant style. Even when business slowed, he bounced back in the ’90s, adding Lycra to denim to create stretch jeans, famously modeled by Naomi Campbell.

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The Comeback

In the ’90s, while Gianni Versace took the spotlight, Cavalli’s designs remained unique and desirable. His animal prints were more about fun and style rather than aggressive sex appeal.

Cavalli’s designs were seen on red carpets, concerts, and TV shows like Sex and the City. He opened boutiques and cafes worldwide, catering to a culture of excess and fun. He even designed a collection for H&M in 2007, which sold out quickly. Though his company closed in 2014, it relaunched a year later.

Legal Troubles and Legacy

In 2002, tax police investigated his extravagant estate and helicopter, charging him with tax evasion. He was initially sentenced to jail, but the verdict was later overturned.

Cavalli’s legacy lives on through his six children and his partner, Sandra Nilsson, with whom he had a son named Giorgio in 2023. His bold, fun approach to fashion made a lasting impact, blending luxury with a touch of wild, and ensuring his place in the fashion world forever.

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