FIVE MINUTES INTO my meeting with Italian designer Roberto Cavalli, he starts telling me about his sexual escapades as a young Latin lover. “When I was young and slept with a lot of girls, I wanted everybody to know. You have to show it off when you have a good fuck,” he reveals, contrasting his unabashedly showy attitude to the more reserved personality of his son Daniele, seated beside him, who is far more low-key than his larger-than-life father.
Ah, Roberto Cavalli! There are few designers as unguarded and prone to controversy as the Florentine septuagenarian who, since the advent of social media, has found a new way to blow his trumpet even louder, getting into much-publicised beefs with fellow fashion stars such as Karl Lagerfeld – “He looks ridiculous” – and Italian hotshots such as Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani, whom he publicly criticised about scheduling conflicts during Milan Fashion Week.
It’s not often that the words “fashion designer” and “womaniser” appear in the same sentence, but Cavalli is a true character, a fearless showman and party animal, still married to his Austrian wife Eva. He met the stunning former beauty queen while judging a Miss Universe pageant and she’s now his hand-right woman at the company, always taking the bow with him at the end of each show.
It’s a balmy morning in Milan and we’re seated in the beautiful courtyard of a palazzo not far from the city’s stock exchange. Cavalli, clad in a black jacket, his signature dark shades, a string of bracelets and a few rings, and sporting a glowing tan, is lounging on a sofa wielding his iPhone to take photos of the surrounding hubbub as a small group of assistants, PR officers and his son Daniele drift in and out during the interview. True to form, the designer peppers his remarks with expletives and funny outbursts that are hard to convey to readers not familiar with the tongue of Dante Alighieri, the quintessential man of letters and fellow Florentine who gave birth to the Italian language in the Middle Ages.
Although it might sound blasphemous to compare Cavalli to one of the most revered figures in Italian history, there’s something about the designer that epitomises what Italian culture has been about since the days when Florence was the artistic capital of the world. It’s that same opulence and decadence one can still admire in the ornate facade of Florence’s Duomo or the sumptuous habits still worn by the clergy in the Vatican. Add to that a hefty dose of pizzazz – and in-your-face sex appeal – and you get that irresistible mix of high-octane glamour and party-like-it’s-1999 approach to life for which Cavalli has become the poster child.
You could spend hours listening to Cavalli spew out one-liner after another in his strong Tuscan accent, as he talks about his sprawling estate on the hills around Florence – “My wine is the only one that’s made under the sun of Florence, not in the countryside,” he says proudly – his helicopter rides around Europe, or his huge boat that from May to the end of the summer becomes party central at hot spots from Saint-Tropez to Cannes and Sardinia.
This is the stereotypical image of the designer that has come to represent everything that Roberto Cavalli and his brand are about. Yet if you delve deeper into his personality and try to prise open his tough outer shell – no easy task, since he’s prone to jump from one tangent to another while politely repeating, “Sorry to bother you with this but I have to tell you about it” – you discover there’s much more to him than the bombshell gowns and over-the-top confections that have made him famous.
Although he’s loath to betray any signs of emotion, Cavalli is also a typical Italian family man, which is evident when he talks fondly about his children, two of whom are anointed as his unofficial heirs at the house (Daniele, 27, is in charge of menswear, while daughter Rachele, 30, designs accessories).
“Daniele is amazing. Last night I hugged and kissed him for resembling me. Sons never want to show it or say it out loud, but I know that he admires me and has learned a lot from me. He’ll never admit it – it’s a never-ending battle. Rachele is more clever, like all women. She does all she wants, but without making you realise that she always gets her way.”
Yet it’s when he talks about his own childhood in Florence that Cavalli opens up about his unusual path to global stardom. “I often say that I breathe art, and I say it as a joke, but it’s true because of Florence.” He says he was a bad student whose parents wanted him to study accounting, “but I chose a school where all the slackers went, an art school. But it was great because you really learned how to make art, to touch and feel it.
“I chose interior with a specialisation in textile design, but you could also study wood-making techniques and other disciplines. After you got your degree, the only thing you could do was to teach art. When I was about to graduate, I said to the professor that I was going to drop out because of all the other classes such as English, maths and so on…” Sometimes, he adds, he regrets that he never went to a proper college.
Still, his lack of formal education didn’t dim his prospects of making it big in fashion. “My success started with jeans. When I invented the stretch jeans, I helped make women’s bottoms look prettier,” he says with a smirk. “Until then, it was very minimalist, but slowly women could show more of their body and be sexier.”
Always fascinated by the possibilities of experimenting with materials and treating them to achieve unexpected effects, he also pioneered a technique of printing on leather, starting to supply houses such as Hermès. His debut runway show in 1970 was followed by his first boutique in Saint-Tropez. The rest, as they say, is history. After a quiet period in the late ’80s, Cavalli has been on a roll, becoming the de-facto king of the red carpet, something he has strong opinions about.
“Now other designers have discovered how important it is, but for me it was different,” he explains. “Now they even pay the stylists or the stars so that they can wear their looks. For me it started almost as a game, with my friendship with Jennifer Lopez. I was joking, telling her that I would do something for one of her performances. She wanted short dresses, with sequins, so that it was easy for her to dance. Then she asked for a long dress for the red carpet. It was fun for me because actually these redcarpet clothes are not as much part of who I am. They represent a creative outlet in terms of design, but I’m more from an artistic background than fashion design.”
Indeed, art runs in Cavalli’s veins – his grandfather was a famous painter, part of the Macchiaioli group that surfaced in Florence in the 19th century – and though he’s first and foremost known as a fashion creator, and a savvy one at that, with successful fragrance lines, a chain of cafes in cities such as Florence and Dubai, not to mention his own branded vodka, which comes in a snakeskin bottle – he’s also an avid photographer, using the images he captures around the world to inspire his team.
“I always find stuff and take pictures with my iPhone,” he says. “Recently I was in Melbourne, where we went to see all the designs done by the Aboriginals, which reminded me a lot of Zandra Rhodes. The other day I looked at my photos of those artworks and I sent them to my studio in Florence. I don’t know if and how we’ll use them, but I always find something when I travel.
“Another time, I went to Africa and on the last day I shot a giraffe. It was only a few days before the show when I got back to Florence, but everyone loved the photo and I printed it, making some tiny changes. And immediately we made three of the most beautiful pieces for the show, which took place only three days later.”
When I point out that Cavalli will always be associated with red-carpet dressing, wild prints, lavish furs and the aura surrounding his over-the-top lifestyle, he counters that in fact what his house stands for is craftsmanship. “If you look at my clothing, it’s all made of those tiny pieces like the buttons, things that you can only find in Florence. The other night I was having dinner with a retail executive who mentioned that someone said Cavalli can only be worn in the bedroom because it’s too sexy. This perception is still strong because they just order the sexy stuff, ignoring the jackets, the pants…”
Could it be that Cavalli, the king of glamour, the man who makes women look like sex goddesses and men like louche rock stars, is retreating into a more subdued mood? If you look at some of his most recent collections, which are dominated by a softer palette and fewer wild prints – but without forsaking luscious materials such as fur and velvet – there does seem to be a slight departure from the razzle-dazzle of his heyday. It’s obviously a sign of current times and perhaps a result of the much stronger role that Eva and his children have come to play at the house.
But is this what fashion needs? Does it require toning down the super-glamour that has made Cavalli the go-to designer for unbridled luxury and extravagant excess (yes, with him, superlatives are not to be used sparely)? Certainly not, especially when flamboyant figures like him are becoming a rarity in the corporate-driven fashion system. After all, no matter what happens in the world at large, there will always be women whose needs are far removed from those of the 99 percent, and a sexy Cavalli gown should always be around to please them.