Roberto Cavalli Biography

Fashion designer

Born November 15, 1940, in Florence, Italy; son of Giorgio (a mine surveyor) and Marcella (a tailor; maiden name, Rossi) Cavalli; married Silvanella Giannoni, 1964 (divorced, 1974); married Eva Duringer; children: Christiana, Tommaso (from first marriage), Rachele, Daniele (son), Robin (son) (from second marriage). Education: Attended the Academy of Art of Florence, Italy, after 1957.


Office —Roberto Cavalli, 711 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10021–8003.


Began career as a textile printer for an Italian knitwear line, 1960; started a T–shirt, denim, and leather design company; worked for the design house of Mario Valentino; opened namesake boutique in Saint–Tropez, France; showed first women's collection in Florence, Italy, 1972; launched short–lived men's line, 1974; design house revived in early 1990s with the success of Cavalli Jeans line (renamed Just Cavalli); began showing women's lines during Milan Fashion Week, 1994; opened Madison Avenue boutique, September, 1999; also designs Roberto Cavalli Casa, a housewares division, and has ten product licenses, from fragrance to footwear.


Italian designer Roberto Cavalli's flamboyant, creatively embellished clothes have earned him a loyal following among fashion–forward men, women, and pop stars. Cavalli had enjoyed a fleeting

Roberto Cavalli
burst of fame when he began his business in the early 1970s for his innovative printed leathers, but faded into relative obscurity as styles grew more minimalist. Fashionistas and celebrities rediscovered his still–extravagant designs in the '90s, and helped make them among the most–coveted of items from the runways each season. Writing in London's Observer, Polly Vernon termed Cavalli the "king of bling" and his line "the absurd, trashy, slag–luxe fashion choice of the footballer, the footballer's wife, and the super–ornate superstar."

Born in 1940, Cavalli is a native of the Tuscan capital of Florence. 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." 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." Cavalli opened his own boutique in Saint–Tropez, on the French Riviera.

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."

Devising a method of printing patterns onto stretch denim, Cavalli launched a jeans line 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."

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."

Cavalli's company enjoyed United States sales in what were estimated would be $150 million for 2004. The designer plans a further expansion into the North American market that will include a New York City café—modeled on one he launched in Milan, which features his tableware designs—and a boutique on Beverly Hills's poshest shopping street, Rodeo Drive. It would be the 39th among Roberto Cavalli boutiques, including the first one still operating in Saint–Tropez.

Cavalli and his family, however, remain primarily in Florence, where his hilltop home outside the city plays host to celebrity–studded galas rumored to be as opulent as his clothes. He and his wife, with whom he has three children, breed thoroughbred horses, own vineyards in the Chianti region, and oversee a chocolate factory in Italy. Cavalli pilots his own helicopter and 62–foot speedboat that features cushions with his signature zebra print, and also owns three Ferrari luxury sports cars, each of which possesses its own set of custom luggage. In person, note many journalists who interview him, he retains the look of the 1970s–era rake with his fitted jeans, shirts unbuttoned to the waist, and a flowing mane of hair that has turned silver. In mid–2003, he appeared in court in Florence after Italian authorities charged him with tax fraud. It was a not–uncommon practice for moguls in Italy, a country where the estimated tax tables actually take into account the percentage that taxpayers are likely to cheat. The evasion charges stem from renovations done to his Tuscan villa, parts of which date back to the year 1200, that were charged to his business.

In 2003, Cavalli was chosen to serve as grand marshal of New York City's Columbus Day parade. Notable personalities of Italian heritage are usually selected for the honor, and past grand marshals have included Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti. Cavalli, however, was the first fashion designer to lead the parade. On that same October day, an article he wrote titled "America La Bella" appeared in the Wall Street Journal. In it, he identified with the Italian–American community whose achievements the parade celebrates. "This country gave us all an opportunity and that's exactly why I have always loved America," he wrote. "Because it embraces whoever has the desire to build. It's a blend of family and entrepreneurship."


Cardline, September 19, 2003, p. 1.

Daily News Record (Los Angeles, CA), June 12, 2000, p. 12.

Evening Standard (London, England), July 9, 2001, p. 23.

Footwear News, July 17, 2000, p. 6S.

Global Cosmetic Industry, March 2003, p. 11.

HFN: The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network, November 3, 2003, p. 18.

Independent (London, England), January 12, 2002, p. 9.

Independent Sunday (London, England), February 25, 2001, p. 24.

International Herald Tribune, February 28, 2004, p. 14.

New York Times, September 9, 2001, p. 1.

Observer (London, England), August 17, 2003, p. 16.

People, December 17, 2001, p. 125.

Time International, March 10, 2003, p. 56.

Times (London, England), July 27, 2002, p. 58.

Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2002, p. B1; October 13, 2003, p. A18.

WWD, February 4, 1998, p. 18; April 13, 2001, p. 9; May 2, 2003, p. 3; July 2, 2003, p. 3; July 11, 2003, p. 2; August 4, 2003, p. 4; October 14, 2003, p. 10; January 14, 2004, p. 2; February 11, 2004, p. 7.

Carol Brennan

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