Roberto Cavalli Dead at 83


MILAN — Designer Roberto Cavalli has died in Florence at age 83.

Cavalli came from a family of artists, as his grandfather Giuseppe Rossi was a leading figure of the Macchiaioli movement, with works exhibited at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Cavalli brought his artistic sensibility to his fashion designs, after studying at the Art Institute of Florence.

He launched his namesake fashion brand in 1970, unveiling his first collection at the Salon du Prêt-à-Porter in Paris held at the Porte de Versailles.

In the early 1970s he invented and patented an innovative printing process on leather, and opened his first small shop, called Limbo, in Saint-Tropez in 1972, which was so successful that the following year he was invited to show his leather wares in the storied Sala Bianca in Florence alongside Missoni, Krizia, Fendi and Basile.

After a first marriage to Silvanella Giannoni in 1977, Cavalli served as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant in the Dominican Republic, where he met contestant Eva Maria Düringer, whom he married in 1980. She became his main collaborator and was named creative director of his brand in 1994. Together they had three children: Rachele, Daniele and Robin. From Giannoni, he had two children: Cristiana and Tommaso. Earlier this year, Cavalli became a father to Giorgio, the name of his own father, with model Sandra Nilsson-Bergman. Incidentally, in 2015 the designer gifted Nilsson-Bergman with the island of Stora Rullingen, in Sweden, as a sign of his love.

To be sure, Cavalli’s own life reflected the glitzy and high-wattage of his fashion collections of bold animalier prints, bejeweled distressed jeans and sexy dresses that made him a household success — even snatching one of the first deals with H&M in 2007. At that time his fame was such that crowds lined up outside the doors of the brand’s Fifth Avenue store and one fan even picked up a cigar Cavalli discarded and saved in a plastic bag as a memento.

He would sail the Mediterranean in his purple metallic yacht RC, entertaining friends and celebrities — and there were many who over the years wore Cavalli on the red carpet, from Charlize Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow to Madonna. Puffing on his cigars, he was never afraid to speak up and voice his opinions, whether questioning minimalism or discussing sex, copycats or what he viewed as bad fashion.

Art and photography, as well as animals, were among his main passions. A Julian Schnabel portrait of the designer made with broken plates stood pride of place in his Milan apartment and his sprawling villa on the hills overlooking Florence was filled with an eclectic mix of important pieces, from a painting by Giovanni Boldini secured at an auction in New York to a rare collection of Gallé porcelains.

“Excess is success” was one of his oft-repeated maxims, and he would unabashedly say that he could not stand outside his New York store without attracting dozens of fans-clients and that during a reunited Spice Girls concert in 2008 the whole stadium cheered when he arrived.

That same year, he was a special guest on “Project Runway” and his popularity in the U.S. grew over the years. On Columbus Day in 2013, he led the annual holiday parade as Grand Marshal straddling a teal Alfa Romeo Spider convertible flanked by 20 models clutching onto the backs of 20 Ducati motorcycle drivers as they made their way uptown — the first designer to lead the parade, following the likes of previous marshals and cultural icons with Italian heritage including Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Franco Zeffirelli.

While a regular name on the calendar of Milan Fashion Week, he held a memorable fashion show during Pitti Uomo on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence in 2006 — a further sign of his clout given the importance of the storied landmark location.

He was one of the first designers to understand the importance of inviting his customers into his world, as he put it. In 2002 he opened a Just Cavalli Café, with a steel bar designed by architect and sculptor Ron Arad, in Milan’s famous Branca Tower, which was designed by Giò Ponti in 1933. Six years later, he opened his first club in Florence in a 15th-century deconsecrated church with the help of architect Italo Rota.

In 2011, Cavalli signed licenses for multiple categories, including furniture, wallpaper, tiles and home textiles, launching a still successful home line, and with the goal to furnish the Cavalli Clubs and Cafés planned after Florence and Dubai.

In 2014, he penned an autobiography called “Just Me!” “I screwed everybody over — I have been an amazing actor,” Cavalli confessed to WWD. “With this book, people will discover a Roberto Cavalli that you don’t expect, because the recital is over, so I take the stage and introduce the real me.” His intention was to inspire his children and younger generations.

Dropping his flamboyant mask, in the book Cavalli retraced the most significant moments of his life, starting from the tragic loss of his father, who was executed by German soldiers in 1944, when the designer was only three years old.

“This is not a book about fashion, it is about a boy from a modest family who achieved success thanks to his strong willpower,” Cavalli said then, reiterating his goal of a lifetime — “to make women look beautiful.”

In fact, speaking to students at Oxford University a year earlier, arriving on his Challenger 604 private jet, he said he wanted “to get across 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” — though he worried about how his English would sound and whether he’d find “sophisticated-enough” words for his talk.

He talked the students through his first Fiat 500 — “The best moment of my life!” — his first Ferrari, his penchant for taking pictures of clouds and his love of flower and animal prints. “God is the best designer in the world. I copy him,” said Cavalli, whose own menagerie included a German shepherd, a shark and a wide variety of exotic birds.

As par for the course, he slipped in a few complaints, about fashion becoming too industrial and not creative enough, lambasting the use of young, skinny models — contrary to his own idea of sensual women with strong personalities and pointing to Naomi Campbell as one such embodiment.

In addition to the signature brand, in its heyday the designer’s group included the young Just Cavalli collections, the bridge line Cavalli Class, the Roberto Cavalli junior line, the home collection and a hospitality sector through its network of Cavalli Clubs and Cavalli Cafés, in cities ranging from Miami to Dubai. It counted a network of almost 200 stores globally, and sales of more than 710 million euros, which led the designer to consider an initial public offering that never materialized.

In 2009, Cavalli abandoned plans to sell a 30 percent stake in his business to Italian private equity firm Clessidra SGR after disagreeing over price. (At the time he felt that stake was worth 2 billion euros.) This came after a challenging period for the company, dented by unpaid royalties on the Just Cavalli brand from the now-defunct licensee Ittierre, which had gone into government-backed bankruptcy and which kicked off Cavalli’s own subsequent economic problems.

The latter years in his life saw his company change hands twice. Clessidra eventually did take over the Cavalli company in 2015, and was successful in returning the firm to the black. The collections at the time were designed by Peter Dundas, who succeeded the founder in 2015 as he gradually eased out of fashion. The sale was spearheaded by Francesco Trapani, then-chairman of Clessidra.

Paul Surridge succeeded Dundas in 2017 for a two-year stint. He was tapped by then-chief executive officer Giangiacomo Ferraris, who initiated the reorganization of the company and went through a composition with creditors, until in 2019 its current owner, Vision Investment Co. LLC, took over. This vehicle is controlled by Hussain Sajwani, founder and chairman of Dubai-based Damac Properties Group, which is erecting a five-star hotel tower branded Cavalli in Dubai.

The collections are now designed by Fausto Puglisi, who has been creating buzz around the brand once again with his designs aligned to the original spirit of the founder.



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