Italian Fashion Designer Roberto Cavalli Has Died at 83


Roberto Cavalli, the Italian designer who infused the print-led boho look with sex appeal, has died at 83. His passing was confirmed by the brand. “The Roberto Cavalli company shares condolences with Mr. Cavalli’s family. His legacy remains a constant source of inspiration,” said Roberto Cavalli’s CEO Sergio Azzolari.

By the time shows started to go digital (circa 2000), Cavalli was a well-established golden name in fashion; an elder, even, enjoying a second round of renown. He exuded Hefner vibes (minus the robe) when he took his fall 2001 bow smoking a pipe. (The designer was in fact asked to redesign the Playboy bunny costume in 2005.) By then the leonine Cavalli was living the good life, something that he achieved with braggadocio and brain power—and against the odds. In the context of Cacvalli’s life story, the body worship and forthright sexiness of his work, could be seen more broadly as an affirmation of life itself, which, from a young age he understood to be fragile.

Born in Florence in 1940, Cavalli’s maternal grandfather was a member of the Macchiaioli group of Italian Impressionists. His father, an anti-fascist who is thought to have been a mine surveyor, was shot by the Nazi forces when Cavalli was just three years old. The psychological impact was expressed physically through a stutter. “It was not easy for me to speak, the shock,” the designer told Luke Leitch in a 2011 interview. To support the family, his mother started sewing at home, taking in seamstresses to help her. At 17, a confident Cavalli enrolled at the Academy of Art in Florence to study art and architecture. There he met and fell in love with his first wife and the mother of two of his children, Silvanella Giannoni.

In 1960, after hand-painting some sweaters for a friend in the knitwear business, Cavalli was spurred to do something of his own with rather traditional floral prints, and started applying them to existing garments. It wasn’t long before the designer, wrote Leitch in a 2011 article for Panorama, “had graduated from teaching himself textile printing techniques on a borrowed ping-pong table to working on his own six-meter printing table (bought by his mother) in a rented garage, to building his first factory,” with some financing from a friend. That factory was flooded away in November 1966, not long before the Summer of Love, which Cavalli would extend ad infinitum in fashion and his personal life.

The designer’s next breakthrough came about while trying to make good on a lie used while girl-chasing. Cavalli related the following anecdote in that Panorama interview. In September 1970, the young divorcé crashed a party at leather designer Mario Valentino’s house. Trying to impress a beautiful woman who had asked what he did, Cavalli replied that he did prints on leather. She then introduced him to the host, who asked to see them. The designer rose to the challenge, using by applying his printing technique to the thinnest glove leather. (Hippie florals in a dusty Cacharel palette were all the rage at the time.) Valentino wasn’t the only one impressed; Hermès wanted to acquire the exclusive rights to the technique. “I was flying back from Paris and in that aeroplane I was thinking. I thought, ‘maybe now, if I design one collection, I could meet a lot of models! That was always a principle of my life!’ ” the designer told Leitch.

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