By LAURA JORDAN
Sometimes when you meet the magician behind the tricks it’s a bit like when Dorothy finally comes face to face with the Wizard of Oz: it’s a letdown. Behind the flashbulbs and glittering façade, even the most exciting and charismatic actors, singers, sports stars and designers can be somewhat disappointing or, at best, normal. Roberto Cavalli, on the other hand, is everything you expect him to be, and more. Cavalli is the embodiment of his theatrical, sexy, trash-luxe, super-glamorous 40-year-old fashion house.
If Giorgio Armani is Italian fashion’s classicist, Miuccia Prada the intellect, and Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana the sensualists, then Roberto Cavalli is the flamboyant showman. Now the king of animal print, Cavalli started his career dreaming up exotic patterns for other fashion houses. During the 1970s, he invented some sophisticated techniques, including printing directly onto leather so it replicated animal skin. This won him commissions from the likes of Pierre Cardin and Hermès, and has formed the foundation of his own labels. The prints are found on everything from denim and lamé to satin, silk and velvet. Slashed and shredded, plunging and puckered, leopard print is his signature.
Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren were early Cavalli devotees and, since then, he has remained a jet-set favourite for his pure va-va-voom sex appeal. Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Shakira, Angelina Jolie, Heidi Klum, Naomi Campbell and Victoria Beckham have all been seduced by Cavalli’s designs – his clothes don’t so much steal the limelight as own it.
Minimalism doesn’t exist in Cavalli’s world. His aesthetic spreads beyond womenswear and into a wider world that encompasses not only Cavalli’s other, rather diverse, ventures – including menswear, childrenswear, sunglasses, fragrances, pet clothing, nightclubs, even vodka and wine – but his own lavish lifestyle (The yacht! The helicopter!). His 15th-century home perched above the sepia-soaked Renaissance city of Florence is pure Cavalli.
A Florentine by birth, Cavalli must have been dreaming of this home since he was a boy. Set in a 36-acre estate in the hills of the city, the house was bought in 1974 after his divorce from his first wife. Originally a 15th-century watchtower (the height above the city provides an uninterrupted view), it’s the Tuscan fantasy: all shuttered windows, huge doors, stone floors and sandstone brick. It passed into the hands of Tuscan farmers, which accounts for the gloriously hotchpotch nature of the building – a room added here and a stable added there – as the family and the farm grew. “That’s the beauty of the house,” Cavalli says.“There’s a lot of movement.”
After a few years, he bought the entire hill, which has been transformed over the years with the addition of a pool, a heliport (“I think I am the only designer in the world who drives a helicopter”), and more recently the Italo Rota-designed studio where we meet.
A glass-walled structure built into the sandstone hill, the studio has latticed steel screens and can change colour at the flick of a switch. It’s a modernist foil to the bucolic beauty of the Tuscan landscape and the rustic splendour of the main house. The structure might be sleek and contemporary, but there’s nothing minimalist about the interior. Baroque chairs upholstered in fabric printed with the designer’s press cuttings jostle for space alongside a huge carved horse, zebra-print cushions and a tank filled with exotic fish. A keen photographer, Cavalli has framed photos of his many trips on the walls. In the living space, DJ decks sit next to lizard poufs and plush purple velvet sofas strewn with leopard-print cushions. There’s a huge wooden carving of a leopard picked up in Africa, and a gold gnome. The architectural, polished silver staircase and custom-made kitchen are pitched against antiquarian religious iconography, ornate carpets and antique busts. The effect is luxuriously eclectic. Welcome to Cavalli’s world; it’s a long way from Kansas, that’s for sure.
In his sunglasses and jeans, with that unmistakable tan, Cavalli seems younger than his 71 years. Charming and effusive, he is a huge presence despite his 5’6″ stature. “My Cavalli world is colourful, because for me colour means positivity and happiness. It’s a beautiful world,” he says. “I live in Florence; when I open my window in the morning I see the sun and I see, especially in springtime, the first flower and the peach. Colour! Colour! My eyes are happy. And if my eyes are happy, then my heart is happy. That is colour. That is life.”
It’s not often an interview is interrupted by a pet bird, but casa Cavalli is overrun with a menagerie of animals, from the monkey outside his studio (“Don’t go too near,” warns his PR. “He only likes Roberto”) to bounding dogs and the aforementioned squawking parrots. What could be more appropriate for a designer renowned for his animal prints?
“My fashion is inspired most of the time from nature,” Cavalli says. “I steal ideas from God. Really! Why did God give the dress to the leopard, to the zebra, to the snake?” His love of animal prints is seen throughout the main house, from the ubiquitous leopard upholstery to shaved-mink rugs and Mongolian lamb cushions. Horses, too, pop up throughout the estate like a signature – cavalli is, after all, Italian for “horses” – such as the imposing Arturo Di Modica statue in front of the main house.
If there’s one thing that inspires Cavalli more than animals, it’s women. Does he have a favourite woman to dress? “If I do, I do not tell you, because all the others get jealous,” he says with a chuckle. “Do you know – and many people laugh when I say this – to be a designer gives me the possibility to meet beautiful women.” There is a feminine influence throughout the house, in particular that of his wife Eva, the undisputed queen of the Cavalli kingdom. The decorative glass spheres in all sizes and colours that cover many of the surfaces, for example, have been collected by Eva. A large Julian Schnabel plate painting of her dominates one of the walls of the entrance hall (Cavalli’s own portrait by Schnabel is in his Milan apartment).
Despite the intense glamour, it still feels like a family home, somewhere where la dolce vita really is a way of life. Take the well-stocked kitchen, for example, with its huge oven, prosciutto-cutting machine and copious bottles of wine. Even an informal lunch of pizzette and salad is served on gold plates, while wine (Cavalli, of course) is served in colourful cut-crystal goblets. The thing is, the glamour isn’t forced. On the contrary, it’s his autopilot setting.
“Glamour makes life more fun,” he muses. “Glamour means to feel around you an atmosphere that makes you comfortable.” There’s no doubt that the theatre of the house makes it the perfect party pad. “I know the ingredients for a wonderful party,” he says. “Fantastic friends, beautiful women, the best music and the best Champagne.”
Cavalli’s favourite room, however, is what he calls his study. “My favourite room is usually where I read – my study. I have one small room,” he flashes a grin and corrects himself. “Well, quite small; nothing is small in my house.” Nor is there anything of a typical study about it. The walls are painted black, while carved unicorns flank the fireplace. There’s classical and religious art, and a painting of his mother languidly smoking a cigarette, painted by his grandfather.
A Bert Stern photograph of Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of Cleopatra was purchased by Cavalli at an AMFAR auction, while a huge Boldini painting sits above some of his most treasured items – his colourful collection of 19th-century French vases. “They are not the most expensive, but they have a lot of value to me, for my memory.”
Even the staunchest minimalist has to admire Cavalli; in the ever-changing world of fashion, he remains confidently individual and resolute in his aesthetic. “My house is always the same for me – my place for my dreams in the night. It’s my house, my refuge and my world.”