The Leopard Changes His Spots

The designer holds forth backstage at his spring show.Photo: Paolo Pellegrin

All around Roberto Cavalli, backstage before his September 26 show in Milan, cameras are circling and people laughing as the King of Sex holds court before a backdrop designed to look like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Models in nude thongs dart to and fro, visiting the banks of ladies-in-waiting who minister to their hair and eyelids, while some of their boyfriends, outfitted in heavy crucifixes and black leather jackets, sneak cigarettes in a corner of the tent. “We are here in the palace of Versailles,” announces Cavalli, a tiny man whose head is barely visible above the collected throng, “because I am trying to tell the world that, to me, every woman is a queen.” He flashes a golden smile.

Are there women out there who actually buy this line? They might from Cavalli, the 66-year-old designer (he’ll be 67 on November 15) who has long been established as the fashion world’s Bob Evans. Channeling the spirit of yachting to an early morning deep-house club on Ibiza, Cavalli’s clothes are joyfully vulgar, a party girl’s overnight satchel of zebra-patterned bikinis, plunging leopard-print minidresses, and leather micro-shorts accessorized with a cowboy hat. They’re designs that perfectly match the man himself, who is the Platonic ideal of an aging playboy, with his liquid eyes and soft feathery hair, a cigar permanently installed between his fingers and an impish smile curling around his leonine mouth. He has high-drama hobbies: He owns racehorses and vineyards, and even makes his own olive oil (“No good, because it is too fatty,” he says, laughing). He has blingy accoutrements: Ferraris, an iridescent helicopter, and a nineteen-years-younger beauty-pageant wife he met as a Miss Universe judge (when they were introduced, it’s been said, he “swooped like an eagle”).

At today’s show, there’s no sign of Cavalli’s muse, femme-bot super-tramp Victoria Beckham, or of the cheerfully bedraggled Tara Reid, who made an appearance two days before at the show of Just Cavalli, his more casual secondary line. (Cavalli toasted her presence by sticking his cigar in her mouth and letting her take a puff.) This show is different. In fact, it’s the fashion moment in Milan this year. His models strut down the runway in elegant white prairie dresses, flowy pink chiffon blouses, and sheer bohemian scarves with flower prints. Suddenly, his women have been reborn Mary Magdalene–esque, as virgins after long lives as whores, or at least as respectable Uma Thurman types pacing their gardens in the English countryside. There’s not an ounce of vulgarity (except perhaps for the model whose top kept slipping open), and his craftsmanship, technique, and fabrics cast him as the haute-hippie victor of the spring. Not Miuccia Prada, not Donatella Versace, not even a critics’ darling like Marni’s Consuelo Castiglioni, but Mr. Leopard Chiffon himself.

“I am so fed up with everything that is going on in beauty: women who are too showy, clothes that are too revealing, all this plastic surgery,” explains Cavalli. “The line between sexy and vulgarity is very, very thin, and you don’t need to watch TV to realize today that everyone has trod the line. They’ve stepped on the line.” He leans in close. “Don’t get me wrong: I love plastic surgery, amore.” Then he winks. “I was even thinking to have something done myself in November, December.”

The grandson of Impressionist painter Giuseppe Rossi, Cavalli was brought up in Florence, where his father was killed by the Nazis when Cavalli was a boy. His mother was a designer, and he learned some fashion from her; then he attended the city’s Academy of Art, where his hand-painted T-shirts were spotted by a designer named Mario Valentino. Cavalli’s first collection of luxurious patchwork fashion was a hit on St.-Tropez—“My friends said it was revolutionary,” he humbly declares. But he disappeared during the minimalist early nineties, re-emerging only with the fin de siècle red-carpet fashion of plunging necklines and hiked skirts (the women of Sex and the City were all about Roberto Cavalli). These days, every designer has figured out how to market himself for the red carpet. Cavalli is trying to define himself in the U.S.: He has a new Just Cavalli store on Fifth Avenue, an H&M campaign, and the industry talking of an IPO.

He’s reveling in this rare moment of being taken seriously. “I am all about nature, about loving life, about things that are unspoiled,” says Cavalli. “Money is spoiled!” He repeats this three times. “It is the worst thing in life, because then you are always bored and always must have something else. To me, happiness is my garden, amore. To see the spring through the blooming of my peach tree, to find little foxes and pheasants running around, or to see the one flower bush I have, which only makes flowers once a year. If it rains the day that it blooms, the blossoms fall off immediately and you must wait until the next year. I grow zucchinis that are like butter because they are so fresh.” He winks. “Look at me! I am 126 years old, but because of my zucchinis I am a youngster.”

Airy, virginal, soft
With details that recall Victorian nightgowns and peasant dresses, Cavalli's collection was a radical shift from a designer better known for good-hearted raunch.
Photo: Paolo Pellegrin

At noon the day after the show, Cavalli sweeps into his white-marbled Via Senato showroom, balancing an espresso as he scrolls through his cell-phone messages and smokes a cigar. He runs over to a display of his new dresses and considers the feel of each fabric, and then sits at a table with a consigliere who shows off a pair of women’s eyeglasses in a beige leopard-print case that doubles as an evening bag. “This reminds me of the leopards in Africa that I saw in 1970,” Cavalli says. “I went to Kenya and Tanzania alone, and I was fascinated to be where no tourists have ever gone. I learned to love all animals except for the snake. I am afraid of the snake! You cannot figure out which is the head and which is the tail.” He laughs. “It is mysterious, like a woman.”

He drains the espresso, throwing his feet up onto the table. Then he dunks his cigar ashes into the cup and grins.

The Leopard Changes His Spots