Roberto Cavalli, fashion designer nicknamed the ‘Leopard King’ who embodied 2000s bling – obituary

Roberto Cavalli in 2005 with the singer Christina Aguilera, whom he called his muse: 'excess sometimes is success', he said
Roberto Cavalli in 2005 with the singer Christina Aguilera, whom he called his muse: 'excess sometimes is success', he said - Fred Prouser

Roberto Cavalli, who has died aged 83, was the maximalist Italian fashion designer known as the “Leopard King”, who unleashed on the world his fever dream of exotic animal prints, skintight sandblasted jeans and gravity-defying dresses. Propelled to fame in the 1970s by the patronage of Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, he went on to dress, in successive decades, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Gisele Bundchen, Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Kate Moss.

His catwalk shows were a riot of skin, both animal and human, summed up by one critic as “Me Cavalli, You Jane”. His clothes may have been “barely there”, but minimalism, or “meeen-imal-eeez-mo” as he sneered, was anathema to him. When a more severe look dominated the catwalks in the 1980s and 1990s he opted out, refusing to become part of what he called the industrialisation of fashion. “I cannot make anything out of two metres of plain, black fabric,” he insisted. “It’s horrible.”

His over-the-top outfits were designed to be worn with gusto, though with the wearer’s fingers firmly crossed that nothing anatomical would fall out. He created the tight crystal-and-lamé outfits for the Spice Girls’ 2007-08 comeback tour and Shakira’s grass skirts for her 2010 World Cup performances in Johannesburg; he preferred dressing singers to actress because they had “more personality”, and declared Christina Aguilera his “muse”.

A 2000s advertisement for Just Cavalli, his denim company
A 2000s advertisement for Just Cavalli, his denim company - Alamy

Leather-skinned, Cuban cigar-smoking and perma-tanned, Cavalli was an unrestrained hedonist who laid enthusiastic claim to the title of “king of bling”. His philosophy was that “excess sometimes is success”. His rambling house in Tuscany was shared with a menagerie that included a St Bernard, an Alsatian, a Persian cat called Pussy, an iguana, two parrots, a cockatiel and a monkey who kept him company when watching television. He had a tiger cub, but gave it to the circus when it started biting.

His fashion house became indelibly associated with animal print, which he imprinted on his cars and the arms of his ubiquitous aviator sunglasses. His earliest prints had been floral, but “I started to appreciate that even fish have a fantastic coloured ‘dress’, so does the snake, and the tiger,” he told Vogue. “I start to understand that God is really the best designer, so I started to copy God.” (Being pro-animal, however, did not mean being anti-fur; Cindy Crawford marked her public split from the animal rights pressure group Peta by modelling a chocolate mink coat for Cavalli in 2002.)

He claimed to be the only straight man in fashion, and said that he adored women because “they are much more intelligent than men. I am not gay… I detest men, dressed or naked, but women…” He insisted, however, that women should never wear all black or swear, because “a woman’s mouth should always be clean.”

Roberto Cavalli in 2013
Roberto Cavalli in 2013 - SAVO PRELEVIC

In 2005 he teamed up with Hugh Hefner to revamp the Playboy bunny outfit, updating the abbreviated tuxedo with bondage-style cuffs and other S&M overtones. Of his 2010 show, The New York Times observed that “Roberto Cavalli’s catwalkers looked like they could take to the streets”.

Like his rival Gianni Versace (“we both like to make a beautiful woman sexy”), he enjoyed being part of the jet set, and took it upon himself to embody his brand’s bombastic vision of unabashed extravagance, with his superyacht Freedom, exquisite homes in Florence, Paris and New York, and a string of racehorses.

“When I do an interview, I have to say things my audience will like. And to the general public I have to say that I like to go out at night. That I only drink Dom Pérignon champagne or that I only spend time on the French Riviera,” he explained. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of Twitter, asking his followers: “Do you prefer the sex… in the day time or in the night??”

He understood that fame demands showmanship, and no one believed in Roberto Cavalli more than Roberto Cavalli. What he achieved was a style that was instantly recognisable: in the words of the The Independent, “molto sexy, molto animal print and molto, molto Italiano”.

A 2012 Cavalli campaign
A 2012 Cavalli campaign - Alamy

Roberto Cavalli was born in a Tuscan village on November 15 1940, the son of Giorgio Cavalli, a mining-company surveyor who in 1944 was among a group of civilians lined up against a wall and shot dead during a Nazi massacre, a reprisal for attacks by the partisans. The traumatised Roberto was left for many years with a stutter.

His maternal grandfather was Giuseppe Rossi, an Impressionist painter who had exhibited at the Uffizi in Florence and whose artistic flair Roberto inherited through his seamstress mother, Marcella (née Rossi). “The sensibilities you get from your mother are like the Ten Commandments. They are set in stone and difficult to break,” he explained.

Moving with her and his elder sister to Florence, he dropped out of school. At 19 he began studying art and textile printing at the Institute of Art, paying his way by selling hand-painted t-shirts. He discovered the haute couture on a transformative visit to Paris, and opened a studio on his return to Florence, selling his designs to Pierre Cardin and Hermès, and pioneering new technology for printing patterns on leather.

Robert Cavalli on his yacht at St Tropez
Robert Cavalli on his yacht at St Tropez - HAEDRICH / Avalon

His first collection was shown in 1970 at the Salon du Prêt-à-Porter in Paris and in 1972 he presented jeans with patchwork designs in Florence. That year he opened Limbo in St Tropez, a sand-floored boutique specialising in unabashedly sexy little numbers.

In the early 1990s Cavalli added Lycra to jeans to make them stretchier, tighter and sexier (a technique pioneered by Fiorucci). He tried them on a “flat and skinny” model and “suddenly she looked so sexy… and we could see her little booty”. He sandblasted them, painted a snake design on the leg and created a sensation by sending Naomi Campbell out in them on the Milan catwalk.

His first male client was Lenny Kravitz, and he later dressed Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Pharell Williams. Elton John and David Beckham both bought the same £500 Cavalli silk shirt.

Cavalli's February 2010 show at Milan Fashion Week
Cavalli's February 2010 show at Milan Fashion Week - CHRISTOPHE SIMON

Cavalli discovered London relatively late. The theme of his 2002 spring-summer collection was an English garden party in Italian style, with faded rose prints adorning his tops and petticoats, maxi coats of laser-cut suede and leather jackets with a lived-in look, and in April 2004 he opened his first London boutique. “The English are more used to creative mentalities,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “In Italy, women wear my clothes very literally. But English women translate them into a look of their own.”

His popularity peaked in the 2000s, “representing the prime of the market that targets women for whom life is one long music video”, as one critic put it. He even made leopard-print jeans and black leather trousers for children. Increasingly his work appeared on the high street, including a line created in 2007 for H&M. His wealth was estimated at £200 million.

He ran into trouble, however, in 2004 with an underwear and swimwear collection for Harrods in London that bore images of Hindu deities. The store apologised and removed the garments from sale, while their designer insisted that it was an “innocent mistake”.

Kate Moss's 2005 comeback shoot for Cavalli
Kate Moss's 2005 comeback shoot for Cavalli - Mert and Marcus/PA

Other brushes with scandal included a high-profile investigation in 2002 for tax evasion, for which he was convicted but eventually exonerated; and his signing of Kate Moss in 2005 for her comeback shoot after she had been photographed apparently snorting cocaine. He regretted having cosmetic surgery, explaining: “Why did I have that stupid operation? I had such a beautiful nose.”

In 1964 Roberto Cavalli married his high-school sweetheart Silvanella Giannoni; they had two children. The marriage was dissolved after nine years and in 1980 he married Eva Düringer, who became his business partner. They had met three years earlier when he was judging the Miss Universe pageant in which the 17-year-old Miss Austria was a contestant. “He followed me with his eyes and I followed him to Florence,” she told the Daily Telegraph.

They had three children, but the marriage was dissolved in 2010 and five years later he sold his Roberto Cavalli brand to an investment company. Last year he had a sixth child with the Swedish model Sandra Nilsson, who was 45 years his junior.

Roberto Cavalli, born November 15 1940, died April 12 2024