Roberto Cavalli’s Designs Radiated Pure, Unadulterated Sex

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Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

Before his name blanketed hip-hop lyrics, his designs showed up on Madonna and Beyoncé, or he entertained celebrity friends on yachts, Roberto Cavalli was a humble artist. Growing up in Florence, he studied textile printing, going on to experiment with leather and patchwork techniques. It was a surprisingly quiet and craft-driven origin story for someone who would go on to create such an exuberant, glitzy body of work.

a man sitting on a bench

Daniele Venturelli//Getty Images

Roberto Cavalli

Cavalli launched his namesake fashion house at the outset of the go-go 1970s, his ideal woman a boldfaced bohemian jet-setter who favored roaring animal prints and rich embroideries. “Excess is success,” he once said, and for him, leaning into sexy, slinky Italian silhouettes, married to the party-hearty hallmarks of American rock ‘n’ roll, was a winning recipe. You couldn’t have an uninteresting night in a Cavalli look; wearing his pieces presaged a celebration that could last until the wee hours, accessorized with plenty of champagne.

a brunette woman in an animal print outfit

KMazur

Jennifer Lopez wears Cavalli to the 2001 VMAs.

Cavalli had a lifelong fascination with celebrity and pop culture. By the Y2K era, musicians in particular were gravitating toward his over-the-top designs, whether for performances or the red carpet. Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Jessica Simpson, Mary J. Blige—he outfitted, and air-kissed, them all. In that optimistic and happily ostentatious time before famous people were expected to be “just like us,” he delivered the polar opposite of quiet luxury. His clothes celebrated the female body, accentuating curves even at a time when fashion still unreservedly worshiped thinness. They exposed backs, skimmed hips, and showcased cleavage.

a man in a suit embracing a woman in a silver gown

Evan Agostini

Cavalli with Jessica Simpson at the Met Gala in 2007.

Premium denim also got a shot in the arm from the designer. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to a pair of jeans, from sandblasting to intricate embellishments, giving the humble American workwear staple a Florentine makeover.

a black woman in a white pant suit and fedora

Frank Micelotta

Mary J. Blige wearing Cavalli to Fashion Rocks in 2004.

He was a beloved mainstay of the Italian fashion industry, bringing his own version of la dolce vita to the world stage. In a statement released today, his countryman Giorgio Armani celebrated his friend, writing “I cannot imagine a vision of fashion more distant from mine than that of Roberto Cavalli, yet I have always had enormous respect for him.”

a woman singing into a microphone

Michael Loccisano//Getty Images

Zendaya performs at Coachella 2023 in vintage Roberto Cavalli.

The fashion house he founded, now overseen by designer Fausto Puglisi, remains true to his swaggering, Italianissimo approach. And Cavalli’s ’90s and 2000s designs have developed a cult following among millennial and Gen Z collectors like Bella Hadid, Ivy Getty, and Cami Téllez, who appreciate the head-turning qualities of the brand. As Brandon Veloria Giordano, founder of downtown New York’s beloved vintage emporium James Veloria, told me when I interviewed him this summer: “A Cavalli dress can be the whole party.”

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