Roberto Cavalli, ’90s Fashion Icon and Animal Print Master, Dies at 83

Roberto Cavalli
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Italian designer Roberto Cavalli, known for his animal-printed excess, has passed away at the age at the age of 83 following a long illness. The news was confirmed by Cavalli’s namesake brand on Instagram, though the specifics of his passing have not yet been revealed. Cavalli will be remembered for his innovative printing process and his mastery of distressed jeans and alluring dresses, which helped to define a certain kind of ’90s and early ’00s style that remains ever-influential in fashion today.

Cavalli was born in a Florence suburb in 1940 to his mother, Marcella, a seamstress, and his father, Giorgio, a surveyor for a mining company. His maternal grandfather, Giuseppe Rossi, was an impressionist painter in the Macchiaioli movement, with work on display in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. In 1944, Cavalli’s father was killed by German soldiers as part of a retaliatory attack against the Italian Resistance.

The young Cavalli was shy and uninterested in schoolwork. “I was a disaster child,” he told W in 2010. “I remember I make very often my mother cry.” He went on to study textile design at the Istituto d’Arte in Florence, and soon after developed a special technique for printing on sweaters. Cavalli quickly caught the eye of major brands including Krizia and Hermès, both of which placed orders for his work as he continued to expand to printing on leather as well.

Roberto and Eva at the Roberto Cavalli spring/summer 2006 menswear show.

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In 1970, Cavalli held his first fashion show at Porte de Versailles in Paris, and opened his first boutique, called Limbo, in Saint-Tropez, two years later. His bohemian take on leather jackets and crocheted sweaters quickly caught the eye of the biggest names of the time, including Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren.

It was around this time, in 1974, that Cavalli married his first wife, Silvanella Giannoni, the daughter of a wealthy Florentine. “I was 18; she was 20,” he said. “I think I give her the first kiss after six months.” The two would have two children together, Cristiana and Tommaso, before divorcing in 1974.

Three years after his marriage to Giannoni ended, Cavalli went to the Dominican Republic to serve as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant. It’s there that he met 18-year-old Austrian contestant Eva Maria Düringer, the first runner-up, whom he married in 1980. Eva and Cavalli had three children together, Rachele, Daniele, and Robin, and Eva would go on to work closely with Cavalli, as a collaborator and business partner, working as a time as the co-creative director of the main brand.

Cavalli with the Spice Girls at the designer’s autumn/winter 2008/2009 menswear show.

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While Cavalli saw much success in the ’70s, specifically in Europe, the ’80s proved to be a bit more difficult for the designer. His aesthetic didn’t transfer well into the power dressing trends of the new decade, and he briefly considered shutting down his label. In the ’90s, however, the designer faced a great resurgence, partly thanks to his innovative work with denim. Cavalli started sandblasting the fabric for a distressed look, later adding the newly-introduced fabric Lycra to denim to create a stretchier version of jeans that is still ubiquitous to this day.

Much of Cavalli’s most notable work came about in the ’90s, as the designer presented ornate, inherently sensual clothing decorated with animal prints and distressed denim. He became a mainstay on the red carpet, dressing many celebrities for various events, with fans in Charlize Theron, Britney Spears, Madonna, Aaliyah, and more. Even now, Cavalli’s designs from the Y2K era remain prevalent in fashion, with young stars like Iris Law and Zendaya often pulling pieces from the designer’s past.

It wasn’t all easy, however. In 2003, Cavalli went on trial for tax evasion and was convicted three years later, receiving a 14-month suspended sentence. He was cleared of the charges in 2010. It was that same year that Cavalli and Eva divorced. Four years later, he began dating model Sandra Nilsson-Bergman, who is 45 years his junior. The pair welcomed their first child (and Cavalli’s sixth) in March 2023 when Cavalli was 82, a boy named Giorgio after the designer’s father.

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In addition to his eponymous line, Cavalli designed for RC Menswear, as well as the more youthful alternative to Roberto Cavalli, Just Cavalli. He licensed out his name and created lines of accessories, eyewear, perfumes, jewelry, underwear, and many, many more products. A hospitality arm of his brand would go on to open various Cavalli Clubs and Cavalli Cafés in cities around the world, decorated with the designer’s signature animal prints.

As the 21st century crept on, Cavalli stayed relevant, creating one of the first high fashion collaborations with H&M, a line the New York Times compared to “what you might find under the ‘streetwalker’ section of the costumes on sale at Ricky’s.” But the critiques likely didn’t phase Cavalli, an outspoken man who loved discussing women, sex, and luxury, and was known to remark that “excess is success.”

Cavalli and Irina Shayk at a yacht party in Cannes in 2014.

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In 2015, the Italian private equity firm Clessidra SGR took over the Cavalli company, and Roberto stepped down as creative director and was replaced by Peter Dundas who lasted just 19 months before handing the reigns to Paul Surridge in 2017. Surridge was followed by Fausto Puglisi in 2019, who remains at the head of the brand today.

Cavalli will be remembered for his strong, unapologetic aesthetic, as well as his personality to match. The Independent once described Cavalli’s work as “molto sexy, molto animal print and molto, molto Italiano.” He painted the world in animal print, covering just about everything under the sun in his signature. Over fifty years after the launch of his brand, Cavalli’s influence can still be seen in every corner of the fashion world, especially with the perennial resurgence of Y2K fashion.