Wild at Heart
Probably that Cavalli, 62, has enjoyed one heck of a ride. After rocketing to fame in the 1970s with edgy, hand-painted leather coats and jeans worn by the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, Cavalli fell out of favor a decade later when fashion shifted toward the understatement of Armani and Klein. In fact Cavalli felt such public indifference in his off-beat outfits (think gold mesh, rhinestones and lace) that by 1998 he was on the verge of retiring.
But the fashion pendulum forever swings, and in the new century Cavalli is in vogue again—thanks largely to celebrities like model Heidi Klum, who says Cavalli's clothes "make me feel like a rock star." Susan Sarandon swears by his second-skin $1,200 leather pants, which she owns in three colors, while Cindy Crawford and Mena Suvari have been spotted in his animal-print dresses, which sell for as much as $1,300. "His clothes," says singer Toni Braxton, "make me feel it's okay to be sexy."
A lot of women apparently agree: Cavalli expects sales to hit $165 million this year, up 300 percent from three years ago. In October he launched a children's line of bright-colored dresses and funky jeans, and over the next year he plans to open boutiques in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami similar to the one he already has in New York City. "My fashion," Cavalli says, "has become a success because other designers have become so monotonous."
Even his home, an eight-bedroom hilltop villa, is fantastical. Sections of the house date back to the year 1200. The walkways of the sculptured gardens are lined with antique tiles, and guests can lounge in a Turkish bath or take a spin in one of Cavalli's two Ferraris, part of his fleet of classic cars. He shares such splendors with his wife, Eva, 42—a former Miss Austria he met in 1977 while judging her in the Miss Universe contest (she finished first runner-up)—their children Rachel, 19, Daniel, 15, and Robin, 7, and the household menagerie of four cats, three parrots and two dogs.
It's a way of life that's a marked change from Cavalli's childhood. His father, Giorgio, a mine surveyor, was killed in World War II when Roberto was 2. His mother, Marcella Rossi, a painter who died in 1999, raised him and his older sister, Lietta, 63, a retired knitwear designer, on her own. "One of my earliest memories is arriving alone for the first day of school," Cavalli says. "All the other children had their parents kissing them off at the school gates."
Fortunately, Cavalli—whose grandfather Giuseppe Rossi was an Impressionist painter—inherited the family's creativity gene, landing at Florence's Academy of Art in 1957. Three years later a friend asked him to paint some sweaters for her new knitwear line. The designs were a smash, and Cavalli began experimenting with different kinds of fabrics, notably leather.
By the late 1960s he had a hip boutique on France's Côte d'Azur and a speedboat. But his jet-set lifestyle took a toll on Cavalli's 1964 marriage to girl-next-door Silvanella Giannoni, with whom he had two children—Cristiana, a lawyer, and Tommaso, a horse breeder. By 1974 the couple had divorced. Over the next 10 years Cavalli's business also foundered, eventually leading him, he says, to consider "becoming a full-time father."
Now, nothing makes Cavalli happier than juggling family and career. "Let's face it, I'm finally getting recognition for years and years of hard work," he says. "And let me tell you, I like it!"
Praxilla Trabattoni in Florence