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updated 12/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/2004 01:00AM

As befitted the opening of an exhibit entitled "Wild: Fashion Untamed," the party at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec. 6 was awash in exotic creatures: Beyoncé, resplendent in a revealing Roberto Cavalli gown; Mischa Barton shimmering in sea-foam green silk; Serena Williams teetering on stilettos worn with a beaded pink Cavalli creation. The host, no slouch in the exoticism department himself, could barely contain his glee. "I feel so good!" declared Roberto Cavalli, surveying the darkly lit Temple of Dendur, the palm fronds, the oysters on the half shell. "Very chic. It is important to be chic."

A truth the puckish 64-year-old designer knows all too well. Cavalli, whose daring, glamorous creations first hit the runways in 1972, has had ups and downs in his fashion career, but thanks to a high-profile clientele that includes Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and P. Diddy, he's hotter than ever these days. With $50 million in sales last year, 30 shops around the world and adoration from the likes of Janet Jackson ("Fun, sexy, one-of-a kind," she raves), he has hit a professional pinnacle—and he's enjoying it. "I love to spend money," he says unashamedly. He proves it with homes in Florence, New York City and Paris, and toys like a speedboat and helicopter, both of which he pilots himself.

But it's his inclusion in this exhibit, a celebration of animal imagery in fashion, that means the most just now. "Do you know, to be involved in the Metropolitan Museum?" says Cavalli, who once planned to be a painter. "It means these [dresses] are pieces of art. It is a big realization of my career. I would like my grandfather and mother to be alive to see my creations in this museum."

The grandson of impressionist painter Giuseppe Rossi and the son of an artist mother (his father, a mine surveyor, died when Roberto was 2), Cavalli studied at Florence's Academy of Art. There he experimented with printing on leather, using a technique he later patented and still employs. He showed a first collection in 1972 with hippie-chic patchwork jeans and leather minis, snapped up by Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot.

In the 1980s he couldn't compete with the minimalist lines of Armani and Calvin Klein. Even in the early '90s he was outshone in the glitz category by Gianni Versace. He continued making bright clothes through those dark days, but, Cavalli has said, "it was not my time."

Then, just as arbitrarily, it was. "Maybe at this moment women need me," he says. In the mid-'90s his luxe opulence was embraced by a new crop of stars. "Roberto Cavalli has captured the essence of the woman," says Halle Berry. Adds Jessica Simpson: "Basically, he knows what every man wants." By 1999 his wares were also moving off store racks. "A woman puts on [his clothes] and feels seductive," says Neiman Marcus senior vice president Joan Kaner. "He is an artist."

With his newfound cache, Cavalli expanded into shoes, kids' wear, fragrances, housewares, a Milan restaurant and a chocolate shop. Still, he is best known for dressing women. His secret? "Every woman inspires me."

One more than the rest. His wife of 25 years, Eva, is widely credited with helping resurrect the house of Cavalli. The runner-up in the 1977 Miss Universe pageant, Eva, 45, advises him on everything from advertising and licensing to designs. "He is an explosion of ideas," she says. "I am the one who works them out."

Away from the atelier, she says, Cavalli is "a very good father" to their three kids and his two from a first marriage that ended in 1974. His youngest may have his father's gift for design. "I love to see how he draws," Cavalli says of Robin, 11. Not that he's planning to hand over the sketch pad anytime soon. "I feel fashion needs me," he says, "for many, many years more."

Allison Adato. Rebecca Paley in New York City

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