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Roberto Cavalli, the Fashion Designer That Made Maximalism Cool



Roberto Cavalli, the Italian designer who made a name for himself as the couturier to the rock ‘n roll St. Tropez set and who died this week at age 83, lived as he designed: in his own Wild Kingdom of parrots, Persian cats, monkeys, racehorses and assorted toys (Ferraris, a helicopter). He founded his own brand in 1970 and almost from the beginning loved zebra, giraffe, leopard and lynx; tiger stripes and leopard spots, and put them not just on the runway but on his poolside loungers and motorcycle seats — often all at the same time.

His animal prints did not always originate from nature but from his own imagination, chimeras of exotic skins that telegraphed excess, sex and aspiration. He roamed further afield, of course — into lace, sequins, studs and denim — but it was his love of an over-the-top sartorial menagerie that made his name. If Gianni Versace was the id of Italian fashion, Mr. Cavalli made it roar, hitting mass saturation in the late nineties as an antidote to the minimalism of Jil Sander and Helmut Lang.

He stepped into the vacuum created by the murder of Mr. Versace in 1997, was further buoyed by the frothy stock market, and soon, Paris Hilton was wearing him. So was Candace Bushnell, creator of “Sex and the City.” Victoria Beckham was a fan during her Posh Spice era. Little wonder he was the main sponsor of the 2004 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute: “Wild: Fashion Untamed” — or that Ben Stiller wore Mr. Cavalli’s designs for “Zoolander,” Mr. Stiller’s fashion satire.

PETA would have been horrified (protestors crashed a show in 2005), and the biggest fashion magazines held their noses a little, but celebrities flocked like migrating birds in his brightly branded plumage to Mr. Cavalli’s shows and modernist estate outside Florence. There he played host to them all, lord of the leopard print jungle.

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