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The Dangerous Duds of Cavalli


MILAN, Italy — With a slick telefonino or cell phone in one hand, a smoking pipe in the other and beautiful models around him, Roberto Cavalli, Italy's flash daddy of fashion, looks picture-perfect for Hollywood. In a Hef kind of way.

That's his plan, to take Tinseltown by storm, the designer said backstage before his show last week at the Fiera, the mega-convention center here.

Clearly, for fashion-crazed Italians and journalists, this was the must-see show in Milan, drawing 1,500 guests, the biggest show crowd of the week. And the 62-year-old Cavalli, who has been in this business for almost 30 years, knows how to stage one.

Produced like a blockbuster Hollywood movie, his presentation included decibel-deafening music that made your socks fall to your ankles, an elaborate set that took three days to build--an enormous ski lodge furnished with stag antlers, paintings, rugs, chairs and sofas from his hilltop home in Florence--and, of course, his daring creations on sunburned, windblown models, who made like snow bunnies at Cavalli Chalet.

His collection was a 1960s redux of baby-doll, Victorian-inspired wispy laser-cut dresses revealing lots of skin and sexy leathers. His decorated denim jeans--his claim to fame--were adorned with acid-bleached and shredded chiffon. Oh, and lots of plush fur with Las Vegas showgirl feathers jutting from the collars. This was, after all, Cavalli's mountaintop fantasy, both flagrant and fun--and certainly not for the fainthearted.

No stranger to the daring, Ridley Scott, director of the Oscar-nominated "Gladiator" epic, has taken a liking to the silver-haired, leather-wearing designer. It was Scott who encouraged Cavalli to take a chance on Hollywood and tempt actresses into wearing his gowns at this year's Oscars. The two met in Florence while Scott was working on "Hannibal" and remained in touch while the director was in Morocco on his next film.

" 'Take a chance in L.A.,' Ridley told me. I said, 'OK. Los Angeles, look out.' So I will be there for the Oscars with special dresses for special women," such as Juliet Binoche, he said as he sunk into an easy chair backstage. "The Oscars are about glamour and beautiful women, and both of those are close to our world" of fashion. "That's why we are making a big push, for the first time, to have a presence in Hollywood."

"This is a good time for me," Cavalli said. "I am, how do you say in California, full of adrenaline right now."

He is no stranger to Southern California. Several months ago he was hunting for a Beverly Hills store location--and is still negotiating for a place--because of demand for his creations. He is especially known for his jeans; Cavalli is credited with sparking the whole embellished-jeans trend. Never afraid of color, in the 1960s he put bright prints on jeans. Since then he has embroidered them with whatever struck his fancy: crystals, sequins, feathers and now chiffon stitched over recycled denim dipped into an acid-based liquid. The result: bits of colorful delicate chiffon haphazardly hanging, a look that no doubt will be knocked off.

"Why make everything black, black, black?" he asks. "Fashion should be fun and put the woman in the spotlight with a little bit of danger, you know."

Florence-born Cavalli, a graduate of the Florence Art Academy, was a struggling artist in the late 1960s before he became a struggling designer who hand-painted flowers and animal prints onto sweaters to make extra cash.

In the 1970s, he became a fashion phenom when he introduced patchwork leather coats and jeans that were soon worn by Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot. He quietly dropped out of the spotlight in the 1980s, developing a custom-order business. Recently, when tastes shifted toward luxury, his printed designs and outrageously embellished jeans created a fashion frenzy that has since brought the designer front and center again. Today, his international fashion business is estimated at more than $65 million.

He's proud that through the decades his die-hard fans have never left him, especially women who have collected his pieces like works of art. A handful of celebs have recently discovered him, even though he's been around longer than they've been famous. Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Whitney Houston and Lenny Kravitz have worn his clothes. But still, most of America eludes him, which is why he opened a New York store two years ago and is planning more boutiques in L.A., Miami and other locations.

Some fashion critics might think that Cavalli's collections are offbeat--even tasteless. But if they took a moment to chat with the man, they'd learn that Cavalli, a cheery, thoughtful man, is all about his craft--always bending the rules of fashion, experimenting with innovative ways to reinvent the old, recast the past and return some daring dazzle to women's wear.

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