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King of leopard print Roberto Cavalli dies, 83

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Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli, whose penchant for python and flamboyant animal prints made him the darling of the international jet set for decades, died Friday at 83, the luxury company said.

“It is with deep regret and a great sadness the Roberto Cavalli Maison participates in the passing of its founder Roberto Cavalli,” wrote the company in a statement sent to AFP.

“From humble beginnings in Florence Mr. Cavalli succeeded in becoming a globally recognized name loved and respected by all,” said the company.

First seen in the 1970s on stars such as Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, Cavalli’s skin-baring, eye-popping styles were still favoured years on by later generations of celebrities, from Kim Kardashian to Jennifer Lopez.

With a taste for Ferraris, thoroughbred horses, fat cigars and tailored shirts unbuttoned to expose his tanned chest, the designer’s private life also appeared the stuff of fantasy.

He married a Miss Universe runner-up, owned a purple helicopter and a Tuscan vineyard, and was on a first-name basis with A-listers like Sharon Stone and Cindy Crawford.

But the designer also weathered challenges, including a dry spell in the 1980s when minimalism took hold on runways and his form-fitting, feathered creations looked out of step.

A years-long trial in Italy on tax evasion charges ultimately ended in Cavalli’s acquittal, but after his eponymous fashion house began posting losses, a majority stake was sold to private equity in 2015.

Best known for his use of printed leather and stretchy, sand-blasted jeans, Cavalli always embraced the wow factor in his designs, never encountering an animal print he did not like.

The designer was tapped in 2005 to update the Playboy Bunnies’ scanty uniform – true to form, he introduced one version in leopard print.

Born on November 15, 1940 in Florence, Italy’s premier leatherworking center, Cavalli began painting on T-shirts to earn money while at art school.

He recalled in his blog in 2012 how he gate-crashed a party in 1970, and, seeking to save face when he met the host, who was a designer, told him that he printed on leather.

When the designer asked to see some of his work the next day, Cavalli hurried to find samples of thin, supple leather onto which he printed a flower design.

The designer was impressed, and Cavalli was hooked.

Taking his inspiration from glove design, Cavalli began working with calfskin, patenting a new way to print leather with patterns that soon caught the eye of French luxury goods maker Hermes and the late designer Pierre Cardin.

In the 1970s, he opened a shop in Saint Tropez, playground of the world’s glitterati, and debuted his collection in Paris.

He went on to present for the first time in Italy at Florence’s opulent Palazzo Pitti, grabbing attention with his boho-chic patchwork designs on denim that married the unpretentious fabric with expert tailoring.

Of his ubiquitous use of prints, the animal lover – whose menagerie once included a monkey – told Vogue in 2011: “I like everything that is of nature.”

“I started to appreciate that even fish have a fantastic coloured ‘dress’, so does the snake, and the tiger. I start(ed) to understand that God is really the best designer, so I started to copy God,” he told the magazine.

In the 1980s Cavalli’s instantly recognizable, exotic designs were out of sync with the minimalist look that was all the rage, but the designer came back with a bang a decade later with distressed looking jeans that proved a hit.

His fashion empire expanded to home furnishings, wine, shoes, jewellery and even a line of vodka, its bottle sheathed in snakeskin.

Taking his style to the high street, he designed a fast-fashion line for Swedish retail giant H&M and tour outfits for Beyonce, among others.

But the label began to suffer financial difficulties amid increased competition from well-funded brands owned by fashion conglomerates LVMH and Kering, and Cavalli stepped down as creative director in 2013.

Two years later, Milan-based private equity group Clessidra bought a 90-percent stake in the company, but a restructuring failed to reverse losses.

After filing for administration and closing its US stores, the fashion group was bought in November 2019 by Vision Investments, the private investment company of Dubai real-estate billionaire Hussain Sajwani.

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