Roberto Cavalli poncho c. 1970

Though Roberto Cavalli's aesthetic is closely associated with flamboyant animal printed textiles crafted into overtly sexy garments, the designer's career actually began with T-shirts. In the late 1960s, Cavalli designed and silk-screened a batch of T-shirts. The T-shirts sold well, and Cavalli started a small workshop to meet demand. The designer soon expanded his offerings, developing techniques for printing designs on lightweight leather and suede. Cavalli used the printed leather and suede like a textile, using it to create garments of solid or patchwork leather and/or denim. Cavalli's use of leather, suede and denim was perfectly tuned to the decorative 'rich-hippie' aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his garments were worn by numerous style icons, including Bridget Bardot and Sophia Loren. By 1972, Cavalli's reputation had grown, and his garments retailed at small boutiques in Europe and New York.


Roberto Cavalli

c. 1970

Museum Purchase


In the poncho pictured here, Cavalli appliqued patches of printed and painted leather to loosely woven cotton.The undyed cotton fabric visible under the mesh is actually a sleeveless shirt, attached to the mesh at the neckline. Images of flowers, dragonflies and fairies contrast with the raw, unfinished edges of the textiles used by Cavalli. The naturalistic motifs suggest that this garment is one of Cavalli's earliest designs. In 1972, Honeybee boutique in New York City offered a collection of Cavalli suits in "floral or paisley patterned leather" in colors including "wine, green, taupe and blue."1 The whimsical motifs on Cavalli's casual cotton poncho might also remind you of this hand-painted 1920s ensemble.

2004539-22004.5.39 Back view

Cavalli's decorative, luxe aesthetic was remarkably consistent through the 1970s. When less flamboyant and minimal styles came into fashion during the 1980s and 90s, Cavalli's reputation diminished. During this period, Cavalli continued to work by creating garments on private commission. His reputation faded so far into obscurity that fashion history references and texts published during the 1980s and early 90s rarely mention Cavalli. 

During the mid 1990s, Cavalli staged a successful comeback, returning to the runway in 1994. This comeback has been attributed to the popularity of Cavalli's sexy, extravagant aesthetic among celebrities and celebrity stylists. In recent years, Cavalli designs have been worn by Beyonce, Victoria Beckham, Shakira and others. In 2007, Cavalli achieved the pinnacle of widespread popularity, a fast-fashion collection in collaboration with H&M.

1 Robinson, Ruth. "Clothes With A Casual Air" New York Times 15 Aug. 1972: 26.

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