LONDON — He was fighting a headache after not sleeping well the night before, was worried about how his English would sound and whether he’d find “sophisticated-enough” words for his talk, but that didn’t stop Roberto Cavalli from charming a 100-plus group of Oxford University students with tales of flower-printed leather, denim patchworking and his passion for staring at clouds.
“I want to get across that behind the fabulous yacht, the Champagne, the parties, there’s a man called Roberto Cavalli, who worked very, very hard to create this wonderful life,” he told WWD on his way to the hall at the Oxford Union, where he spoke on Wednesday night. It was an encore for the designer, who had addressed the students’ union for the first time in 2008.
The black-clad Cavalli, who had earlier arrived in Oxford on his Challenger 604 private jet, attended with his wife Eva, the couple’s youngest son Robert and a small entourage from Milan. He spoke in a wood-paneled hall lined with marble busts, oil paintings and leaded windows, while the audience sat on long, leather-covered benches, like members of Britain’s House of Commons.
“I feel like Harry Potter,” said the designer, as wet trees blew in the dark and it rained outside.
He certainly worked his magic: “Please excuse my horrible English. There is a big emotion today for me. You know about my fashion, but you don’t know who I am. I was a young guy from Florence, and I never expected to be in the fashion world. When you want something, when you dream it, you can arrive,” he said.
Cavalli’s 45-minute talk ranged from his origins as an art school graduate painting T-shirts and knits in his hometown of Florence in the early Seventies, to printing leather and creating stretch denim, to dressing celebrities for the red carpet.
He talked the students through his first Fiat 500 — “The best moment of my life!” — his first Ferrari, his penchant for taking pictures of clouds and his love of flower and animal prints. “God is the best designer in the world. I copy him,” said Cavalli, whose own menagerie includes a German shepherd, a shark and a wide variety of exotic birds.
There were a few complaints: Cavalli lamented what he sees as the sluggish pace with which men’s fashion moves — “They will be dressing the same way 100 years from now” — and the business overall. “Fashion has become too industrial, and creativity is not supported,” he said.
The designer also lambasted the use of young, skinny models. “I don’t like when they are very skinny. Cavalli fashion is sexual, so the models need to have a nice shape and a nice personality. If you are too young, you can’t be a good model. We need women who can interpret clothes. Models need to be actors, and the biggest actor is Naomi Campbell,” he said.
Asked by a member of the audience whether he plans to take a backseat in the wake of naming Yvan Mispelaere as design director, he said no. “I’m like the conductor of an orchestra. I start off the music, and I run the house.”
While principals at the student union acknowledged that Cavalli was not the biggest draw they’ve had, he was clearly a popular one: After the talk, dozens gathered around, and waited patiently to take pictures with him on their phones.
“He’s phenomenal. I adore everything he does,” said Lauren Moult, who is studying human sciences at the university. “He’s a very empowering designer.”
Sarah Lyons, who is studying PPE, Oxford’s famous major of philosophy, politics and economics, said: “A lot of events here are very political, and we have huge names coming. But to get a fashion name on the level of Roberto Cavalli is so exciting — and it appeals to a whole different audience.”