How Do You Solve a Problem Like Roberto Cavalli?

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The Roberto Cavalli situation is an interesting one.

After years of retirement rumors, Roberto Cavalli left his namesake brand at the age of 72, selling 90% of the company to Italian private equity fund, Clessidra SGR, in 2015. It was a rough year. Revenues were down 14.2% compared to the previous year, and two senior executives exited the business citing strategic differences.

Gian Giacomo Ferraris was then appointed to oversee Roberto Cavalli in 2016. Ferraris had big plans for the brand, and it started with finding the right designer, and then finding a way to develop the business end so that profits started rolling in again. Peter Dundas – former head of Emilio Pucci – was the first Creative Director tapped, but that experiment fizzled out rather quickly with Dundas departing the brand after only 19 months.

Dundas was replaced by Paul Surridge, a British designer who had worked as a creative consultant at Acne Studios, with Christopher Bailey at Burberry in the 90s, and at Jil Sander during Raf Simons’ tenure. Surridge is an astute minimalist, and as such, his presence at a brand renowned for its excess created a curious tension around his appointment. Roberto Cavalli still has strong brand awareness and a CEO who’s the comeback kid of revitalizing brands. Surely Surridge has been set up for success this time around.

Photo: Courtesy of Imaxtree

While keenly aware of the brand’s DNA, Surridge seems determined to bring something new to the table – an understated rather than wildly overstated sense of glamour like fans of the classic Cavalli label might be accustomed to. With Fall/Winter 2018 as his sophomore effort for the brand, he turned his attention to Sharon Stone’s titillating, dangerous character in Basic Instinct for inspiration.

Surely Surridge has been set up for success this time around.

Roberto Cavalli’s signatures were liminally present in this collection, notably its animal prints and flouncy bohemian dresses, but it was a restrained effort, like someone trying to walk a tightrope down the middle between two opposing forces. There were dégradé silk dresses with handkerchief hemlines, leopard-print jumpsuits in greige tones, menswear jackets that had been reworked as frocks, and embellished denim, yet it was all rather toned down. It’s the same problem Surridge’s debut collection in September suffered from, although this one tried harder to hit the brand’s sensual benchmarks.

Surridge kept Roberto Cavalli signatures on a tight leash, and maybe that’s what his customer wants now, but it’s never what they wanted before. Buying Roberto Cavalli meant you were buying luxury that was loud, ostentatious, and unforgettable. But Surridge is stuck in a tough position. With strong brand identity comes overblown expectations: You either want a designer who will radically upend the aesthetic and rewrite the codes – à la Alessandra Michele at Gucci or Raf Simons at Calvin Klein – or someone who will respect the establishment and deliver more of the same like Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent. Regardless, anything in between will get lost in the noise. Maybe it’s time to unleash the beast.

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