MILAN, Italy — MILAN, Italy — “A spirit of change” announced the release that accompanied the first Roberto Cavalli collection to be helmed by Paul Surridge, formerly a menswear designer for ZZegna. The show was staged on a blinding white runway, open to the elements, surrounded by the greenery of the Parco Sempione. It was a long way from the dark, clubby atmosphere of antique Cavalli. To remind us of those days, the man himself was there, rising from his seat to meet his successor at show’s end. Again, the contrast: portly, rakish Roberto, slight, serious Surridge. Worlds apart. Just like their designs.
At a preview earlier in the day, Surridge raised the issue of relevance. It’s a tricky one for Cavalli. The era the clothes once helped define has passed, its associations no longer resonate. So Surridge’s challenge when he came on board was brutally clear. He had eight weeks to set a new course for the brand, at the same time as he had to master the codes of a womenswear collection. “There were parts of the body I haven’t addressed as a menswear designer,” he admitted. “Like the back, or the shoulders. But design is design. I could do a chair, I could do a table.”
Surridge clearly has pragmatism on his side. That showed in his re-deployment of the brand’s traditional signatures — sex, skins and animal prints. He had no use for the siren glamour of old. “Sensuality, not sexiness,” was his manifesto. So the eveningwear was sinuous beaded knits, accompanied mostly by flat shoes, like Moroccan slippers, with back and shoulders often bared. The leathers that always highlighted the artisanship of the ateliers in Cavalli’s hometown Florence were less in your face than before, but Surridge’s use of skins was artful, the best being the little harness-backed gilets over jackets, or the croc jeans with a stretch leather back. There was ingenuity too in details like the leather and bone sequins, dressy but muted.
That was Surridge’s intention. “I want to bring it back to earth.” More than once, he mentioned “the working woman”. Field jackets and jumpsuits acknowledged a kind of practicality, and he was keen to extend it into the way leather straps allowed an indigo silk cardigan to be shrugged off the shoulders and worn as a wrap, or a panel of sequins could be attached to the bodice of a jumpsuit to take it from day to night. (Practical for some, I suppose.) Surridge’s colour palette was restrained too, black and white with Florentine terracotta as the major accent. The same restraint applied to his visit to the Cavalli zoo: just one print, the zebra, used judiciously but dramatically.
There was also an incongruous excursion into pastel-toned dance dresses, thought they did highlight the movement that Surridge wanted to get into his designs. Which raised another point. “This is not my universe,” Surridge said. “I’m here to work.” The main appeal of this debut was its confident physicality, which suggests the universes might not be so far apart after all. Especially given what he achieved in eight weeks, Surridge looks like a smart move for Cavalli. And vice versa.