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Roberto Cavalli: 'I love a woman, I love to judge how beautiful she is, how beautiful I can make her'

Carola Long meets the godfather of glamour, Roberto Cavalli

The first surprising statement that Roberto Cavalli, Italy's master of flesh-flashing glamour, makes to me is that he is "not a fashion man". And that's because he "loves the adventures, being in the forest and sleeping with the cannibals". He guffaws loudly before adding, "I cannot see Dolce and Gabbana sleeping with the cannibals in the forest". Have I misunderstood his deep Italian accent? Are there cannibals living in the cypress-tree-dotted Tuscan hills around his sumptuous villa? Maybe he said not cannibals, but animals, such as wild boars? But no, I have heard correctly, Cavalli has recently been on an expedition to Papua New Guinea where he stayed in the forest with a former cannibal tribe – just one of numerous expeditions which leave his employees quite worried. "If his phone doesn't work we think maybe they had him for dinner," jokes one of his press team.

It's not the only time during the interview when I think that I might have misheard Cavalli – not just because of the accent and his occasional lapses into talking Italian with his communications director Massimo, but also because he says plenty of things that are completely at odds with his image as a cigar puffing, yacht-owning Hugh Hefner of Italian fashion (he updated the Playboy bunny outfit in 2006).

It's also not just what he says that comes as a surprise when we meet in his studio, a modern metal-and-glass cube in the extensive grounds of his large stone farmhouse. There is something different about Cavalli, from the last time I came into fleeting contact with him before a catwalk show in Milan. Then, even from a distance, he smelt strongly of cigar smoke. Cavalli's cigar is as much of a trademark as Karl Lagerfeld's gloves or Anna Wintour's bob; it's part of the checklist for the Cavalli persona. Today, however, all I can smell is the espresso the designer has just prepared for me in a dainty, zebra-print china cup and saucer – Cavalli, it seems, has given up smoking. The volcanic cigar which glowed like a smouldering Mount Etna has been replaced by a fake cigarette with a pink tip. He is wearing aviator sunglasses with animal-print sides and his black shirt is unbuttoned to the waist. He's shorter than I expected, but with a wiry, muscular figure; he looks good for 69.

Meeting someone with such a distinctive public persona is always an exercise in separating the man – or woman – from the myth, and with Cavalli it's a particularly interesting process. Whereas the great Parisian fashion houses such as Chanel, Balenciaga and Lanvin are all well over 50 years old and their creative directors are not the founders, in Italy many of the biggest houses – Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Versace and Missoni – are still run by the designers who established them (or family members). As such, Cavalli is his brand, and he's been honing it for 40 years now. He's cultivated it so well that the Cavalli signature is widely known and instantly recognisable: molto sexy, molto animal print and molto, molto Italiano.

Stating the obvious, I ask whether he thinks women like his clothes because they show off the body. "Not I think, I know," he laughs. "It's reality. But sometimes I think women love that too much, they show too much of themselves. There is a pressure to show too much flesh. You are a normal English woman and you are not like that [I'm not clear if this is a compliment]. However, in some countries, women will spoil a normal dress. Some women are able to make Armani look vulgar," he laughs. "If you don't show my dresses the way I show them on my runway, then they could be vulgar and I hate it."

There's certainly a fine line between Cavalli's brand of sexy, maximal glamour and something rather... well, he said it himself, vulgar. Not many women can get away with the laced leather trousers, chiffon dresses with cutaway panels and cropped and fringed leather tops that he showed in Milan for spring/summer 2011. However, there's something joyfully unrestrained about his sensual, baroque clothes.

It's probably not very surprising then, that Cavalli is no admirer of minimalism. Or meeen-imal-eeez-mo as he pronounces it in a contemptuous, slurred growl that makes him sound like he's been at the Campari. "At the beginning of the Eighties it was about Japanese fashion and that was minimalist too, but a beautiful version, like the architecture of fashion." It's Nineties minimalism that irks him.

"When I came out with my stretchy jeans people were relieved," he chuckles. Ah yes, the stretchy jeans. These marked the pivotal point in Cavalli's career; his renaissance. The moment, in 1993, he came back from the brink with Cavalli 2.0 – bigger, better, faster, sexier, more.

but before all that, Cavalli had to be born, set up his business, and start honing that tan. He was born on 15 November, 1940, near Florence, where his father worked as a miner and his mother was a housewife and seamstress. It was a happy childhood, until one July day in 1944, when a group of German soldiers marched into town, rounded up a group of male civilians, including his father, lined them up against a wall and shot them.

He moved to Florence with his elder sister and his mother. Cavalli eventually stopped going to school because of a serious stutter caused by the shock of his father's death. At 19, however, he had tired of running wild and enrolled himself in the Istituto d'Arte in Florence. He needed to make money, though, so began selling his own hand-painted T-shirts. After leaving art school without completing the final exams, he set off to make his millions, invented a process of printing which allowed his patterns to cover a whole garment uninterrupted, and soon set up his first studio which burgeoned into a factory employing 16 people.

In 1970, he had a breakthrough with his business. After boasting to a woman at a party that his speciality was printing on leather, he quickly invented a technique to do just that. It was so effective that both Hermès and Pierre Cardin wanted to acquire it. Even so, the printed leather didn't sell well, so he turned his attention to denim, cutting up a container-load of jeans acquired from a prison, then sewing them together to make a novel line of patchwork jeans, mini-dresses and maxicoats which caused a sensation when he unveiled them in 1972. He had made his first million by 1971, and the following year he opened his first boutique, Limbio in St Tropez, where Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren soon became regulars. In 1977, Cavalli was asked to be one of the judges at the Miss Universe pageant in the Dominican Republic. There he met his (second) wife and business partner Eva Duringer, then Miss Austria. He disregarded the rule that judges and contestants shouldn't fraternise, switching the name places at a the post-contest dinner, and Duringer has been absolutely integral to his success ever since. They have three children, between the ages of 17 and 25, and Cavalli also has a son and a daughter in their forties from his first marriage.

However, while Cavalli's love life was going well, his sexy, hippy-luxe was out of favour. In 1993 he was on the brink of closing his factory when he had another brainwave. Using a friend's factory, he added Lycra to jeans to make them tighter and sexier. He says, "We tried the jeans on a model who was so flat and skinny and suddenly she looked so sexy in the tight jeans and we could see her little booty". He also sandblasted the jeans, and painted a snake design along the leg; when Naomi Campbell wore a pair on the catwalk in Milan in 1993, they swiftly became a must-have item and put Cavalli back on the fashion map.

And from thereon in, Roberto Cavalli's label has became increasingly synonymous with a particular brand of high-octane, MTV- and red-carpet-friendly glitz which he has applied to men's and women's clothes, shoes, bags, watches and sunglasses, not to mention pet's clothes, a café and club in Florence, a nightclub in Dubai and his own vodka, wine and chocolates.

He has harnessed the marketing power of celebrity with spectacular effectiveness, dressing Beyoncé, Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, both on- and off-stage. He created the crystal- and lamé-tastic outfits for the Spice Girls' comeback tour and designed the grass-skirt ensembles Shakira wore to perform at the opening and closing ceremonies of the last World Cup.

He's also not afraid of a bit of scandal; in 2005, shortly after Kate Moss was photographed apparently snorting cocaine, Cavalli snapped her up to star in a campaign. This was after a major scandal of his own, when, in 2002, his house was raided in the middle of the night by tax police and he was put through a complex six-year investigation into his finances. After being sentenced to 14 months in prison in 2006 (which was suspended), Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation cleared him in 2008, and in May this year the Florence Court of Appeal fully exonerated the designer of tax fraud charges. When I ask about the effect the investigation had on him, any trace of the bombastic raconteur vanishes. "The press attack people to sell more papers without thinking," he says, "but when you get famous you have to put up with this kind of stuff."

When I ask whether he enjoys fame, he leans forward in a confidential manner and says: "In the beginning, I loved being famous, but now I am tired of it and I would like to go back to my freedom. The worst place is London, I cannot walk in Harrods ... it's not nice when I get impolite people coming up to me saying 'Roberto, Roberto, I want a photo'." He grabs my arm to mimic a crazed fan then sighs again. "It's never Mr Cavalli."

Mr Cavalli admits to feeling under pressure to keep up the Cavalli lifestyle. The most conventional trappings of his wealth include this villa, with its outdoor and indoor swimming pool, gym (complete with tanning machine), several Ferraris and motorbikes, a helipad and a helicopter which he sometimes flies himself, as well as homes in Milan, Paris and New York, and his large yacht. "I know I have to be like people expect," he says, "because people love to dream with me, they like to think that I love my boat of 50 metres, that I drink Cristal for breakfast, that I dance until five o'clock in the morning. I am not like that." Fashion may be his first love, but he's also increasingly into photography – recent excursions include Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, where he roughed it with the aforementioned cannibals. Alongside a glossy book of Cavalli campaign images by Mert & Marcus, he is publishing a book of his own images, which include "the inside of a tomato" but "no women, no bodies, no sexy".

Then, on top of the rather un-Cavalli admission that the designer prefers his dingy to his yacht, he starts talking about how much he hates the uniformity associated with cosmetic surgery – "The exaggeration of the face, they look like a cat" – his regret over a pointless nose job – "Why did I have that stupid operation? It was fashion. I had such a beautiful nose" – and, most unexpectedly, his opinion that "these days, we give too much importance to beauty. I am a designer and I should not speak like this, but we do. Now I have started to appreciate a beautiful woman with one small wrinkle."

Temporarily bowled over by this impassioned support for a less airbrushed, perfect standard of beauty than that which Cavalli is usually synonymous, I then reconsider. "One small wrinkle" is hardly a generous allowance for imperfection – and he's not in Naomi Wolf territory just yet. "I love a woman, I love to judge how beautiful she is, how beautiful I can make her," he adds.

Still, while Cavalli professes to love women, his pet monkey, who is leaping about in a cage just outside the window, clearly hates them and has been known to grab women's hair through the bars. This mischievous pet is fond of his owner, though, and the pair often sit and watch TV together.

After 40 years of playing Roberto Cavalli in the movie of his own life, sometimes a man just wants to hang out with his monkey.