Cavalli revives Florence's old rivalry with Milan

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The centre of gravity in Italian fashion once lay far to the south of Milan in Florence, and yesterday Roberto Cavalli, a designer who makes Versace clothes seem understated, revived the age-old rivalry.

The Tuscan capital allowed Mr Cavalli to present his catwalk show in the Salone dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, which is akin to allowing a British designer to put on a show in the House of Lords. At the same time, Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, has agreed to curate a retrospective of Mr Cavalli's work in the Palazzo Pitti, the palace once owned by the Medici dynasty. And yesterday's event ended with evening dinner for 250 at Mr Cavalli's medieval castle in the Tuscan hills.

Mr Cavalli is not alone in pressing the case for Florence to reassert itself over Milan. Giorgio Armani and Pucci – as well as Cavalli – have all recently opened stores on the glamorous Via Tornabuoni.

It harks back to the days when the Italian fashion family dynasties traditionally divided to rule: Valentino in Rome, Giorgio Armani in Milan and Gucci in Florence. But the early Eighties saw a coalition of designers, including Missoni, Fendi and Krizia, establishing a catwalk show circuit in Milan.

The house of Gucci fell out of family hands in the early Nineties when the creative director, Tom Ford, and the chief executive, Domenico de Sole, took over the company and formed the Gucci Group. Though Gucci clothes are still made in Florence, the headquarters are in London. The houses of Pucci and Cavalli continue to work from Florence but put on their shows in Milan, as does Gucci. Ferragamo alone shows in Florence, at the biannual Pitti Immagine Uomo menswear collections.

But Mr Cavalli's decision to show his Autum-Winter 2002 menswear collection in Florence has been the high point of the city's minor renaissance. His show had one Italian journalist gushing into his mobile, "Roberto Cavalli is taking over Florence for the day".

Although much of the world's fashion press will arrive in Milan tomorrow for the Autumn-Winter 2002 collections, Mr Cavalli brought the focus of fashion briefly back to his hometown with last night's show.

"It is an honour for me to be showing in my home town," he said. "I can imagine Michaelangelo [who painted the fresco that dominates the Salone dei Cinquecento] would have come back to life and said 'Roberto, how dare you do this thing here'." Mr Cavalli may sound humble but he agreed when told that Michaelangelo would probably wear Cavalli were he alive today.

Music is forbidden in the Salone so each journalist was given a set of headphones to receive the thumping soundtrack which accompanied Mr Cavalli's show. He called it "A bit Cecil Beaton, a bit David Bowie in a dandy version".

Mr Cavalli is known for his party clothes. Men don't buy his wild jungle-print jeans or fur-collared coats to wear to work. But it was striking how the extravagant collection seemed to blend in with the Renaissance interior.

At a preview to the simultaneous retrospective, Mr Cavalli said: "Fashion for me has to be about fun, life, vitality. We're living in an age when some things aren't so nice. So the world needs colour. It needs a little bit of extravagance and it needs to make you smile."

The exhibition, entitled "More and More and More: The Looks Roberto Cavalli wants for You", was co-curated by Sozzani and Italian Vogue's art director, Italo Rota. In a coup de theâtre, Cavalli clothes are framed in the embarrassment of riches that forms the painted salons of the Palazzo Pitti.

This moment in the sun for Florence is brief with Mr Cavalli returning to Milan next season. But the night he took over Florence was a golden moment.