Paul Surridge is rebooting the Roberto Cavalli brand. Here's how
When Paul Surridge was named creative director of Roberto Cavalli last year, a few folks in the fashion industry raised their eyebrows in surprise.
The British-born designer did, after all, cut his teeth at houses like Jil Sander and Z Zegna. The styles the world had seen from him were toned-down and cerebral—seemingly a far cry from bold, brash Cavalli, known for its high-flying vision of luxury and no small supply of animal prints.
But the way Surridge sees it, that surprise (while not entirely unexpected) wasn't warranted. First off, he rejects the label of "minimalist," instead explaining that his designs, while sometimes subtle, have "a lot of content" hidden beneath an unassuming surface. And after two decades in menswear, he wanted to challenge himself with a label that encompassed both men's and women's.
The biggest shift was simply working with a new set of codes—and striving to provide for a luxury consumer that's shifted significantly since the brand's menswear heyday in the '90s and 2000s.
After his latest show at Pitti Uomo in Florence—the city where Roberto Cavalli was founded—I caught up with Surridge to talk about stretching his design muscles, maintaining authenticity, and recoding Cavalli for a new generation.
He took the gig because he was looking for a challenge.
I think it's an opportunity to stretch and grow—to keep things moving, keep things shaking. I was at a point in my career where I really wanted the next challenge as a menswear designer. And I thought, "Okay, it would be great to do womenswear." Because there's power. You look at the brands that have womenswear and menswear, and menswear never exceeds more than 30 percent. So, it was an opportunity to work in womenswear and continue menswear.
Also, it's a very famous brand. It's synonymous with a lifestyle and the identity—both the social and the physical identity—of the founder, Roberto. So it was a real opportunity to work on a high-level product: luxury men's and women's. And with men’s, there was also the opportunity to reconstruct from the roots, because in men’s it’s a brand that hasn’t been powerful and visible lately.
He doesn't see himself as a minimalist.
I think it was kind of interesting that it was a surprise: Oh, I wasn't expecting that. Although someone might say, “You come from a minimal line of work,” it's not that minimal. It's quite easy to label it with one word or adjective, but the work I've done, that I've actually worked on, has a lot of content.
It might be pared-down or purified, in terms of the final image, but “minimal” is just a word that's someone projected on you, rather than a word that you embrace. I don't think I'm minimalist at all. I like things to be visible, I like there to be a focus. There's a discipline to the way I work.
He's not worried about criticism.
I’m secure enough in my own skin and my own knowledge that I'm technically prepared for the job. If there's criticism or resistance, I wouldn't take it personally. It comes with the job.
Even just on social media, everything's judged from the minute you wake up until you go to sleep. For me, it doesn't bother me at all. I think the longer you're in this industry, you have to have tough skin.
When you're in a first position, like a creative director, you really need to have thick skin. And I knew, at the end of the day, the product would have enough integrity and enough class to withstand any critics. Because when you don't have the time to implement exceptional product, and then that's criticized, then you can say, "Mm, I knew that, I saw that coming.” Style changes, but good product will always remain.
He feels that aspiration is of the utmost importance.
Well, the first thing that most people identify with Cavalli is it's a high-fashion luxury lifestyle. It's a lifestyle brand, it's not just a product. There's always been a creative vision, there's always been a creative identity, behind the brand. And for me, the most important thing is to maintain the idea of aspiration.
Because I think, in today's market, aspiration has been a little bit lost. But when I came of age, fashion was always an aspiration; it was an opportunity to live a more beautiful life and a more beautiful existence.
He's 'recoding' Cavalli for a new generation of luxury buyers.
The spring/summer 2019 men’s collection, for me, feels energized in terms of physicality. It’s for a guy—slightly cocky, slightly self-assured—who’s a part of a new generation of luxury consumers.
The Italian style is very tailored and elegant, but I also want to make it a fun brand. So I'm just sort of working on those things: trying to keep a little bit of the sexuality but packaged in a language that today's consumer can understand, without being too provocative. Because provocation works, but you have to be careful because provocation can also backfire.
"When I came of age, fashion was always an aspiration; it was an opportunity to live a more beautiful life and a more beautiful existence."
It's not just about a shape, it's not just about a wardrobe— it's about an attitude.
When you say, "high-fashion luxury lifestyle, with attitude,” that, to me, is Cavalli. Now, it’s Bella Hadid in Saint-Tropez throwing a party on a yacht. For me, it was Paris Hilton having DJ sets and VIP. In the '70s, it was Studio 54. You want to be at that party. So nothing really changes, it's just you have to recode it so that the new generation can latch onto it and embrace it.
I always say, “Respect the past, embrace the future.” This is not a reset. It's a reboot, but it's not a reset. We're not canceling anything, just trying to polish some things.He believes that fashion is about feeling, not just clothing.
There's a lot of thinking that goes into every decision that companies make. But it also has to be authentic; if it's not authentic, customers sniff it. They can sense bullshit.
At the spring/summer 2019 show, for example, I saw young models who really understood the clothing. They weren't just walking in shells. The minute you weren't in a conversation with them, they were looking at themselves in the mirror and dancing. I thought, “I’ve got it right.”
For me, that was the most rewarding part of this show—that the boys enjoyed the clothing, they enjoyed walking the show. The mood of that stage was so inclusive and so positive.
It's a long time since I felt that at a fashion show. And I felt like we created a wardrobe where it's for real life. Sometimes, this industry, you're in a studio, you're isolated, you're working on collection after collection after collection, and you forget what it's about. It's about making people feel good. It's not just about clothing, it's about how you make people feel.