A&E Interviews: Paul Surridge, Roberto Cavalli’s Creative Director

Diana Bell-Heather   |   23 - 09 - 2018

How Roberto Cavalli’s creative director, who is known for technical fabrics and sharp tailoring, is rebooting one of the most lavish Italian brands for the new generation.



In an ever shifting world of fashion, heritage brands are pushing more than ever to remain relevant. We have seen it slowly take shape at Burberry since the arrival of Riccardo Tisci, and we are sure to see a transformation at Celine at the hands of Hedi Slimane.


Pushing forward and transforming a historical name like Roberto Cavalli is something that has weighed heavily on Paul Surridge’s mind since he took over in July 2017. The British designer only had eight weeks to channel his vision before the first womenswear collection walked down the runway. It was met with positive reviews, although the long-term fans of Cavalli missed some of the more glamorous creations.


So for his second attempt, he dived into the archives for that sensual razzle and dazzle, and yet it seemed to miss some of his own voice. For the upcoming women’s ready-to-wear show this month, Surridge is trying something new that will showcase his point of view in a way that we haven’t seen before.


The transformation continued with his first men’s collection, held at Pitti Uomo in Florence where the brand was founded. He striped the Cavalli man of the embroidery and tailoring, and instead dressed him in luxe leisure and sportswear that still echo the codes of a house, but in a modern way.


Surridge is determined to push the brand forward and evolve it into the new Roberto Cavalli that appeals to the millennial shopper, and yet doesn’t shun the loyal customer base. It’s a difficult balance, but as we chat to him further there’s a sense of confidence that gives us a feeling that he knows exactly what he’s doing.



Tell us about the Fall 2018 women’s collection.

It was about capturing the essence and the flirtation of the Cavalli woman. It was a modern approach, to me, of femininity and continuation of sensuality but it was slightly more powerful. From the historic side of Cavalli, the woman is very powerful. I wanted to touch more on the areas of the wardrobe that I haven’t presented, like coats and leather and clothes that helped define the winter collection.

It was about finding a new idea of glamour, and the idea of glamour being an idea of attraction. I thought ‘what is the attraction to me, today, in 2018?’ and it’s confidence. A woman can wear what she wants, how she wants to wear it. I think a Cavalli woman is someone who empowers herself and doesn’t follow the rules.


How do you think the image of the brand is changing under your direction?

The brand is 48 years old, what I’m trying to do is to concentrate on other areas. Roberto Cavalli is renowned for red carpet and evening wear, but I feel an area of growth can come from approaching the concept of daywear.

The recent shows concentrated on embroidery and evening dresses and very worked pieces, which were very limited in terms of use, and very expensive, so for me it was about bringing it into the daywear concept and appealing to the global market, in particular Asia. If you’re not looking at Asia, you’re not really relevant. The idea of sportswear, leisure, down dressing rather than traditional evening dresses. It was an instinctive approach to make it modern and make it a global aesthetic.



I’m trying not to make it too disruptive as I understand there’s a loyal fan base that I don’t want to lose while I’m looking for a new one. Also approaching the idea of beauty, and body. It’s an ongoing discussion of how to approach sensuality in fashion which has always been a big part of the Cavalli world. We are trying to make it attractive and relevant for the new generation.


Who would you say is the Roberto Cavalli woman today?

She is empowered and a creative thinker. Someone who follows her own rules, someone who is respectful and mindful about walking into the room and the power of the mind. Someone who is confident enough to follow her own instincts, someone who is not shy. It could be anyone, I think it’s a community of global woman who want to stand out, but for the right reasons.


Tell us about your inspiration for your first men’s collection for Roberto Cavalli.

Our menswear business is very small and it’s almost like a start up. The idea was to capture a less traditional and more leisure, more sportswear and a more urban attitude. I have to make it attractive for wholesale and retail. Historically, the Cavalli man was tailored and very rock and roll, and very dandy, but no one is really looking at ‘dandy’ and no one is buying tailoring. It was almost an instinctive approach to modernise the wardrobe and put it into an eclectic sportswear content. I wanted it to be a younger vibe, someone who wants something special and looking at the idea of utility, practicality and sportswear but in Cavalli codes. Looking at how to modernise the artisan value of the brand in a slightly more sportier leisure context.



Were you worried about the response the collection would have?

There’s always concern. At the end of day my job is to make the brand relevant. I always follow my own creative instinct, but there’s always a concern, ‘is there enough of the past without changing the DNA?’ but I also feel Cavalli needs to modernize and be brought into the context that makes it attractive in today’s market.


What shift have you seen in the men’s fashion scene?

There is less traditional clothing, less traditional luxury in a way. We moved into this whole sportswear epidemic which created a rise in T-shirts and sweatshirts, but today you can also have a T-shirt that is 1000 (Approx. AED4,205), and you can have a suit that’s 600 or 800, so it’s not so much about the value, it’s about desirability and status. It’s cooler to have a limited edition T-shirt or limited edition sneaker than a beautifully crafted suit or a leather jacket.

It’s a cycle, and tailoring will come back but right now we’re living with a sportswear urban attitude, which I think is going to come to an end. We are going through the last part of the cycle, but it is a change in traditional luxury into more sportswear. As a creative director, you have to trust your instincts, today I think authenticity and courage is what people respond with. They want something that is personal and storytelling from a specific point of view.


How do you want men and women to feel in your clothes?

Definitely comfortable, confident and empowered. I want people to buy the clothes because they feel good in them. I think today the most important thing is to make people feel good.

I want them to stand out. Roberto Cavalli was the brand you’d wear to communicate something, so I want to create clothes that people wear because they want to stand out, but stand out for the right reasons. That will be an ongoing journey through this idea of glamour, sensuality and body.

I’m obsessed right now with the way the body is a receptor. When a person walks into the room, you’re aware of their physical presence, and then you notice clothing. Cavalli, for me, was about beauty and making a woman feel beautiful, and making a man feel urban and cool and it’s all about putting all those things into a context that’s right for 2018. We’re no longer 2004, and the brand has to move on.



How do you balance the demand of luxury consumers with your design process?

People want something special and stands out. If you’re buying something expensive, it has to be quality or it has to be unique to the point where you’re buying into the aesthetic and into the vision of the brand. Today is about getting a unique experience or giving them a reason to buy into the brand.


How do you capture the new millennial mindset?

Values have changed. People want to buy something for a special occasion or something that makes them feel good because the occasions have changed. You have to provide something that captured the imagination of that generation. Their lives are about validating their existence, recording their presence, proving that they had a contribution, it’s a very different approach to image and documentation, and with that they are looking for something that gives them credibility. It’s about standing out and fitting in. It’s going to be harder for brands to stay on top, but millennial is one type. On one side you have to attract the millennial business to keep it credible, and on the other side you have to keep a historic customer happy.


What is the most rewarding part of being a designer today?

The most incredible part is that it doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like an extension of yourself. I never had the feeling that I go to work. The best part is that you’re also in motion, you never do the same thing twice. You’re constantly creating and travelling. It’s incredibly hard, but you’re constantly moving and as a creative director, you can inspire people. It’s not about just clothing, it’s about the world around clothing. Your mind is never in once place.


Explain your design process.

I start with a couple of adjectives: is it retro, futuristic, modern, sensual? I create three key words. Then we think about the silhouette: is it bodycon, oversized, are we more fluid or tailored? We go through the selection process. The new collection (SS19) is new for me, it’s less about the archives.


Describe your office / creative space.

I have both an office and studio. My working office has a desk and a meeting table and I’m only there in the morning and the evening. It’s extremely tidy, I’m obsessed with order and discipline. It’s a thinking space so I can’t stand mess and disorder.


What attributes does a strong leader need?

You need to be patient, generous, you need to listen and you also need to be strong and confident and call things out when needed. You have to trust your instinct, the worst thing is to make the wrong decision and know that you’re making the wrong decision. The most important thing today is to lead by example. You have to be likeable but also powerful, clear and focused – it’s a very complex. We are all looking at survival, there’s a lot of challenges and it’s all about relevance. We have to create something that’s meaningful and special, listen to the new generation. You have to empower the younger generation, and educate them.


What has been inspiring you recently?

I started watching a show called Pose. I’m always inspired by friends and people who set off to do their own projects and set up their new projects.



What other designers do you love wearing?

I’m very basic, always wearing the same thing. I love Comme des Garçons, Jil Sander, I started to wear Cavalli. I’m simple in a way, I’m a white T-shirt and jeans guy.


Who do you turn to for advice?

I turn to sometimes my partner and sometimes to [my friend] Carmen, she’s a life coach and she helps to advise me on certain things.


Can you remember the last thing that made you laugh?

I always find something that makes me laugh, I’m someone who likes to laugh a lot. Stupid things on YouTube, animals being silly. My friends made me laugh on holiday!


How do you deal with a creative block?

I just leave the situation and go for a run. I can’t always do it at work, so if there is a creative block it’s about asking a few questions. If I do feel blocked at all, then I go for a run and take my mind of it.


Who would be your fashion dinner party guests?

I would like to see all my old employers, people that I have actually met and got to know at some point. Miuccia [Prada], Calvin [Klein], Christopher [Kane], Raf [Simons], Kate Moss as I think she’d be an amazing energy. A singer that was part of my adolescence like Kylie Minogue, and Yves Saint Laurent. To bring someone back and ask how they feel about fashion today. And my long time hero Helmut Lang who changed my world and perception on fashion.


What is the one item of clothing you think is essential for a timeless wardrobe, for both men and women?

There’s something powerful about a beautifully about a well-made cotton shirt. It brings a touch of class to any outfit.



What can we expect from SS19?

When I first joined, I found the company a little bit confused. I wanted to simplify and bring a little bit of elegance. One of the critics (of the first collection) said ‘it’s beautiful, but where is the glamour?’ so the second collection was more heritage based, and capturing the glamour of the Cavalli past. Now, I realise I have to bring something of myself to the table so this next collection is less about heritage and more about capturing the attitude and spirit. I like to keep things moving. It’s time to show who I am, if I don’t show that, why am I doing it? I have to move the company forward, because the past didn’t work, the past failed. I like to experiment and express myself because that’s my responsibility and my job.

It’s a very edited collection. The winter collection fluctuated between too many different types of clothing. The new collection has powerful silhouettes, lots of beautiful tailoring and completely new proportions to what I worked on so far.