Paul Cavaco Steps Reluctantly Into the Spotlight
Paul Cavaco might be the only man in fashion relieved he was not invited to the Met ball. After all, he owns only two suits, and isn't sure if either still fits.
"This winter, it was so funky and nasty, I ate a lot of pizza," Cavaco, 62, tells me, sitting in his office at Allure, where he's been creative director for fifteen years. A svelte assistant takes our Starbucks order.
"I just got my second suit not too long ago," he says. "The reason I bought the suit was I got so bored with being me, I thought, OK, I'm going to lose weight and I'm going to change my outfits."
Today he is dressed in dark Levi's blue jeans and a navy gingham shirt from J.Crew, Gold Toe socks, and blue New Balance sneakers. The shirt amounts to a bold choice for Cavaco, who often favors a plain white button-down. Long before the dreaded term "normcore" became a trending topic, he had mastered the art of dressing in a fashionably normal way. He arrived at this standard uniform after what he characterizes as several false starts with color.
"I go to put color on and I look crazy, so I'll get olive drab and I think that's an easy color, and I get to the door and go back and change. Wearing a checked shirt, to get here, the day I walked out of the house I was like, 'I hope they're not, like, laughing, whoever they are, that are secretly laughing at me.'"
One can safely say no one is laughing at Paul Cavaco, who'll pick up the CFDA's Media Award next week. A versatile stylist, he has never been beholden to one look. His role, as he sees it, is not to impose his vision but to understand and enhance the vision of the photographer he is working with. And yet, no matter the style, the pictures share certain elements: precision, visual surprise, and the energy of his native New York. Cavaco has not only been collaborating with marquee photographers (Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, Michael Thompson, Steven Meisel, Mario Testino) for the last four decades, he supported many of them at the crucial formative stages of their careers. The last time Harper's Bazaar seriously challenged Vogue's supremacy was when Liz Tilberis was its editor and Cavaco its fashion director. And his subjects, from Kate Moss to every A-list actress in Hollywood, adore him. No other stylist can make a woman look as beautiful or as sexy.
The creative director's office is small with low ceilings, crowded with what Cavaco calls his "shitty" books—the good ones are at home. The space is decorated with clippings from old magazines and drawings from his grandchildren and other people's kids. ("The beauty director's son likes me.")
Like much of the clothing-rack-crowded Condé Nast building, Cavaco's office undersells his influence on the fashion industry, but he is fine with that. "I have to shoot the video for the CFDA, and I'm so thrilled and honored by it, but it is everything that I don't do. I don't want to be in a video, I don't want to give a speech. There's a reason I do behind the scenes. It suits my personality."
Born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, his mother's family was from Cuba and his father's family was from Spain. He says he grew up at a time when you weren't supposed to be Latin in New York or speak Spanish outside of the home.
"My dad owned a bodega, so I just wanted to have a glamorous life," he says between sips of the iced coffee his assistant brought back. "I didn't want to end up working at a chorizo factory as he did. My dad had a fabulous life, but that's not what I wanted."
Cavaco graduated from the City College of New York, and thought he would become a teacher until he met Kezia Keeble in 1973 at age 21. "She was the most glamorous person on the planet. We're riding on the subway to Harlem and she's wearing a see-through blouse with a bra and a Giorgio Sant'Angelo cape to the floor, with a giant hood, with foxtails hanging off of the whole thing. Of course everyone in Harlem loved this. They were gag-ulating," he says. "I was scared at first because I went to people's parties, and people had furniture covered in satin, my friends had furniture covered in plastic. It was like being in a movie."
At the time, Keeble had recently left Vogue, where she was working under Diana Vreeland, and was freelancing as a stylist. Cavaco eventually joined her photo shoots. "I was trained by Kezia Keeble, who was Vogue-trained, she was trained by Ms. Vreeland, and I think I was taught that it wasn't about me on the shoot, it was really about getting it to happen," he says.
Keeble and Cavaco married and founded a styling firm together. They divorced in 1984 and Keeble married John Duka and the company became Keeble Cavaco & Duka, which continues to be one of the most prominent firms in the industry, and was one of the first to combine styling, advertising, and PR into one agency.
"They really invented that whole thing, being a stylist, working with photographers," says Cavaco's close friend, designer Anna Sui. "I think the reason everyone loved working with Paul was he was so much on your team, and that's what you need when you are producing photos. He's not just telling you what to do, he's doing it with you."
After Duka's death from AIDS in 1989 and Keeble's death from breast cancer in 1990, Cavaco sold Keeble Cavaco & Duka and went on to become fashion director at Harper's Bazaar and Vogue before landing at Allure. "I just do the clothes," Cavaco says. "I hold people's hands. I think people just want to feel safe. I think as kids we want to feel safe, and we never outgrow that. I think as the editor, you have to provide the safety and say your talent is precious—I'm going to revere that, take care of that, and not stamp all over that."
Known for his love of nudity and bathing suits, Cavaco went on to style Madonna's 1992 Sex book, electrified Calvin Klein's underwear ads, made Linda Evangelista fly, and championed a young Kate Moss ("She became the person I was obsessed with for years at Harper's Bazaar," he says. Moss still calls him Daddy).
"When I first met Paul Cavaco, I was working on a sitting for Esquire with his future wife, the great editor Kezia Keeble. We both adored the way Paul looked, so we put him in the pictures," photographer Bruce Weber wrote by e-mail. "From couture to punk, from aristocratic England to French bohemian to Midwest glamour, there was nothing that Paul couldn't tackle. He was a gift to photographers, and every time I see him years later, I can't help but wish he was always tagging along, carrying a dress on a hanger and telling me we're going to make it exciting."
Although Cavaco was attracted to the glamour of the fashion industry, colleagues say he's not in the business for the ego-boosting trappings. He is still the guy on his hands and knees pinning clothes, willing to take the blame if something goes wrong, and cleaning up the coffee cups at the end of a shoot.
"He's not a diva at all," says Allure's editor in chief, Linda Wells. "And he doesn't require a lot of attention, he doesn't need to be a larger-than-life personality. He really believes in the work and loves what he does and lets that stand first."
By the early afternoon, Cavaco is camped out in Allure's fashion closet, preparing for three upcoming shoots. He's surrounded by rows of pumps, piles of handbags, stacks of baubles, trays of sunglasses, and racks of leather dresses. He pulls a red jacket from a hanger and drapes it on a mannequin.
"I don't really know what the clothes look like on the hanger, because I'm not a girl. In old-time Vogue, you would get a fit model to come in, but I always find it distracting to see a head coming out of it. I started to use the mannequin, which people make fun of, but you can check the proportion much more easily."
After four decades in the business, he has yet to slow down. Cavaco was up at 4:30 a.m., doing his "twenty-minute insane workout." He then headed uptown to his daughter's house and helped get his grandkids dressed and had breakfast with the family. He drove his granddaughter to school at Spence, returned, walked his grandson to school, and was at Four Times Square by 9:30 a.m.
"I'm like that old person who falls asleep on the couch at 8 p.m. I'm watching Entertainment Tonight and I've nodded out with some food in my hand," he says. But he's still a man easily obsessed— American Idol, Monica Vitti, clowns, Scandal. ("I love watching the mouth quiver.") He watches Disney cartoons to relax, for the color.
Decades since he was drawn to the glamour of fashion in the seventies, embracing these obsessions is still what he does best.
"I think everyone should be in love," he says. "When you are working, it's all about being in love. You are in love with the model. For that moment she is the most beautiful creature on the planet."
Yet, Cavaco says there's something "very psychological" about the CFDA award, not just because he's forced to contend with the "this-is-your-life-ness" of reviewing his archives, or the spotlight, or because he now falls asleep at 8 p.m., but again, the suit.
"I'm going to have to get into the fucking suit to go to the CFDA, so that's going to be five Spanx."