Nino Cerruti gave elegance a good name
Elegance, Nino Cerruti once said, gets on his nerves. It was the sort of remark one can afford when one is easily the most elegant man in the room. And Mr. Cerruti, who died last month at the age of 91, embodied that attribute, a quality rarely encountered but unmistakable when you are in his presence.
“You can learn it, but you have to have a natural disposition for it,” he said in one interview in L’Officiel USA last year.
Although sartorial elegance is an instinct, as Mr. Cerruti has suggested, it can be anatomized. It derives from knowing yourself and staying true to yourself; from ruthlessly evaluating physical flaws and assets to understanding the impact of your body moving through space. It depends to some extent on learning the basics of dressing before setting it up.
While we’re still broadly rolling into year three of a pandemic and sitting at home in our casual clothes, it might seem like a talent for elegance is just as useful as knowing how to prune a bonsai.
But as recent menswear and couture shows in Europe have suggested, a stylish mirage is on the horizon. Designers, pundits and consumers alike are looking for reasons to dress up again – routinely and in public. This doesn’t mean Instagram selfies or Red Letter events like, say, the Met Gala, which resemble the fashion version of Comic Con.
On catwalks and showrooms in Milan and Paris, labels like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Tod’s represented individual visions for clothing, nodding obliquely to Mr Cerruti, who insiders know laid the foundations for a post-war Italian ready-to-wear industry, Italian fashion Elegance spawned a global identity.
“I’m very attracted to this idea of chic,” said Walter Chiapponi, Tod’s creative director, in Milan last month after previewing a fine capsule collection of reworked classics nicked from the wardrobes of a certain type of Italian could be of a certain pedigree – someone like Nino Cerruti. “These northern Italians have traditionally had that quality,” said Mr. Chiapponi. “It’s a question of culture.”
The poster child for this kind of chic was, reflexively, Gianni Agnelli, the industrialist and Fiat heir. Mr. Agnelli was a showboat, however, partly a creation of a post-war tabloid culture fascinated by the exploits of a newly minted cosmopolitan jet set.
The contrast between the two men is also revealing. Where Mr. Agnelli’s signatures (shoulder-knot sweater, denim ski pants, soft-soled ski shoes, tucked-in tie, wristwatch worn over a shirt cuff) came together as an expression of sprezzatura, an overused term for aloof elegance, Mr. Cerruti’s was more authentic and more relaxed. He dressed so as not to attract attention. Yet when you were with him, you wondered why he looked so much better than everyone else in sight.
“He was the most stylish man I’ve ever met,” said Emanuele Farneti, editor-in-chief of fashion and style at Italian daily La Repubblica. “He was a symbol of a certain kind of elegance that is typical of regions and generations, of places like Milan and Turin. It’s kind of chic, the opposite of showing off.”
In a way, Mr Farneti said, it’s no surprise that Cerruti “discovered Armani,” whom the older man spotted as a relatively unknown clerk at La Rinascente department store and hired to design menswear for his Hitman label. In his 50-year career, Giorgio Armani has rarely strayed from a quiet core aesthetic. When critics nag about the seeming monotony of his work, they also tend to forget about his early innovations.
More than any other designer, Mr. Armani can be credited with popularizing deconstructed suiting. And, intentional or not, contemporary designers like Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo and Amiri’s Mike Amiri reference his legacy with each new collection of their elevated streetwear. However, Mr. Armani did not “invent” deconstruction. If anything, then Nino Cerruti. “He was the precursor,” said Nick Sullivan, Esquire’s creative director.
Descended from a family of industrialists whose Lanificio Cerruti wool mills were founded in the northern city of Biella in 1881, Mr. Cerruti saw early on the potential to branch out from fabric manufacture into clothing. “Together with Walter Albini, he was the forerunner of Italian ready-to-wear,” Sullivan said. “He was a rock star in the late ’60s.”
Among the innovations Mr. Cerruti pioneered were suits stripped of their rigid internal structures. “He was one of the first to deconstruct the jacket,” said Angelo Flaccavento, an Italian writer on style.
Unlike the shirt-soft Neapolitan tailoring popular since the 1920s, when upper-class Englishmen sent their tailors to Naples to copy local techniques, Mr. Cerruti maintained structure in his suits while relaxing it. The simple decision to remove linen, flannel, horsehair and other linings from traditional suits ultimately influenced the course of modern menswear.
Mr. Cerruti was a trailblazer in another way. Early on in the concept of genderless fashion, which he dubbed “couples dressing,” he also routinely dressed celebrities, including Anita Ekberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Harrison Ford, and not because his publicists had pursued them for lucrative endorsements. Many of his star clients, he said, “came into my Paris store as clients.”
Oddly enough, since he has provided clothing for countless films, his cinematic contribution has generally received little recognition. “So many things that people think of as Armani in movies were Cerruti,” designer Umit Benan noted over the phone from Milan last week.
Although it was costume designer Marilyn Vance who chose the wardrobe for Pretty Woman, it was her choice of the Cerruti suit that paid tribute to millionaire John, played by Richard Gere, and brought an enduring elegance to an essentially generic character.
Cerruti designs have appeared in films as diverse as Wall Street and The Silence of the Lambs and have been worn by generations of fashionable men. Still, no one has managed to look as effortlessly stylish as the designer himself. There was his sherbet-colored sweater draped (albeit not knotted) over his shoulders. There were his quirky pea green socks, which he wore with gray flannel trousers. There were his pinstriped shirts, always worn over a dark t-shirt and under a tweed jacket, with no tie. There were his Yohji Yamamoto sneakers and the tailoring tricks that few but experts would spot.
“He was very aware of his body and his stature and knew how to manage it,” Mr Flaccavento said.
Mr. Cerruti was tall and lanky with a long torso and was dressed to minimize flaws in his figure. “In my mind’s eye I see him in a soft suit, usually grey, with an open-neck shirt and a contrasting dark t-shirt underneath,” said Peter Speliopoulos, former creative director of DKNY and one of the many talents (Véronique Nichanian of Hermès and Narciso Rodriguez were others) discovered or hired early by Mr. Cerruti.
“He had his trousers laced up, wore a worn leather belt to accentuate his size – or give the illusion of very long legs,” Mr Speliopoulos said.
To the very end, he smoked like a devil and lit his cigarettes with matches, which somehow added a chic element to even that habit. “He was devilishly stylish,” said Mr Flaccavento, who in 2015 organized an exhibition at Florence’s Museo Marino Marini of items from Mr Cerruti’s personal wardrobe – he rarely threw anything away – including suits, jackets, trousers, evening wear and capes, which the Tracing the evolution of Italian menswear over six decades.
Among the more intriguing exhibits at this exhibition was a frayed wool jacket that was well aerated by moths. Humble as it was, there was elegance in the designer’s uncompromising decision not only to keep an old garment, but to present it as representative of himself.
“I kept it for one simple reason,” Mr. Cerruti told this reporter at the time. “I’ve always liked this stuff.”