The fashion designer and businessman Nino Cerruti was first and last a native of the city of Biella in northern Italy, where alpine-pastured sheep, and mountain water and its millwheel powers, had been supplying an industry in fine wool textiles for a millennium. He was bred to the spinning and loom trades – “I was born in a manger,” he said, “only instead of straw, there was wool” – and he returned to those trades, and Biella, for his last years.
In between, Cerruti, who has died aged 91, became an international fashion name, whose relaxed suits made star appearances in more than 100 Hollywood movies, by applying his profound knowledge of the properties of good wool and other natural fibres to a modern masculine tailoring that did not depend for shape on an invisible interior armature of canvas, padding and lining.
At 20, he had suddenly inherited the family mill in Biella, founded in 1881 by his grandfather Antonio (the Cerrutis had been in wool since the 18th century), and set about improving its machinery while respecting the woolly product, and used that as raw material for what developed into “deconstructed” garments, which are in fact very constructed, being subtly girdered by the cut and seaming of their parts.
To see his soft tailoring in hard action, look at the Cerruti-jacketed shoulders and torsos of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in the 1980s television series Miami Vice, how the interplay of their muscles directly animates the fabric. The journalist Suzy Menkes wrote that in fashion BC means Before Cerruti, an antique era of suits like plate armour.
Cerruti was the first of the Italian industrial family firm heads to put together in the 50s ancient craft techniques and new, quality, factory production – the beginning of “Made in Italy” ready-to-wear, now a fashion standard.
He originally went into the Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti mill in Biella for a month during a long school holiday when he was 10, ordered there by his father, Silvio, and in their teens he and his two younger brothers watched as Silvio was put in charge locally of fairly distributing the limited postwar fibre supplies, and reviving production. Nino wanted to be a writer, but Silvio died in 1951, and, as eldest, he dropped out of his philosophy degree and took over, continuing his father’s innovations, particularly in lightweight fabrics.
Cerruti realised his firm could be its own best customer if it made clothes from its cloth. At first he collaborated with tailors to show the cloth’s potential; to project a stylish image across Italy, he commissioned four short plays from famous writers, put on in Milan, Turin, Rome and far south in Naples, and designed the costumes himself.
In 1957, he entered the ready-to-wear market that was supplementing, and would supplant, tailor-made menswear, with the launch of his first label, Hitman, in Milan, adding the “designer” Flying Cross brand in 1962. Cerruti recruited talented disciples who could work within his ever-more-easy manner, notably Giorgio Armani from 1964 to 1970, whom the world then credited with Cerruti’s advances in deconstruction and male textiles for female fashion.
Cerruti opened a boutique on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris in 1967, afterwards showing men’s, then also women’s, collections during Paris fashion week, rather than in Milan; he later moved company headquarters to Paris, though textile and garment production stayed in Italy.
Movie people had discovered Hitman and Flying Cross in the early 60s when Hollywood filmed in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, or employed Italian crews to shoot epics in Spain. Male stars liked his casual clothes, which softened further in the 70s when he added jersey fabrics and knitwear. (A Cerruti knit endures: he wore a signature yellow sweater to his shows for more than 30 years, getting through just three, with slight style revisions.)
What stars wore off-screen they requested for their on-screen wardrobes, including Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990), Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger (1994), Bruce Willis in Hudson Hawk (1991), Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire (1993), and Cerruti’s “muse” Kathleen Turner as private eye VI Warshawski (1991). A Cerruti suit’s drape could conceal any calibre of handgun with a few per cent of stretch Lycra added to the fibre mix.
Because Cerruti commanded his Italian manufacturing base all the way to its primary imports of Australian wool and Mongolian cashmere, he was less dependent than most designers on couture catwalk publicity to promote perfume sales and other revenue-generators. The business diversified – jeans, some accessories, reshapings for markets in Asia – but unlike many French houses it was never absorbed into a luxury conglomerate company in exchange for promised infusions of capital.
Not until 2000 did Cerruti decide that the company cashflow provided insufficient capital for growth, and then he took six months to audition a partner firm, selling 51% to the Italian industrial company Fin.part.
It ended in tears within a year, after Fin.part, which had taken over full control, forced Cerruti, then aged 71, out for “irreconcilable differences”: Cerruti said there was “perpetual conflict”. Fin.part went bankrupt in 2005, the Cerruti name was sold on to successive owners, none faring well. Cerruti immediately returned to Biella to work at, and for, his mill and the city, to keep business and traditions viable despite extreme globalisation in textile production. He sold part of the mill shares in 2016 to the Brandamour company in the hope that their young entrepreneurs would assure its future.
Cerruti had two children, Julian, who worked with him as an assistant in the fashion business, and Silvia, from a marriage that ended in divorce. He had been in a partnership with Sibylla Jahr since the 90s.