Nino Cerruti Gave Elegance a Good Name

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Elegance, Nino Cerruti once said, got on his nerves. It was the sort of remark you can afford to toss off when you are easily the most elegant man in the room. And Mr. Cerruti, who died last month at age 91, embodied that attribute, a quality seldom encountered yet unmistakable when you are in its presence.

“It can be learned, but you have to have a natural disposition for it,” he said in an interview in L’Officiel USA last year.

Though sartorial elegance is an instinct, as Mr. Cerruti suggested, it can be anatomized. It derives from knowing and remaining true to yourself; from ruthlessly assessing physical flaws and assets in order to understand the effect of your body moving through space. It depends, to a degree, on learning the fundaments of dressing before pitching them.

As we roll into the third year of a pandemic still, by and large, sitting at home in our casual duds, it may seem as if having an aptitude for elegance is as useful as knowing how to prune a bonsai.

Yet, as the recent men’s wear and couture shows in Europe suggested, a stylish mirage hovers on the horizon. Designers, pundits and consumers alike hanker for reasons to dress up again — routinely and in public. By this one does not mean for Instagram selfies or red-letter events like, let us say, the Met Gala, which has come to resemble fashion’s version of Comic Con.

On runways and showrooms in Milan and Paris, labels like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Tod’s represented individual visions for dressing that obliquely nodded to Mr. Cerruti, whom insiders know laid the groundwork for a postwar Italian ready-to-wear industry that gave Italian sartorial elegance a global identity.

“I’m very drawn to that idea of chic,” Walter Chiapponi, the creative director of Tod’s, said last month in Milan after previewing a fine capsule collection of reworked classics that could have been swiped from the wardrobes of a certain kind of Italian of a particular pedigree — someone like Nino Cerruti. “Those northern Italians traditionally had this quality,” Mr. Chiapponi said. “It’s a matter of culture.’’

The poster boy for that form of chic has reflexively been Gianni Agnelli, the industrialist and Fiat heir. Mr. Agnelli, though, was a showboat, in part a creation of a postwar tabloid culture fascinated by the doings of a newly minted cosmopolitan jet set.

The contrast between the two men is also instructive. Where Mr. Agnelli’s signatures (shoulder-knotted sweaters, denim ski togs, soft-soled driving shoes, neckties tucked into waistbands, wristwatches worn atop a shirt cuff) came together as expressions of sprezzatura, an overused term for tossed-off elegance, Mr. Cerruti’s was more authentic and relaxed. He dressed not to be noticed. Yet, when you were with him, you wondered why he looked so much better than anyone else in sight.

“He was the most stylish man I ever met,” said Emanuele Farneti, the editor in chief for fashion and style at the Italian daily La Repubblica. “He was a symbol of a certain kind of elegance specific to regions and generations, places like Milan and Turin. It’s a kind of chic that is the opposite of showing off.”

In a sense, Mr. Farneti said, it is no surprise that Cerruti “discovered Armani,” whom the older man spotted as a relative unknown employed at the department store La Rinascente and hired to design men’s wear for his Hitman label. Over his 50-year career, Giorgio Armani has seldom strayed from a quiet core aesthetic. When critics carp about the seeming monotony of his work, they are also tending to forget his early innovations.

More than any other designer, Mr. Armani can be credited with popularizing deconstructed suiting. And, whether intentional or not, contemporary designers like Jerry Lorenzo at Fear of God or Mike Amiri at Amiri nod to his legacy with each new collection of their elevated streetwear. Mr. Armani, however, did not “invent” deconstruction. If anyone, Nino Cerruti did. “He was the forerunner,” said Nick Sullivan, the creative director of Esquire.

Scion of an industrialist family whose Lanificio Cerruti woolen mills were founded in 1881 in the northern city of Biella, Mr. Cerruti was early to note the potential of branching out from cloth manufacture and into clothes. “Along with Walter Albini, he was the forerunner of what became Italian ready-to-wear,” Mr. Sullivan said. “He was a rock star in the late ’60s.”

Among the innovations Mr. Cerruti pioneered were suits stripped of their stiff interior structures. “He was the among 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 retained structure in his suits while at the same time relaxing them. The simple decision to strip out canvasing, flannel, horsehair and other underpinnings of traditional suits ultimately affected the course of modern men’s wear.

Mr. Cerruti was a pathfinder in other ways. Early to the concept of genderless fashion, which he called “couple’s dressing,” he also routinely dressed celebrities, including Anita Ekberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Harrison Ford, and not because his publicists had stalked them for lucrative endorsements. Many of his star clients, he said, “came in as customers at my Paris shop.”

Curiously, given that he provided clothes to countless films, his cinematic contribution has generally gotten little recognition. “So many things people think were Armani in movies were Cerruti,” the designer Umit Benan noted last week by telephone from Milan.

Although it was the costume designer Marilyn Vance who selected the wardrobe for “Pretty Woman,” it was her choice of Cerruti suiting that dignified the millionaire john played by Richard Gere and lent a durable elegance to an essentially generic character.

Cerruti designs appeared in films as disparate as “Wall Street” and “The Silence of the Lambs” and were worn by generations of fashionable men. Still, no one ever managed to look as effortlessly stylish as the designer himself. There were his sherbet-colored sweaters draped (though not knotted) across the shoulders. There were his quirky pea green socks worn with gray flannel trousers. There were his pinstriped shirts invariably worn over a dark T-shirt and under a tweed jacket, no tie. There were his Yohji Yamamoto sneakers and the tailoring tricks few aside from experts would detect.

“He was very aware of his body and frame and how to work with it,” Mr. Flaccavento said.

Tall and lanky, Mr. Cerruti was long in the torso and dressed in a manner that minimized flaws in his figure. “In my mind’s eye I see him in a soft suit, usually gray, with an open-neck shirt with a contrasting dark T-shirt underneath,” said Peter Speliopoulos, a former creative director of DKNY and who was one of the many talents (Véronique Nichanian of Hermès and Narciso Rodriguez were others) spotted or hired early on by Mr. Cerruti.

“He belted his pants high, wore a well-worn leather belt, to accentuate his height — or give the illusion of very long legs,” Mr. Speliopoulos said.

To the end he smoked like a fiend and lit his cigarettes with matches, somehow imparting an element of chic even to this habit. “He was devilishly stylish,” said Mr. Flaccavento, who in 2015 organized an exhibition at the Museo Marino Marini in Florence of clothes from Mr. Cerruti’s personal wardrobe — he rarely threw anything away — which included suits, jackets, trousers, evening wear and capes tracing the evolution of Italian men’s wear through six decades.

Among the more fascinating items on display in that show was a frayed wool jacket well aerated by moths. Humble though it was, there was elegance in the designer’s unapologetic decision not merely to retain an old garment but to display it as representative of himself.

“I kept it for a simple reason,” Mr. Cerruti told this reporter at the time. “I’ve always liked that fabric.”

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