Nino Cerruti folded his tall frame on to the sofa: a scarlet sock flashing at the ankle under a soft, neutral-coloured suit. When the eternally elegant figure took a handkerchief out of his pocket, it was also bright red with a flash of golden yellow.
The man who reinvented the suit as a pliable, comfortable garment back in the Sixties talked about the philosophy of clothing, while upstairs in Florence’s Marino Marini museum, among its modernist sculptures, and under the patronage of Pitti Uomo — Pitti Immagine, was laid out his sartorial life in style. All the clothes were from his personal closets.
You can’t label these slow burn, lifetime clothes as “fashion”. Yet who but the master of soft tailoring could display nothing but his personal wardrobe over half a century to tell his story? And was it in defiance of fast fashion that this was not an archive, but a living wardrobe?
“I have to correct you — some of those clothes I wore then I don’t wear now – like those two tuxedos — one with a lapel so wide I would never wear it now,” said Cerruti, 85, who still goes to work at his family Lanficio or textile mill in Biella, Piedmont.
Bright red cotton jacquard blazer from 1967
Combed wool suits, Sartoria Cerruti, 1970
Photo by Alessandro Ciampi Pitti Immagine
“A tuxedo with a lapel so wide I would never wear it now,’’ said Nino Cerruti
Draped wool tailored coat, Sartoria Cerruti, 1986
A suit on display at the Signor Nino exhibition at Florence’s Marino Marini museum
“The history of men’s fashion is in clothes I really lived in, and the evolution – volume in the Fifties was so much larger, then, shrinking down in the Sixties,” said the inventor of the supple suit, via his revolutionary Hitman collection in 1957.
I looked at all these clothes that had wrapped Cerruti’s elongated body — and at the archive pieces from which his son Julian picks out jackets and coats to wear.
There was a line-up of double-breasted coats in camel, black or tweedy brown, where I could not begin to guess the dates. The labels traced them from 1963 and ’64 to 2000. The turn of the millennium was the time when Nino Cerruti sold a controlling share of his company to an Italian industrial group which ultimately pushed out the designer from his brand. The mill stayed in the Cerruti family’s hands.
I admired the racy elegance of a bright red cotton jacquard blazer from 1967, although Nino said firmly that he would not wear that symbol of the Beatles era now.
Another scarlet coat is so iconic, as it flames against the red pipes that create the set, that I could imagine its designer stepping out in it today. Angelo Flaccavento, the show’s curator, said that it was made in 1986 and worn first in Paris. That dash of flamboyance must have fitted into the period when Cerruti worked with Hollywood, dressing a stream of stars from Michael Douglas through Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Robert Redford and Bruce Willis — not to mention dressing Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone in Pretty Woman and Basic Instinct respectively.
Although the displays on the museum’s upper floor, including an interview with Nino, are fascinating and informative, I found the silvered main floor, reflecting the modernist sculptures, a literally brilliant foil for the precise yet malleable clothes.
They were summed up in an article in March 1970 in the Daily News Record, which defined the style of the glamorous Italian featured on the front page headline as: “The non-suit for casual moments.”
It all sounded a whole lot like Giorgio Armani. And when Angelo showed me a line-up of soft suits across four decades of Cerruti’s career, including a wool blazer from 1962 and a pliable suit from 1970, I began to think about the eight years in the Sixties and Seventies when Armani had worked on Cerruti’s cool, young Hitman line, later founding his own Giorgio Armani label in 1974.
So I asked Nino the big question: “Did Armani steal your style?”
This is what he said: “The updating of men’s clothes was something he was working on with me — but he loved a particular range of fabrics that I do not like so much — it was light, it fell down,” Nino said. “I liked sports things. That was the first difference between him and me, these kinds of fabrics. When we were working together and on technical development, he was helping me – but I had the final word.”
Then came a gentle sideways kick.
“Giorgio should do now what he was doing in the Seventies — it was so actual,” Nino said.
I learned a lot from this exhibition: the overall timeless chic of Cerruti style, shown as much in the relaxation of formal clothes as in the sporty elegance of jersey or cotton gabardine. The Woolmark company sponsored the museum show in recognition of the revolution Cerruti brought to a material that has come from the sheep’s back to the human body for 10,000 years.
Angelo Flaccavento also gave me a few nuggets of information: that Nino admires Phoebe Philo of Céline; that Cerruti was the first designer to use in the late Fifties a flowered suit-lining “that looks like Dries or Etro today.”
Angelo also translated the words beside a yellow sweater that I had seen Nino wear tied round his shoulders as he took his bow after the end of every single show. The caption translated as “My lucky golf jumper”.
“I am not really superstitious,” Nino said, “But…”