Nino Cerruti, the dashing Italian fashion designer and textile scion who modernized men’s wear with his soft, unstructured tailoring, and dressed generations of movie and television stars, onscreen and off, died on Jan. 15 at a hospital in Vercelli, Italy. He was 91.
The cause was complications from hip surgery, according to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
It was 1950, and Mr. Cerruti was just 20 when his father died and Mr. Cerruti took over his family’s textile mills in Biella, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, giving up his university studies in philosophy and journalism. Within a few years, he had reimagined the family business as a fashion company.
Mr. Cerruti was “the founding father of the postwar designer revolution,” Suzy Menkes, fashion critic of The International Herald Tribune wrote in 2001, adding that he presaged “the Made in Italy revolution, in which traditional workmanship was parlayed into a streamlined factory-made luxury product.”
From the get-go, Mr. Cerruti knew how to make an entrance. In 1960, the year the Fellini film “La Dolce Vita” came out, he chose its voluptuous star, Anita Ekberg, to introduce a new color for his fabrics, by leading a flotilla of Fiats to the Excelsior Hotel on Rome’s Via Veneto, where Ms. Ekberg smashed Champagne bottles as she marched into the hotel’s lobby. The cars and Ms. Ekberg were all sheathed (actually, the cars were painted) in the same rich petrol blue, as Michael Gross wrote in his introduction to “Cinema: Nino Cerruti and the Stars” (1994).
He was an early adopter of unisex dressing, too, though he loathed the term as being too anatomical. Couple-dressing was his preferred phrase and in the late 1960s his Paris boutique on the Place de La Madeleine, called Cerruti 1881 as a homage to the date his family’s firm was founded, sold his and hers velvet pantsuits. (Mr. Cerutti had introduced a women’s wear line in 1968.)
He had already taken the starch out of traditional men’s wear by removing linings and mixing patterns and fabrics, experimenting with new weaves and colors that would work with his modern, supple styles. Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michael Caine and Orson Welles were customers, as was Faye Dunaway and Coco Chanel, who in 1969 bought a pair of (men’s) velvet pants and had them tailored to fit her.
In those days, Mr. Cerruti favored velvet himself (he often said he was his ideal customer). “There isn’t a yard of black velvet left in Rome,” Count Rudi Crespi, Mr. Cerruti’s publicist at the time, told Eugenia Sheppard of The New York Times in 1968, the year Mr. Cerruti opened boutiques in department stores across the country. “Both men and women are wearing it.”
Mr. Cerruti’s film career had begun in 1965, when he dressed Mr. Belmondo for “Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine” — “Up to His Ears,” when it was released in English — a dark slapstick comedy about an unhappy millionaire who keeps trying to kill himself. He would go on to dress Mr. Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Yves Montand and Liv Ullman, among other European stars, in a variety of films.
In Hollywood, he made Ms. Dunaway’s straw hat for “Bonnie & Clyde” and Jack Nicholson’s wardrobe for the 1987 film, “The Witches of Eastwick.” For Clint Eastwood, who played a Secret Service agent in the 1993 film, “In the Line of Fire,” and needed to blend into a crowd, Mr. Cerruti used different textures of wool for his gray suit, so he would look “banal.”
Along with outfits by Mr. Armani and Gianni Versace, Mr. Cerruti’s clothing was worn by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, the stars of “Miami Vice” — the 1980s television hit which had turned the traditional cop show into a fashion-forward music video — and in so doing the three Italian designers had marked the decade with their slick, tropical chic suits and T-shirts in candy colors. “No earth tones,” Michael Mann, the show’s executive producer had decreed.
Mr. Cerruti had some 130 film credits — including his work for Richard Gere in “Pretty Women,” Michael Douglas in “Wall Street,” Christian Bale in “American Psycho,” Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” and Kathleen Turner in “The Jewel of the Nile” — yet he never visited a film set. As he told Mr. Gross, “If you love films you should never go on the set,” so as not to have your illusions shattered.
Mr. Cerruti was born on Sept. 25, 1930, in Biella, to Silvio Cerruti and Silvia (Tomassini) Cerruti. He is survived by his longtime companion, Sibylla Jahr; a son, Julian, and a daughter, Silvia; his brothers Alberto and Attilio, and two grandsons. His marriages to Diana Gates and Chantal Dumont ended in divorce.
Blue-eyed and well over six feet, Mr. Cerruti was always a dazzling figure, who skied and played tennis like a professional. (He made athletic wear for those sports and others, and sponsored players like Jimmy Connors.)“He’s just so gorgeous,” Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine’s, the celebrity canteen on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, told Margaret Muldoon, his longtime American publicist, every time he visited her restaurant, as Ms. Muldoon recalled in a phone interview.
Over the decades, Mr. Cerruti had many designers, including a young Giorgio Armani, who worked for Mr. Cerruti’s company in the 1960s. For a few years in the mid-1990s, Narciso Rodriguez was the lead designer, and notably designed Carolyn Bessette’s pearl-hued silk crepe wedding dress for her marriage to John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996.
In addition to men’s and women’s wear, Mr. Cerruti’s company had numerous licensing deals that included accessories, perfume and eyewear, and boutiques all over the world
“I like to describe my operation as a modern version of the handcraft bodegas of centuries ago,” Mr. Cerruti told Esquire magazine in 1987. “It is important to know each link in the chain. I consider myself very close to the theory of industrial design: using modern technology to reach the market. It’s a very modern challenge: the continuous harmonization between the rational or scientific world and the emotional or artistic world.”
In 1994, he was the official designer for the Formula 1 Team Ferrari. Among many awards, Mr. Cerruti was made a Cavaliere del Lavoro, or Knight of Labor, by the President of Italy, in 2000. The following year, the brand was sold in a forced takeover to Fin.part, an Italian conglomerate, which had bought 51 percent of the business the year before, and paid $67 million for the remaining shares, Women’s Wear Daily reported at the time.
In 2015, the Fondazione Pitti Discovery, a cultural foundation, organized an exhibition of Mr. Cerruti’s private wardrobe at the Museo Marino Marini in Florence, a retrospective of his life told in six decades worth of luxurious suits, jackets, trousers and evening clothes (along with the capes he also favored).
He had saved his clothing not for posterity, but because he never threw anything out, including a moth-eaten wool jacket he had held onto because he liked the fabric, as Guy Trebay reported in his review of the show for The New York Times. “If a style was innovative,” he wrote, “Mr. Cerruti probably wore it first.”
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