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Nino Cerruti (1930-2022): an appreciation by Eric Musgrave

Eric Musgrave
17 January 2022

The many admirers of Nino Cerruti will note with regret that the great Italian fashion innovator has died just as the future of the clothing business that carries his name is in doubt.

The maestro’s ties with the Cerruti 1881 ready-to-wear business he founded in 1967 were severed around 20 years ago, leaving him to concentrate on Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti, his family’s luxury woollen cloth mill in Biella, northern Italy where he started his singular career in 1950.

It is a sad to consider that anyone bidding to buy Cerruti 1881 from the liquidators of its latest owner, the Chinese Trinity Group, probably will be unaware of its founder’s unique contributions to the development of post-war lifestyle fashion.

Nino Cerruti was an exceptional talent, a visionary and innovator who never wavered from his desire to embody style by combining culture and art with form and function.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, in January 2012, I was privileged to spend several hours with the then 81-year-old veteran at his HQ in Biella for an interview I had pitched to men’s style magazine The Rake.

Nino Cerruti with Eric Musgrave at Biella in 2012

I felt Signor Cerruti had been forgotten by the present generation, a unique creator who had slipped from view for most people. I wanted to change that.

During this fascinating encounter this charming and quietly-spoken man with an aristocratic air told me his story, shared some of his philosophy, took me for a wonderful lunch at a local Piedmontese restaurant and presented me with a handsome bolt of his mill’s fine cloth as a souvenir.

I heard he had to give up his plans to be a journalist when in 1950 his father Silvio died suddenly. The 20-year-old Nino was preferred ahead of his uncles to run the business that his grandfather and two great-uncles had started as Fratelli Cerruti (Cerruti Brothers) in 1881.

Nino had started learning about cloth at the age of 10. He agreed with me that fashion, especially in menswear, always had to start with the fabric. He complained to me that design colleges did not teach students about cloth or indeed about clothing constriction.

“They come here full of ‘creative’ ideas that simple cannot be made commercially,” he said. “We have to untrain them to make them useful to us.”

This was typical of expert and pragmatic approach to fashion. He was not a designer to look to for flights of fancy.

From Biella he saw that the future was in clothing, not just cloth. By the late 1950s he established a tailoring business called Hitman in a factory in Milan. At its height it employed 1,000 people. With its related label Flying Cross, this business spread Cerruti’s reputation beyond Italy.

Between 1964 and 1970 at Hitman, Nino Cerruti employed as a menswear designer a former window dresser called Giorgio Armani. It is clear Armani learned well from his mentor. Between them they can claim much of the credit for making Italy the source of menswear innovation and leadership during the past 50 years.

I believe Cerruti’s contribution to menswear’s evolution is overlooked compared to Armani.

Cerruti at his Paris boutique in 1968

In 1967, in another visionary move, and acknowledging Paris was then the world centre for fashion, Nino opened a large, spacious boutique at 27 rue de Royale on Place de la Madeleine.

Although it was mainly a menswear store, it could be seen as one of the first unisex units as he held a fashion show in which men and women wore pretty much the same garments. It was a sensation.

Although he lacked a long-term business partner like Armani’s Sergio Galeotti, the man from Biella built up an empire around the Cerruti 1881 ready-to-wear line and enthusiastically issued licenses for casualwear, jeanswear, skiwear, eyewear, fragrances (added in 1978 and now licensed to UK-based Designer Parfums) and so on.

Cerruti womenswear was introduced in 1972, reminding us that Nino was one of the few designers with a global reputation who started in menswear.

Wearability was always his key word for both sexes. It was well known that he liked women and women liked him. He had a son, Julian, who is now in his late 40s, with a woman called Chantal, with whom he lived but was not married. An early marriage was dissolved. He married a German fashion journalist in the 1990s with whom he lived happily at the family home in Biella.

Cerruti saw early the opportunities of a global market. Cerruti cloth went to Japan in 1961. He visited China in the early 1980s with one of his Hong Kong-based licensees. He staged his first catwalk show in China in 1990.

Yet another lucrative and influential activity he obviously loved was providing clothes or designing specific costumes for films. He told me he had been involved in at least 200, starting with the French gangster classic Borsalino (1970), and including blockbusters like Jewel of the Nile (1985), Wall Street (1987) and Pretty Woman (1990).

Richard Gere (wearing Cerruti) with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman

Tall, slim and handsome, the immaculately-dressed maestro looked like a movie star himself at the Cannes Film Festival and every big premiere he attended.

The highlight of my time with him came when he showed me the archive of his own clothes that was being catalogued. A large room in the original mill building that stands next to the modern facility housed dozens of rails on which hung hundreds of Nino’s personal pieces, each tagged with a numbered paper luggage label.

He has told other interviewers that he always designed for himself. Allegedly he tried on every menswear prototype. His sheer love and delight for beautiful clothes was clear to see in 2012 as he pointed out details and quality of items that ranged from monogrammed bespoke linen shirts, Hitman-era boldly-checked jackets and even his own skiing salopettes (Cerruti 1881 ones, of course).

Nino Cerruti in Biella in 2012

Like every clothes fanatic, he had a story for each piece. His love for product shone through and that attitude ultimately enable him to achieve his excellent contribution to the industry.

At our meeting 10 years ago, I asked Nino Cerruti if he felt his hugely influential role in the development of global lifestyle fashion had been overlooked. As with every comment, his response was measured, polite and knowing: “After you are away for five days, they forget you in the fashion business.”  

The great man died on 15 January in a hospital in Vercelli, 40 minutes’ drive from Biella, following complications from a hip operation.

Nino Cerruti will be remembered by all in fashion who appreciate quality, integrity and class. He personified those virtues.

Images: courtesy of Eric Musgrave and Cerruti

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