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Fashion : Cerruti’s Suave Assault on Hollywood

“I’m going to tell you something very arrogant,” says Nino Cerruti, leaning forward with a smile that is smoother than Italian silk. “I’ve been lucky enough to have been born rich. I’ve never fought too desperately for business. I fight with a certain amount of style.”

Cerruti, the designer behind the Paris-based Cerruti 1881 Fashion Collection for men and women, has just been asked whether he’s attempting to conquer Hollywood. The word conquer does seem a bit vulgar for this 56-year-old heir to a Milanese textile fortune.

A Grand Entrance

Instead of taking it by storm, he said, “I’m cruising into Hollywood. First-class, of course, not economy.”

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Actually, he arrived in town by private jet. It was a last, 24-hour pit stop for an American tour sponsored by May Co. to promote a newer, lower-priced menswear line, named after the designer and made in the United States.

Though he may have been born rich, Cerruti has certainly kept those family mills thriving since 1967, when he launched his own ready-to-wear company. Most famous for softly tailored, discretely stylish menswear, which has won him the prestigious Cutty Sark award several times over, his company’s worldwide sales reached $120 million last year, making Cerruti a solid, if medium-size, luxury company.

But things are just beginning to get interesting for him in a new way. A self-confessed fanatic for Sergio Leone films--the Italian cowboy pictures sometimes called “spaghetti Westerns"--he wants to go Hollywood in a big way. In a strategy that might be described as fashion product placement, Cerruti has upped the budget for his full-time Hollywood representative, Mary Hall Ross, to seek out film projects and stars who might look better on screen if swathed in a little Cerruti tweed.

“Hollywood is a combination of something that amuses me and fascinates me,” he said. “And let’s face it, there’s an interesting commercial aspect to it.”

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He and fellow Italian Giorgio Armani, Cerruti’s design assistant before he started his own business, are the only two major Europeans who have made serious overtures to Hollywood in recent history. Cerruti’s film credits to date are impressive; his threads were seen on Tom Hanks in “Big,” Michael Douglas in “Fatal Attraction,” Kathleen Turner in “Jewel of the Nile” and Jack Nicholson in “Witches of Eastwick,” among others.

Armani made his biggest impressions with “American Gigolo,” and more recently, “The Untouchables.”

Deal Behind the Film Credit

In some ways, Cerruti and representative Ross are like many studio executives. They read all the scripts and consider not the casting but the director before they agree to provide the movie’s costume designer with their services. Major stars are clothed for free in exchange for on-screen credit. Sometimes, for smaller roles, Cerruti provides sample, off-the-rack items and special orders from the Cerruti factories. He sells them to the studios at cost.

Because the European designers are a particularly secretive and sensitive bunch, never wanting to reveal the inner workings of their business, it is especially interesting to see how Cerruti welcomes costume designers into his offices and lets them rummage through archives and even--there is no way to put this delicately-- change an element in the master’s original designs.

“Nino understands that we’re building characters, not a line of clothes,” says Marilyn Vance-Straker, the costume designer who recently put custom-tailored Cerruti suits on Richard Gere for the upcoming film “3,000.”

Vance-Straker defended her use of a European designer against a growing concern by some members of the Hollywood Costume Guild that local talent is being ignored. She argues that designers such as Armani and Cerruti present “absolutely no threat to anyone. We can only be complementary to each other.” She feels that Hollywood costumers aren’t threatened because ready-to-wear designers, Cerruti among them, don’t take the place of a costumer, nor do they get a costume-designer credit on screen. Instead, they get credit as a supplier of wardrobe.

A Promotional Splash

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Although Cerruti usually supplies real-life looks, he does admire the glamour of Old Hollywood. He has had one brief experience with the fantasy fashions of the big screen. That was when he still worked in his family’s textile mill.

“In 1958, we staged a big promotion with Anita Ekberg,” he remembered. “For this we wanted to launch a new color called octane. We dressed her in an octane-colored evening gown and painted 40 convertibles in octane paint. They paraded down the streets of Rome and ended up at the Excelsior Hotel, where Anita was waiting for them to smash a champagne bottle over the car’s hood.

“We ought to have much more glamour in the world today,” he sighed.

Dreams of Dressing

When asked what stars he dreams of dressing, he named Glenn Close, because she’s “intriguing, complicated and ambiguous.” And he also admires the “brutal style” of Harrison Ford.

He just started working with Bruce Willis on his next picture, “Hudson Hawk.”

“Bruce Willis was a big surprise,” Cerruti said. “He’s a very nice person who appreciates beautiful things. So many people have the tendency to like strange things, when in fact they look more peculiar than interesting. Avant-garde fashion very often makes people look ridiculous; it has no sense of humor.”

Happily, Cerruti seems to have retained his.

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“Things are going so well for me here in Hollywood, I’m sure the other designers will eventually see what we’re doing and then they’ll all be interested in coming here.” He flashes a grin. “But they’ll have to learn English first.”

A truly international man, Cerruti has a daughter by his first wife, an American, and a son by his second wife, who is French. The Italian-born designer divides his time between company headquarters in Paris and factories near Milan. He has various collections produced in Germany, where Escada fabricates his women’s fashions, and Japan, where he has developed a huge licensee business.

And then there’s the United States, where he exports his deluxe fashions. And with his new, lower-price menswear line, he has come face to face with a whole new market--the mass market.

In the year and a half since he introduced the lower-price collection with a European flavor, he says he has built it into a $20-million business. At first, his manufacturers warned, America was not ready for it. “These are $350 suits as opposed to my $1,000 suits in the export line,” he said. “They are more relaxed than the traditional American businessman’s suit.” Apparently, America is very ready for the “creases and softness and the pleated pants. The essence of my fashion is comfort.”

Cerruti says: “American people are getting out of their cult of quantity and into a cult of quality. There is a very dramatic change going on. On my tour, there were none of those typical requests for lower prices or cheaper products. It’s a completely different attitude here than five years ago.”

Cerruti looked so crisp and understated in his white shirt, pale gray blazer and black crochet knit tie; anyone might think he was modeling the new line himself. He guffaws politely at the mention of this.

“Oh no, not me. I’m not a mass-produced man.”


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