Nino Cerruti and Cinema

Jeremy Irons in “Reversal of Fortune”, 1990. Sovereign Pictures


The union between the world of cinema and Nino Cerruti began in the late 1960s, when Cerruti began creating garments for the Hollywood stars. It was the decade when Hollywood film crews traveled to Rome to shoot on location or at Cinecitta and started to become familiar with the Italian fashion, including Cerruti. Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti, a family woolen business nestled in the town of Biella, in northern Italy, along the Wool Road, the cradle of Italy’s textile industry, was established in 1881 by three brothers. They started to make garments when Nino, the eldest grandson of one of the brothers and who had studied philosophy and had thought of becoming a writer, took over the business after his father’s sudden death in 1950. After initially collaborating with tailors to manufacture the clothes, Nino Cerruti commissioned four short plays, as a means of promotion, and designed the costumes himself. It was his first foray into the world of theater and film. Cerruti’s popularity only flourished in the decades to come. His name appears in the credits of over sixty films, dressing memorable characters from both Hollywood and the French cinema. “Why am I chosen so often?,” the designer contemplated. “I think it’s because I don’t try to substitute my wishes or tastes for those of the actor. I adapt to the needs of the film and I am flattered when a costume designer decides that my work will fit with what they want to achieve.”

Nino Cerruti was a designer who understood and dedicated himself to perfecting a garment and who, in his collections, preserved an aesthetic of elegance, ease of dressing and continuity, constantly evolving yet revolving around the same basic elements. In 1957, he launched his first men’s ready-to-wear collection, called Hitman, revolutionsing fashion with its fluid, relaxed shapes, capturing the changing times and attitudes. His first women’s collection came out in 1968. In film, he infused fiction with his sophisticated style. His designs – although not as readily recognisable as Armani’s on screen (Giorgio Armani is one fashion designer who has gained wide recognition for his contribution to film, appreciated for retaining a strong identity even when working within the confines of costume, attaining a perfect harmony between the Armani aesthetic and film costume appropriation) – look good on screen while being immersed into the narrative. Fashion, the designer believed, is a way of describing the world we live in. It’s something that applies itself to film, too.


“The Jewel of the Nile”, 1985. Twentieth Century Fox


Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner were two of the biggest stars of the 1980s and 1990s. Nino Cerruti dressed them on and off screen, thus consolidating their characters in the cultural consciousness of filmgoers everywhere. Kathleen Turner, who became one of his muses and a close friend, recounts how “Nino contacted me when I was visiting Paris. He was an extraordinarily charming man and impeccably dressed. He showed me his workplace there and the lovely fabrics and styles, his clothes were a huge inspiration for my characters.” The 1985 The Jewel of the Nile (costume design Emma Porteous) is a follow-up to Romancing the Stone, a funny action comedy inspired by Indiana Jones, having Michael Douglas as Jack Colton and Kathleen Turner as Joan Wilder reprise their leading roles. They are funny and amazing as a pair, they look good together and they look good in their clothes. The most memorable dress remains the red and black patterned dress that Kathleen wears at the beginning of the film, with deep side skits and no back, but the rest of her wardrobe that Cerruti supplied is so quintessentially travel-inspired (earth toned khakis and jacket, blue-striped white blouse, dusty pink blouse and a very practical knee-length wrap skirt) that deserves all the praise on its own.


Michael Douglas in “Wall Street”, 1987. Twentieth Century Fox


“To create memorable characters, one needs
a perfect silhouette, and Nino was the master.”

Ellen Mirojnick, costume designer

As Oliver Stone himself states in his tremendous book, Chasing the Light, the film Wall Street depicts “misshapen offspring of capitalism run amok”. Oliver Stone, whom his Wall Street co-writer named “a standard of rebelliousness on how to break the rules and get away with it,” is a razor-sharp director who has always made unconventional films that matter. About Wall Street, the real Wall Street, Stone said: “It was another world. The hidden venality and viciousness reminded me of the violent, money-hungry cocaine world of Miami, […] an ego business, even darker and more corrupt than anything I’d seen in Vietnam or Miami.” The personification of darkness and corruption in Wall Street, the film (costume design Ellen Mirojnick), is millionaire Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, a Wall Street shark. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a kid broker for a second-rate Wall Street firm, and hungry for more, ready to do anything it takes. Gekko is his idol. And I can’t imagine anyone else in the role of the ruthless, cold man who places the buck above everything else – “The rest is conversation.”

Fashion brands in the 1980s epitomised the aspirational dressing of the decade, the decade of excess par excellence, of greed, and corporate raiders brandishing their pinstripes – “And for God’s sake, buy yourself a decent suit!”, Gekko tells the uninitiated Bud (the names Gekko and Bud were certainly chosen for a reason) after he helps him make his first “decent” chunk of dollars. “Clothes are important for an actor,” related Michael Douglas. “They help his performance and certain materials can completely change your whole attitude. In this film, I wear Cerruti suits, and I wear suspenders. They’re an article of clothing that helps define the role because my character on the insid was so decadent; on the outside, he had to feel like he was clean.”


Alain Delon in “Mr. Klein”, 1976. Lira Films. Nova Films


Identity as an illusion. Monsieur Klein is an art dealer living on the Left Bank in Paris, on Rue de Bac. Played by Alain Delon, with his good looks, refined clothes, stern haircut and minimal mimic, he looks at ease and undisturbed in his generous apartment, lavishly decorated in rich colours and trimmed with paintings. Dressed in a luxurious striped dressing gown, he remains cool and calculated as he casually makes deals with the Jewish people who are desperate to sell their valuables and cash in so that they can leave the Nazi-occupied country. Alain Delon had already proven how good he could play the completely detached, hardly betraying an emotion, type of character almost ten years earlier, in his sublime portrayal of Pierre Melville’s killer-for-hire Jef Costello, in Le Samouraï. There is something of Jef Costello in Robert Klein. In his sharp suits, double-breasted tailored coats, pristine fedoras, carefully slipped-on leather gloves and calculated mannerisms, there is not much the perfectly groomed and perfectly dressed Mr. Klein leaves to chance in Joseph Losey’s film, Mr.Klein (costume design Colette Baudot).

But what is different with this character, as compared to Pierre Melville’s anti-hero, is that Mr. Klein is fully aware of his appearance and he’s working hard, albeit immoral, to maintain it. He is a man very sure of himself. And yet the biggest difference is that, this time, we slowly get to see inside the armour. We get to see behind the appearance. Losey manages what few other filmmakers have with Delon, balancing out a subtle narcissism with a gloomy fatality. At no moment could that be more visible than in this sequence above, with Mr. Klein dressed in his Nino Cerruti chocolate brown manteau. Amidst confusion, vulnerability and fear, the exterior, including the clothes, remains intact – it all lies in Delon’s great subtleness – and that’s the most unnerving part.

Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, 1990. Touchstone Pictures


Richard Gere may have launched the career of another Italian fashion designer a decade earlier, as male escort Julian Kaye dressed in Giorgio Armani deconstructed blazers and fluid silhouettes in American Gigolo (1980), a character walking the thin line between masculinity and narcissism, but he is just as unforgettable as businessman Edward Lewis in sharp-tailored Nino Cerruti suits in Pretty Woman, 1990 (costume design Marilyn Vance). Armani, who entered the fashion industry in 1961 as assistant to Nino Cerruti before starting out on his own in 1970, said: “I was a forty year old man with salt-and-pepper hair who perceived the world around him acutely, and I responded, concretely, to the evident need for new types of clothes by proposing unstructured jackets, made out of loose and fluid fabrics. I have the farsightedness of Nino Cerruti to thank: after hiring me to work for him, he encouraged me to continue my investigations.”

“Gere’s prosperity jumped off the screen in Lewis’s relaxed yet sophisticated suiting,” writes Cindi Cook in the book Nino Cerruti: Fashion Icon, and she is right. Just as Julian Kaye wouldn’t be Julian Kaye without his unstructured jacket, Edward Lewis wouldn’t be Edward Lewis without his impeccable suits – Cerruti was more traditionally classic than Armani, and that is what Armani alluded to in the aforementioned quote, although it was Cerruti who had caused a stir when he produced a collection of interchangeable androgynous clothes in 1967 and the first to deconstruct tailoring and obscure the lines between casual and elegant. The take-away is that both designers understood the mechanism of film costume as film narrative and character depiction.

Jeremy Irons in “Reversal of Fortune”, 1990. Sovereign Pictures


Based on real life events, Reversal of Fortune (costume design Judianna Makovsky) is the story of Claus von Bulow’s two trials on the charge of attempting to murder his wife. Sunny von Bulow fell into an irreversible coma on a January morning and the family and police suspected foul play, with Claus as prime suspect. Jeremy Irons plays Claus von Bulow in Barbet Schroeder‘s film. And who else but Jeremy Irons could allude to all the things he alludes to under that impenetrable façade? Reversal of Fortune is mischievous, funny, tantalising, deceitful and cynical. It makes you aware that, under the appearances (it does play so well with its rich characters dressed the part), there might lie a whole different truth. In his requisite Nino Cerruti tuxedo and silk robes, Jeremy Irons plays with the viewer and succeeds in making the story so much more intricate and intriguing.

Peter Coyote in “Bitter Moon”, 1992. Columbia Pictures


One of Cerruti’s most cherished relationships in Hollywood was that with Peter Coyote. The actor had just turned 50 and was at a turning point in his life, coming out of a divorce and years of heroine addiction. He had been cast in a new movie by Roman Polanski, Bitter Moon (costume design Jackie Budin), and he met Nino Cerruti at the filmmaker’s house in Paris before starting working on the film. They became fast friends. Cerruti would afterwords ask Coyote to model in his shows, “and at the end of them, he would say: ‘Take what you like!’ To this day, I have eight Nino Cerruti suits and they are perfect. I’ve never lost a button,” Peter Coyote confessed, as stated in the book Nino Cerruti: Fashion Icon.

The framework for the film, a bleak view on relationships, a tale of twisted love and fatal encounters, is a lengthy flashback revealed gradually and intercut with events taking place in the present on a boat. In the book Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, the writer James Greenberg recounts how, after an intense scene during filming, Peter Coyote lifted himself out of the chair to which his character was confined, and, dressed in “a rumpled white linen suit, the spaces between his teeth blackened, grime under his nails, he says with a demonic grin: “You won’t see this on the Disney Channel. Roman’s going all the way.” Polanski stated that he wasn’t making it to shock. “Maybe I had a little bit of this desire when I was young… I don’t have any of those needs now, and even when I was beginning, the main thing for me was to tell the story, and if the story required violent images or nudity, I would use them for telling it.” So Roman is going all the way. So does Peter Coyote’s Oscar. The actor recounted how “Oscar begins in a kind of royal purple. He is spoiled as a young prince at the film’s beginning and his costume for seduction and pleasure is his purple suit. There is such an intimate relationship between clothes and character…” From there on, just as Polanski’s dark humour gets murkier, there is only downfall for Oscar, right to the rumpled linen suit and blackened teeth.


Christian Bale in “American Psycho”, 2000. Lions Gate Film


One of the most memorable lines in American Psycho is at the dry cleaner’s, when Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman blasts away: “One, you don’t bleach a Cerruti! Out of the question!” More than thirty years on, Patrick Bateman’s world – the greed, the soulless, remote, expensive apartment filled with nonsensical gadgets and empty art – rings truer than ever. The clothes however are very much a part of the times. The story is set in the 1980s. The ties are wide, the lapels are wide, too, the shoulders are expanded, the trousers have pleats. Staying true to the book character (Bateman wears Cerruti, too, in Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial book), costume designer Isis Mussenden worked with Nino Cerruti to recreate authentic suits from the period, even though Christian Bale doesn’t wear Nino Cerruti exclusively. Cerruti had already dressed a somewhat similar character, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. But Gekko was a killer just when doing business. No Wall Street bad guy could top Christian Bale’s breakthrough role as a serial-killer-banker wearing a Cerruti suit. But, of course, there is a cautionary tale here: Bateman is a narcissist fueled by greed. He is obsessed with the image, with the brand. He is only concerned with looking important. The clothes do make the character in American Psycho. Too bad the character doesn’t realise that, in the case of a Cerruti suit, it is the substance that he pays for. It would drive him even madder.


Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Borsalino”, 1970. Adel Productions


“When it comes to a film, we rarely talk about the costume designer,” Jacques Deray would comment. “And yet his work is an integral part of the work and contributes to its success: it is he who brings the characters to life, creates the difference according to the personality and the sensitivity of the actors. The psychology of the role must be found in the way of dressing, in the will to appear or just to stick to the reality of an era”. In the 1975 Borsalino (costume design Jacques Fonteray), the most talked about costume pieces were François Capella and Roch Siffredi’s hats, most of the times Borsalino, the dressy felt hats created by the legendary Italian manufacturer in 1857 in northern Italy. Borsalino was the first luxury brand to lend its name to the title of a film, and the movie, its two leading stars and the brand all enjoyed wide success.

One of the said stars was Alain Delon (Siffredi). The other was Jean-Paul Belmondo (Capella), or “Bebel” for the French, the icon of the French New Wave. Deray’s is a thoroughly stylised cinematic world and the look of the characters fits right in. There is in fact a clear delineation between Siffredi and Capella. While the first one has a more classic, crisp look, usually sporting a clean-cut suit, Capella is more playful with his looks – more colourful clothes, favouring separates to suits and scarves instead of foulards, and a more flamboyant silhouette, reflecting a more exuberant, lively and jovial character. That’s the character that Cerruti dressed in a striped three-piece suit.


“Nino Cerruti is a man of culture and distinction.
When he dressed you for a film, you can count on him
for suggestions, details, precise and accurate advice that
will help you as an actor to perceive your character more minutely.”

Philip Noiret


Don Johnson in “Miami Vice”, 1980s. Michael Mann Productions


The fashion of the 80s was about excess, but it was just as much about attitude and about the individual. Responsible for one of the defining menswear looks of the decade was one of the most popular TV shows of the 1980s: Miami Vice. And the one responsible for the protagonist Don Johnson’s unconventional pairing of blousy blazers, with rolled-up sleeves, pleated trousers, pastel t-shirts and athletic shoes was not Giorgio Armani, but Nino Cerruti. Don Johnson’s Sonny, his somewhat grittier, double-breasted-suit-clad partner Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas, the show had something, something cool. That appeal, that spark, that sensuality, that liberating feeling, that real and fearless self expression. That’s what’s so desperately missing today. From fashion, from the individual.



Dressed to fit the monochromatic look and distressed reality of a 1955 noir:
Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart

“The process is the same. You build the character!”:
Interview with costume designer Deborah L. Scott

The Armani aesthetic and film costume appropriation:
Sam Shepard in Voyager

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