A sigh of relief. This is how the tightly knit menswear community reacted to news last year that Jason Basmajian had been named creative director of Cerruti 1881.
Originally founded as a wool mill in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1881, the company established itself as a purveyor of men’s suits and outerwear in 1967, when family scion Nino Cerruti decamped to Paris and turned the supplier of high-quality fabrics into one of menswear’s most prestigious names.
After his departure in 2001, however, the brand started to lose its lustre, plagued by a great deal of turnover at the helm of its design studio and a series of corporate owners who never fulfilled its great potential (Nino Cerrito is now based back in Piedmont, where he heads the Cerruti wool mill).
Basmajian, an American who previously held top design jobs at Brioni and Gieves & Hawkes (like Cerruti, Gieves & Hawkes is owned by Hong Kong-based Trinity Group), is an authority in matters of men’s design – his honest approach is certainly what a beloved name like Cerruti needs to once again join the big leagues of the men’s market.
How did you approach this new job?
The main thing was understanding the philosophy; understanding Nino’s process and where he came from because obviously you need to evolve the brand, to keep it modern and relevant, and do something that reflects today. But at the same time I thought that the brand had missed the opportunity to stay on what Nino’s DNA was, so I went to the mill, where he still works every day; it’s amazing. He’s 86, 87. I just started talking to him, and yes, I was interested in the archive, but what I didn’t want to get into was copying an archive, something that basically didn’t reflect what’s happening today. I wanted to be inspired by the archive. I was more interested in his philosophy. I realised that he was so ahead of the curve in terms of mixing sportswear and tailoring, breaking down men’s suits, putting them in a T-shirt, in a sweater, doing a coat that you could wear like a blazer. He was doing these things before anybody; this kind of minimal, elegant, understated fashion before anyone was on that. It was all about cut and volume and fabric. He’s a god, dressed in beautiful gray monochromatic linen, with a tie, and his walking stick, and he’s so chic. He’s such a gentleman. And I was just thinking that this guy really had something. He gave Armani his first job. It’s incredible. And they were born in this kind of philosophy of deconstructing menswear, doing something softer, sportier, and easier, continental and chic with quite a lot of confidence. Nino really changed the way men thought about clothes.
Do you keep in mind that Cerruti is an Italian brand but based in Paris?
It’s international, it’s not Brioni at all. Brian is such a very specific brand. What I love about Cerruti is that it’s an international brand with Italian roots based in Paris. It’s really unique because it has this global approach, and it’s very much the way men want to dress today. It’s easy and cool, fashionable, not too overdone. Nino never really believed in fashion for fashion’s sake. Everything had to have a detail and a mood, and he never designed anything that was superfluous, like too many zippers, pockets. It’s about functionality and letting the shape and the fabric talk – let the fabric make the garment, let the man come through. It’s never clothes that wear you. And I was like, “We need to find that balance between Nino’s philosophy and a modern connection.” I wanted a collection that was pretty sporty. He definitely was tailoring his suits and he loves coats but he’s got a sporty approach to the way he dresses, a nonchalant elegance. He’s not too studied. I thought this collection captured it, in terms of the colours and the options that we give guys in a wardrobe.
How did you emphasise the roots?
My perception of the brand was that it was a beautiful brand with amazing history and heritage but I always felt that the Cerrito DNA was pretty obvious to me. I never understood why it didn’t quite ever seem to catch that, right? Sometimes trying too hard to make something different, actually you need to go back to the foundations to then move it forward. You need to underline the DNA of the brand before you can take it forward because if you don’t, you don’t reclaim that territory, you can’t move it forward. No one knows what you stand for. You need to say, “This is what the brand is. This is who we are today.” And then you need to evolve it. But sometimes I think brands move too quickly.
How do you feel about the way menswear has changed?
What I love about menswear is that it’s taking centre stage. Men have become more interested in how they look, they feel, they groom and want more access to clothes. Unlike years ago, there’s no stigma attached to it. It’s your daily thing. You wouldn’t have heard guys discussing pant length or lapels at the water cooler and now it’s just normal. Digital has been a big reason because there’s so much access to imagery and everything’s so quick. Men are very quick adapters of technology, and technology has been an incredible vehicle for this access to information. Most men now take such interest in how they look because they realise when they look good, they feel good, and more confident, and maybe it makes them more successful.
You’ve lived in Italy, the UK and France, Do men apporach fashion differently in each place?
There’s definitely a flavour and a mood. In Rome and Naples you really feel that sartorial brand. Italians do it so well; there’s just a sensuality to it. And that’s even from the fabric. Everything’s tactile, and it comes from their love of beauty. One thing I remember at Brioni, what we always talked about was the bella figura. The Italians have that like nobody else. There’s a confidence, a swagger, a style. There’s no worry about if they’re looking better than the woman on their arm. No, actually they do, they want to, and I love that. That’s confidence! And that’s real style. This is what I love about Italy. In London you’ve got amazing street style, which is so inspiring; incredible cutting-edge trends, incredible tailoring, Savile Row. I love that mix, how they coexist together in this wonderful harmony, which creates so much creativity. I’d say Paris is kind of a mix of all of it.
What would you say to a young man trying to find his style identity?
Men have to trust their instinct. If you feel ridiculous and uncomfortable, you probably look ridiculous. If you have that hesitation, trust your instinct. I always encourage men to buy the best quality they can afford. Buy a few great basics and staples of the best quality that you can afford. And spend the extra time to have them properly tailored. Because buying a jacket or a pair of pants that don’t fit well is the worst. Cerruti 1881 autumn/winter 2016 presentation in paris If you go through all this effort, it needs to fit properly. My advice to men is to buy better, buy less. Buy a few staples that you know will work forever and then experiment with a few fun pieces and keep yourself evolving. When you find something that works, stick with it. If you know a shape works for you, a style of jeans, a jacket cut, stick with it. Consistency is how you’re going to build a personal style. Buy great basics and have fun building in the extra pieces.
Finally, can you share a memory from your earlier days in the industry?
I was working in a very nice menswear store in Cape Cod, in the summer, this beautiful speciality shop, which was selling the best classic Italian brands who are almost doing English better than the English, brands like Brunello Cucinelli, which weren’t so famous, but they were such high quality. And the one thing they all had in common was incredible textiles. I was working in this store with the best of the best products, and I was discovering what a great cut means, what beautiful fabric means, the detailing. And I just fell in love with menswear. And I said, “This is for me, it speaks to me, it’s my path.” I was probably about 18.