L.A. designer David Cardona has a one-year contract to reinvigorate Italian giant Cerruti, where Armani got his start.

Milan — Milan

David CARDONA doesn't have a chic, minimalist showroom or a bevy of assistants, as does Giorgio Armani. Instead, the Los Angeles designer and new head of women's wear for the venerable but flagging Italian design house Cerruti works just southwest of this city in an institutional-looking building that also houses Cerruti's factory outlet."Welcome to our cafe," he joked earlier this week, ushering a reporter into a room with folding chairs, tables and two vending machines. "Can I buy you a drink?" he asked, plucking two euros from the pocket of his Levi's.

In a workroom nearby, sewing machines whirred as seamstresses completed the final nips and tucks on Cardona's first collection for Cerruti, which would be shown a few days later. Models arrived one by one to take their outfits for test drives down a makeshift runway -- white butcher paper taped to the floor. Afterward, the designer, 39, fine-tuned the fit of each garment using pins stuck precariously in the front of his sweater.

Since March, Cardona, a divorced father of three, has spent two weeks of each month in a Milan hotel and two in Santa Monica, where his children live. The most difficult thing to adjust to in Italy is the slower pace, he said. "It's nice because [Italians] take time to live. But I'm used to having 24-hour Ralphs!"

Still, it's been well worth the lonely room service meals and long flights. Cerruti is, after all, where Armani got his start. Cardona laughed, "And he didn't exactly do too badly, did he?"

Cardona, who wears his black hair pulled into a half ponytail, sumo-wrestler-style, was born in Colombia but grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from Westchester High School. With a degree in design engineering from Cal State Long Beach, he designed military and commercial aircraft for McDonnell Douglas Corp. for a couple of years before deciding to change careers. He kept his day job and studied evenings at L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.

In his first fashion job, he designed for Richard Tyler, the well-known L.A. sportswear designer. Six years later, in 1997, he and John Bowman, a jewelry designer, opened their own clothing firm, Bowman Cardona LLC. Since then, Cardona has earned a reputation for sexy, sharply tailored clothes, often cut in leather. With annual sales reportedly in the $5-million range and a new shoe collection, his line was one of the brightest lights at the first L.A. Fashion Week at the downtown Standard Hotel in April.

His celebrity connections caught the eye of Cerruti executives. He has dressed pop singer Seal, Carlos Santana, Anjelica Huston, Natalie Cole and Sela Ward. Lara Flynn Boyle memorably wore his pink tutu dress and ballerina heels to the Golden Globes last year. Cardona also won an Emmy with Bob Mackie in 2000 for creating costumes for Cher and her dancers and provided clothes for several of Janet Jackson's concert tours.

Signing on with Cerruti was an unprecedented shot at the international big time -- an opportunity to breathe life into a classic brand gone stale and, he hopes, for that brand to bring name recognition to his own line (though Cerruti and its parent company, Fin.part, an Italian holding company that also owns Frette, the linen company, are not financially involved in Cardona's business).

The Cerruti firm, which was founded in 1881 by three brothers as a textile business, has foundered the last few years, with three different designers trying their hands at reviving it in the last 18 months alone. (The firm passed out of family hands in 2001, when Nino Cerruti, the eldest grandson of one of the founding brothers, retired and sold the company.)

"When Nino was in the company," said Cardona, "he worked on a lot of films, and they want to rebuild the image through Hollywood." (Cerruti provided suits for such films as "Wall Street," "Pretty Woman," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "As Good as It Gets.")

Cardona, who signed a one-year contract with the label in March, is still trying to figure out what Cerruti is about. The collections must have a strong emphasis on tailoring, he said, but at the same time be new; they should be fashionable but not so avant-garde as to alienate Cerruti's existing customers, who are conservative.

He hopes to reinvent Cerruti the way John Galliano has reinvented Dior and Nicolas Ghesquiere has reinvented Balenciaga ... but slowly. "Every season I will probably get more leeway to be creative," he said, "but to do a black-and-white change overnight would be too drastic."

There were no famous faces in the front row Wednesday, but on the runway, the strong collection focused on classic suiting with a refreshing L.A. twist. Stovepipe trousers in a nubby cream linen were tailored to fit snugly down over strappy sandals and paired with relaxed, athletic-inspired zip-front jackets that brought to mind L.A.'s iconic Juicy Couture hoodies. A black linen pencil skirt was worn not with a jacket but with a sexier, close-fitting vest with a wide suede waistband.

In a bid no doubt for some red carpet exposure, Cerruti ventured into eveningwear for the first time, with mixed results. Pinstriped tuxedos, some with shorts instead of pants, gelled perfectly with the label's aesthetic, but dresses -- including a pearl gray silk column with a halter neck of delicate sterling silver chains, and a black silk hourglass gown with a tight, sculpted bodice and a fluted skirt -- seemed awkward; square pegs trying to fit into round holes.

Backstage after the show, Cardona was not greeted by the crush of media reserved for the Karl Lagerfelds and Donatella Versaces of the fashion world but instead by a few reporters, including a correspondent from a Russian fashion TV program. The designer looked relieved to have his first show behind him and said he was looking forward to going home this weekend.

October 03, 2003 | Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer