Cerruti, despite its noble history, has struggled in recent years. Following founder Nino Cerruti, a succession of designers has passed through its doors, from the famous (Narciso Rodriguez, Richard Nicoll) to the lesser known. The latest to take the helm is Aldo Maria Camillo, an Italian-born veteran of Valentino menswear, who has been given charge of the men's collection Cerruti 1881 (1881 being the year the Cerruti family's fabric mill was founded). After years of Cerruti presenting without fanfare, Cerruti 1881 finds itself back on the catwalk, complete with a front row filled with European celebrities and an aggressive marketing campaign to get the word out.

It's no secret that heritage can be a millstone around the neck of a designer. Camillo, now in his third season, doesn't seem under any illusions about that. "We have to reach into the past to catch a bit of Cerruti," he said. His debut collection last January captured a bit of the unforced elegance of Cerruti in its halcyon days.

The difficulty lies in looking backward while pushing forward. For his Fall collection, Camillo toyed with the stiffer idea of uniform, but a uniform from a time that seemed to extend back even further than Nino Cerruti's era—maybe all the way back to 1881. (The show notes invoked "a cupboard containing remnants of a past life… over which the passing of time can clearly be discerned.") There was a military cast to the greatcoats, with their fur hoods and collars; the capes; and the palette of olive greens and rich browns. The construction and the fabrics looked terrific, which was a bit of heritage done right (Cerruti has always been fabric-centric, given its lanificio history). Rather than begin with big ideas, Camillo said, he begins with textiles: "It's more easy for me to understand where I am going from the fabric," he explained. Here, boiled wool, felt, and cashmere led the way.

But a runway is a better platform for conveying the style rather than the substance of a collection. Many pieces felt engineered for effect, perhaps destined to be tamed before they arrive in stores. It's easy to imagine a man wanting a Cerruti coat, but perhaps not so much of one as appeared here. If one was more than enough, two was twice that: For several looks, jackets were worn over coats, or light cashmere coats doubled on one another. It was a provocative silhouette, the kind that speaks forcefully on a runway or an editorial page. But it felt at odds with the time-faded inspiration and the stated aims of the collection itself. "My favorite word is 'rational,'" Camillo said. It wasn't that.

Which Cerruti is the Cerruti—the antique or the fashionable, the glamorous or the rational? Until the question has a clearer answer, the label may be destined to be simply a maker of beautiful clothes. That's a worthy end in itself, and more than enough for many. But it seems to fall short of Cerruti's current ambition.