Brunello Cucinelli: Philosopher King or Steward of Small Town Life?
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date November 09, 2017
One of the greatest privileges of money and power is the ability to influence how you are and will be perceived; another is to impact the lives of people beyond your family, yourself and your lifetime. For Italian fashion mogul Brunello Cucinelli (aka “the king of cashmere”), this has meant casting himself in the role of “Humanistic Capitalist” in countless interviews, and even through a 1999 autobiography, Solomeo: Brunello Cucinelli—A Humanistic Enterprise in the World of Industry, while taking an ancient philosophical approach to overseeing a fashion empire in the modern world. Inspired by twentieth-century American economist and professor Theodore Levitt (who believed in consumer-oriented businesses and visionary entrepreneurs), Greek and Roman philosophers and emperors and Catholic saints, Cucinelli has constructed a wildly successful fashion house over the past four decades known for its luxury prices, lavish cashmere knitwear and effortless sprezzatura (“studied carelessness”) style, while positioning himself as a Benedictine steward for his thousands of employees, who he calls “thinking souls.”
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Cucinelli has received countless honors and awards and established boutiques in over thirty countries throughout the world, all the while transforming his hometown of Castel Rigone and his wife’s hometown of Solomeo by building factories, a theater, a library, a soccer stadium and a school—among an ever-growing list of projects—many of which are overseen by the Brunello and Federica Cucinelli Foundation. He also gives twenty-percent of his company’s profits to charity, pays the manual laborers he employs the same percentage above the $1,700 monthly Italian average and, despite maintaining a strict—even pious—work environment, doesn’t require any of his employees to clock in our out.
So, while Cucinelli is deeply dedicated to capitalism as a social system in a way that is reminiscent of Freud’s nephew and the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, his charitable contributions are closer to that of Bill and Melinda Gates. Although these aspects of Cucinelli’s ideology may seem incongruous to outsiders, they make perfect sense to him: “I wish we could find a new name, instead of calling it ‘capitalism,’” he told Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker in 2010. “I like the idea of an enlightened principality. In the early eighteen hundreds, in Germany, there were princes who built schools, streets, homes. I like that. But not the ownership of the people who work for you.” While Cucinelli lives in a castle and often compares himself to influential and powerful men of Western history—and has even commissioned marble busts of some of them (Socrates, Seneca, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius and, most recently, Obama)—he strives to model his daily routine after Benedictine monks: waking early, working diligently, and eating simple meals. But, because his language is so often inspired by his classical references and can therefore seem grandiose (even in his company’s financial reports), it becomes important to focus less on what Cucinelli says and more on where he comes from and what he has accomplished in order to understand him and his brand.
Born on September 3, 1953, in Castel Rigone, Perugia, Brunello Cucinelli grew up in a peasant family. His father Umberto made a living as a farmer, sharecropping corn, wine, olive oil and sheep, yet, for all of his hard work, he had to pay fifty percent of his profits to a landlord, leaving little for his family. Cucinelli dreamed of being an engineer, but was taunted at school for everything from his well-worn clothes to his rural dialect. Life was hard, but it got worse when Cucinelli was fifteen and his father traded in sharecropping for a job in a cement factory, moving his family into the city to be closer to his work. And, although Cucinelli holds some fond memories from those years (he doesn’t ever remember his parents arguing), he also has some deeply painful ones: “My father did a very hard job, never complaining about the work or the few earnings, but he was being humiliated by his boss. At home he would say, ‘What have I done to God?’” he told Richard Nalley of Forbes in 2013.
According to Cucinelli, his father’s struggles convinced him to dedicate his life to “the dignity of humankind,” and Cucinelli almost made that leap in a very traditional way as a twelve-year-old. Fascinated by St. Francis, he considered joining the priesthood, but after one night in a seminary he missed his parents and went home. Like many young people, Cucinelli struggled to figure out what he wanted to do. Although he received a diploma as a building surveyor and was accepted into the School of Engineering of Perugia University, he completed just one exam in three years and dropped out at the age of twenty-four, apparently no longer interested in fulfilling his childhood dream of being an engineer. Instead, Cucinelli spent most of his time reading philosophy (Saint Francis, Saint Benedict, Rousseu, Kant, Socrates, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, among others) and pontificating at a local café, Bar di Gigino.
At twenty-five, Cucinelli had what would turn out to be a stroke of genius. Inspired by Benetton’s range of brightly colored wool sweaters, he decided he would one-up the brand by producing a similar line of sweaters in cashmere. The only problem was that Cucinelli didn’t have any money—so he went to a friend and begged for twenty kilos of white cashmere yarn; his friend agreed, which spurred Cucinelli to call in favors from other friends, as well. By cobbling together money and materials through his local network, Cucinelli was able to produce a small line of brightly dyed cashmere sweaters, which he decided to sell in the north of Italy, since he had read that near Bolzano, retailers would pay upon receipt; they did, and the young entrepreneur sold his first order of fifty-three sweaters. As Cucinelli has stated in various interviews, he “felt like Alexander the Great,” a comparison that helps build Cucinelli’s lore by placing himself adjacent to what many Westerners see as one of the great men of history.
In 1978, Cucinelli was approved for a bank loan of only half a million lire ($550) and found a knitwear factory willing and able to knit his cashmere sweaters. The young designer experienced success that was so immediate and resounding that he felt compelled to convince his vendors that he had seventy-two employees, when, in reality, he was a one-man company: “Often I would answer the telephone using voices of non-existent secretaries and factory workers. Back then cashmere was worn only by men and in dark colors, so I decided to introduce pastel-colored cashmere to the women's market, which turned out to be my big break,” Cucinelli told the Telegraph in 2012.
In 1982, Cucinelli married Federica Benda, his teenage sweetheart and a native of Solemeo, which shares numerous similarities to Cucinelli’s hometown of Castel Rigone: both villages are small and have ancient histories. Solemeo has a population of roughly four hundred residents and dates to the twelfth century; the newlyweds decided to settle in the town and make it the base for Cucinelli’s burgeoning business. In 1985, Cucinelli bought the town’s dilapidated fourteenth century castle and began to transform it into his brand’s corporate headquarters. With this purchase, and inspiration from his philosopher heroes, in particular, Saint Benedict, Cucinelli embarked on his journey of building a business that abides by the ethos of “Humanistic Capitalism.”
Around the same time he acquired a stake in Rivamonti, a company specializing in wool knitwear, which Cucinelli added to his own line of cashmere knits. In 1986, the designer established Brunello Cucinelli USA Inc. as a way to import and wholesale his products in the United States. The early ’90s saw Cucinelli buy a stake in Gunex and introduce a line of women’s trousers and skirts. It wasn’t until 1994 that he introduced a men’s collection and established the brand’s first boutique in Porto Cervo, Sardinia.
Over the next six years, the designer experienced increasing local and international success, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Cucinelli’s vision of “Humanistic Capitalism” began to become a reality; it was the year Cucinelli purchased and refurbished a plant at the foot of the Solomeo hill to meet the increasing demand for his entirely Italian-made products. Around the same time, he also began to develop more consistent aesthetics for his line, which Cucinelli calls “sportivo chic,” focusing on a muted color palette (mainly grays, beiges and navy blues), slim tailoring and individual designs that mesh into complete outfits.
In 2001 Cucinelli began the designs for the Forum of the Arts, inspired by the Roman structure of the same name, which opened in 2008 and includes the Neohumanistic Aurelian Library, the Gymnasium, the Amphitheatre and the Theatre, all of which were built exclusively by Umbrian master craftsmen. 2008 was also the year of the global financial crisis, which led to thousands upon thousands of layoffs throughout the world, yet Cucinelli maintained his dedication to the people of Solomeo and didn’t fire anyone.
((http://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1049&context=jrbe)) would turn out to be a banner year for Cucinelli and his organization. In January, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano presented Cucinelli with the Leonardo Prize for his “contribution to Italian industry and culture” at Quirinal Palace in Rome. In May of the same year, Textilwirtschaft, a leading German fashion trade journal, awarded him its Forum Prize. Then, in June, Ernst & Young declared Cucinelli Italy’s Entrepreneur of the Year. Finally, in November, he received an honorary doctorate in Philosophy and the Ethics of Human Relations from the University of Perugia.
In 2012, Cucinelli listed his company on the Milan Stock Exchange. The next year, he established the Solomeo School of Arts and Crafts, inspired by the work of William Morris and John Ruskin, as well as his own Forum of the Arts. The school trains young citizens of Solomeo in the traditional techniques of tailoring, knitwear, textiles, agriculture and masonry. Students attend classes for five hours a day while receiving regular monthly wages. The school is just another example of how stewardship and entrepreneurship intermingle in Cucinelli’s mind. While Cucinelli sees it as an opportunity to maintain Italian heritage and help young people realize “the true value and the creativity of their hands and eyes,” the school also functions as a breeding ground for a new generation of craftspeople for the Cucinelli brand.
Introduced in 2014 and now near completion, Cucinelli’s latest endeavor is the Project for Beauty, another massive building venture that replaces abandoned factories at the foot of the Solomeo hill with three large-scale parks, (the Agricultural Park, the Secular Youth Club Park and the Industry Park). The Agricultural Park includes orchards, wheat fields, an olive tree grove and a vineyard; the Secular Youth Club Park includes a soccer field surrounded by trees; and the Industry Park includes a new corporate headquarters. And, while the Project for Beauty continues to bring a striking level of aesthetic value to the architectural landscape of Solomeo, it also furthers the village’s transformation into a more ethical version of the company towns that popped up in the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution.
So, while your feelings toward Cucinelli’s ethics may very well depend on your feelings toward capitalism, the Italian mogul’s success in executing his grand vision for Solomeo is harder to argue. Over the past seventeen years, Cucinelli has transformed his wife’s hometown into his own little paradise, a place meant to rectify the indignities suffered by his father, a place to help spread beauty throughout the world one garment at a time. And, although these aspirations may seem outdated, even archaic, in a post-modern, self-reflexive world, the level of dedication and craftsmanship in Cucinelli’s creations is something all designers, and even artists, can aspire to. Will Cucinelli be remembered for anything beyond his clothes, alongside his favorite saints and thinkers in the pantheon of Western philosophers? Unlikely. But he may be remembered in Solomeo far after his death, and—more than luxuirous knitwear and associations with top-class craftsmanship—maybe that is all the steward of small-town life wants anyway.