IT’S NOT OFTEN that you leave a designer interview with a reading list spanning from Spinoza to Cicero to the writings of an obscure Italian monk who, apparently, paid a visit to the court of the Great Khan well before Marco Polo reached the Middle Kingdom. But then Brunello Cucinelli, the founder of the eponymous label based in Umbria, is anything but the stereotypical fashion creator. This renaissance man started our interview, which was in fact more a free-spirited conversation with none of the PR drivel journalists are so often fed by media-savvy fashion personalities, by stating that he “didn’t come all the way here to talk about cashmere”. However, if there’s something this self-made Italian has to thank for his success, it’s without any doubt that rarefied fibre, the sole mention of which evokes “faraway lands where shepherds work at minus 30 degrees to produce soft yarn from the fine hair of prized goats”, in the words of Cucinelli himself, who after a nudge or two can’t help holding forth on the luxurious material that is the raison d’être of his house.
The story of how Cucinelli built an empire from a tiny Umbrian village has become the stuff of legend in Italian design lore. The son of a farmer turned factory worker, Cucinelli reveals that, much like himself back then, his father “didn’t even know what the word ‘cashmere’ meant” when in 1974, after dropping out of college, he announced to his family that he wanted to “do something with this new material”. Cucinelli received his first batch of cashmere from an Italian producer who, won over by the young fellow’s drive, gave him 20 kilograms of the fibre with no strings attached. “You’ll pay me next year, if you make it. I want to support you because you’re young,” he said to Cucinelli. That man couldn’t have imagined that the intrepid Umbrian had decided to do something that was considered anathema in the world of cashmere production: dying the fibre, which had up until then appeared only in natural hues such as brown and beige, in a rainbow of bold colours to make it more appealing to women. “Everyone thought I was crazy colouring cashmere. If they had refused to do it for me, I would have never built my company but the fact that I knew so little about cashmere back then really helped me make such a breakthrough. That’s why I believe it’s important not to discourage young people and to inspire them so that they can become innovators,” he says.
Cucinelli is not into small talk. Regardless of the topic at hand, his long-winded, yet extremely well thought out, answers touch on everything from politics to art and current affairs, with intellectual asides that wouldn’t be out of place in a scholarly essay. Every sentence he utters is eminently quotable and is a way for him to expound on his self-created manifesto. An avid reader of ancient classics, he peppers his musings with quotes from writers and philosophers, which don’t, however, come across as affected but are genuine and spontaneous outbursts, reminding one of a seasoned crooner who breaks into song during regular conversation.
But in spite of all this illuminating talk, ultimately Cucinelli’s goal is to sell highly luxurious products that are out of the reach of most, and cater to the much-reviled one percent. How does he reconcile his selfprofessed love for humanity with the aura of privilege that surrounds his creations? How do his liberal views – he’s a vocal supporter of President Obama, whose speech in Cairo he quotes verbatim in a digression about the Arab Spring – fit with his role as a purveyor of pieces created for the rich of the world? “My pieces are sold for a fortune so it’s important to use some of the profits to give back to society. Restoring my town is what I do. In this way, I contribute to humanity and posterity,” he replies, referring to the idyll he created in his hometown of Solomeo.
In a world where garment workers are often exploited, Cucinelli has implemented a kind of enlightened business model in tiny Solomeo: the design studio, workshop and offices are all housed in a restored castle while his workers, whom he likes to call “artisans”, are paid decent wages and offered free meals, large discounts on his clothing and other perks that you’d expect more from a Silicon Valley start-up-turnedgiant such as Google rather than a fashion firm thriving in the Apennines. “We need to give back dignity to workers as Lorenzo il Magnifico did in the 15th century; he considered craftsmen true artists. Today artisans work hidden in a basement. Young people nowadays don’t want to boast about being tailors or artisans,” he says about his goal to reevaluate the role of artisans and reward them.
Cucinelli is extremely attached to his roots and sees himself as “the custodian of Solomeo” on a mission to preserve “this gift to humanity”. “I come from the countryside and I would never think of living in a big city. I still like to travel the world but there’s nothing like going home, back to the little bar on the main square, where it’s just six of us in the evening,” he says. It was definitely a long journey from Solomeo all the way to Mongolia and China, which Cucinelli started to visit decades ago to source his high-quality cashmere. “I’m a little biased when it comes to Asia because I’m here doing what I do thanks to China and Mongolia. For me, it’s not just about making it big in Asia because this part of the world is linked to the origins of my company. After I started coming here, I began to read Confucius and all the Chinese classics and to practise martial arts. I love the Orient,” he says as he recalls the misadventures of his first trip to Mongolia and the memorable time he was stuck in Beijing on the eve of the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 on his way to Ulan Bator.
When I manage to get back on topic (he’d rather keep talking about his humanist beliefs rather than what makes Italian men so stylish), I ask him what luxury, that overused word, means to him. “I think that there’s no such thing as accessible luxury. Now everything is coined as luxury and I don’t agree with that. When a brand becomes too well known, it obstructs growth. All that is luxury has to be exclusive. We believed in only one thing and didn’t spread ourselves too thin. We only focused on one product and expanded gradually,” he says about his strategy of limited growth.
At the end of a jovial meal with Cucinelli and his Italian team – a bunch of dapper men and immaculately turned-out women, including his charming wife Federica – Cucinelli’s positive outlook comes as a breath of fresh air, something that Italy and Europe truly need right now. Amid the doldrums I often detect when speaking with fellow Italians lamenting the malaise in which the country is mired, it’s refreshing to talk with someone who still believes that “what I did three decades ago is still possible today. If a young guy comes to ask me for 30 kilos of cashmere saying that he’ll pay me next year, I’ll support him because he’s young and he can be a new visionary so I won’t ask him too many questions, but let him accomplish his goals.”
Before bidding goodbye, I can’t help asking if he has ever entertained a move into politics – after all, he already acts as a kind of honourary mayor of his hometown and his philanthropic work is akin to that of a modern-day Medici. “Never,” he says. “Politics and poetry don’t go together. I’d rather follow Saint Benedict’s dictum, ‘Ora et labora‘ (pray and work). To pray means to speak to yourself; it doesn’t have to be religious but you just have to speak to an anima mundi.” Yet another nugget of wisdom from the most stylishly dressed philosopher you’re likely to meet.