Every month we ask leading figures to give their outlook on events, business and culture. Here we find out how a fashion entrepreneur made a successful global brand by paying people more, feeding them with local produce and showing compassion.
Brunello Cucinelli has created a coveted global fashion brand while pursuing a personal and corporate philosophy that’s deeply rooted in the land that his family once farmed. This Italian entrepreneur’s listed profession might be fashion designer but in conversation he is more likely to riff on the writings of Immanuel Kant than discuss hemlines. It is this love for philosophy and the classics that has helped to shape Cucinelli’s worldview and also, more importantly, his approach to managing his self-titled fashion label.
“We need time every day to nourish our mind and our soul,” says Cucinelli, sounding at times more like a monastic teacher than someone in charge of a company amassing €500m in annual sales with its knitwear, jackets, trousers and sportswear in soft cashmere and other fine fabrics. Such thinking has led him to define what he describes as a “humanistic take on capitalism” where “no profit should be made without valuing human dignity”.
In practical terms, this means that Cucinelli is committed to paying his staff above market wages and ensuring that production stays strictly within Italy’s borders. In fact, most of the work that goes into his clothing takes place in his native region of Umbria. Employees enjoy comfortable working days thanks to generous 90-minute lunch breaks at a subsidised canteen that uses produce from nearby orchards and vegetable gardens that Cucinelli has helped to revive.
His civilised vision of a global fashion brand extends beyond the office to his efforts to improve the quality of life in Solomeo, an idyllic 12th-century hilltop village in the Umbrian countryside that serves as the base for Cucinelli’s fashion empire. Here he has established a library and a 240-seat theatre, and erected a school dedicated to teaching skills such as tailoring, gardening and masonry. “Working in beautiful surroundings helps our creativity,” he says. “In Solomeo, beauty is found in every place: the medieval castle, the agricultural heritage of the countryside. Here we can work and still stay connected to the outside world.”
Although his utopian musings are rare in today’s corporate world, Cucinelli is following in the footsteps of enlightened Italian executives of the past. In the 1950s, administrator Enrico Mattei and industrialist Adriano Olivetti were concerned with the balance between leisure and toil, leading them to build housing and holiday retreats for their staff.
Born into a family of impoverished wheat farmers in Umbria, Cucinelli believes that his rural upbringing was instrumental to his outlook. “Nature teaches us to find an equilibrium,” he says. “If you plant, you should use natural compost, not fertiliser, so you nourish both the plant and the land around it.”
Despite a less-than-stellar 2020 due to the pandemic, Cucinelli is upbeat about this year’s prospects. He’s also eager to give back. Rather than mark down unsold merchandise that had been stuck in shops during lockdown, he’s donating about €30m worth of clothing to small charitable organisations. “After the pain of this past year, there’s a moment for compassion, for understanding,” he says.
Cucinelli is optimistic that his commitment to quality made-in-Italy manufacturing – alongside his smart combination of sportswear and soft suiting in muted colours – will win customers over again. “People will go back to dressing up and changing their outfits to look elegant,” he says. “But now we will think more about what’s in our wardrobe, and how and where our clothing is made.”
Brunello Cucinelli’s CV:
1953 Born in Castel Rigone in the province of Perugia, Umbria
1978 Sells first collection of cashmere sweaters
1982 Moves to Solomeo, his wife’s hometown
2004 Wins the Premio Pitti Immagine Uomo prize for best creative talent
2010 Made a Cavaliere del Lavoro (Knight of Industry) by the Italian president
2012 Lists his company on the Milan stock exchange
2018 Publishes ‘The Dream of Solomeo: My Life and the Idea of Humanistic Capitalism’