This is part one of a two-part interview with Italian cashmere legend Brunello Cucinelli at his headquarters in Solomeo, Umbria. Ready-to-wear production aside, Brunello Cucinelli is an Italian industrialist who invests in his community and the welfare of employees for “the dignity of humankind.” Here he reflects on life, his rationale, ideals and the ‘great masters.’ Note: Quotes and images from this interview appeared in our article for The Australian‘s WISH magazine. Photographs by Jason Michael Lang.
Brunello Cucinelli: “Allora. For the first 15 years [of my life], I was a farmer and my family lived in the countryside. It was molto bellissimo, a very nice period for me. I didn’t ever see my parents fighting; there were never any arguments. It was 1965 and we lived quite well. When I was 16 or 17 my Dad went to work for a factory [the family moved from Castel Rigone to Ferro di Cavallo, a suburb of Perugia]. The dream of the Umbrian farmer during that period of time was to work in an industrial area. But it was a hard job. My father did not feel comfortable when he worked. He was humiliated and frustrated from the job, his dignity was hurt. One day I saw my Dad crying, saying: ‘What have I done to live like this, God?’. You must understand, he wasn’t complaining about the hard job; he wasn’t complaining about less money that he earned. So, I said to myself: ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I decided I would like to do it for the dignity of humankind. I would like to do my job with heart.
“Two things give me emotions: the starry sky above and the moral load inside me”
“During this period while I was a student, I lived near an Italian coffee bar in a small town. After 8pm only men were there… every age, every kind of job. We were just talking about politics, religion, theology, everything. When I was a teen, during this period I also met someone who studied classical things, like philosophy and religion, and I met a guy who talked about this philosopher, Immanuel Kant. But I did not know him? So I started to read something about him. And I find him very, very hard to understand. But I found a very nice sentence, and it says: “Two things give me emotions: the starry sky above and the moral load inside me.” And it started to come out what my Dad was saying, ‘You must be a polite person’. He was always saying the same thing: ‘You must be a polite person’.
BC: “So, at 25 years, the second period of my life, I started to think, ‘What should I do with my life?’ Everyday you have a different dream. But there started to build something inside me. So, from Immanuel Kant, I started to learn something from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. [Also] Aristotle, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Saint Benedict, Saint Augustine, Gandhi; the great Italian architect Palladio and the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Those great masters educated me as a teenager … to talk and think about the dignity of the humankind.
“When I was 25, I decided to do cashmere. Umbria is a famous area for knitwear. All other kind of yarns, wool and so forth, but not cashmere. I had this idea: I wanted to do something that you could keep in your closet for many, many years, never to throw away. And I wanted to do it with colours. Because the English… they did cashmere, but it was in black & natural colours… [Mr. C screws up his face.] Dark colours. I started to design only for women. Women’s wear. Cashmere. Colour. Those were the ideas.
“When I started I didn’t have any money – not even a dollar. I went to see a friend of mine. I asked him whether he could he sell me 20kg of cashmere, and said I didn’t have money to pay him now. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you can pay me when you have the money’. He was 50-year-old man, and this was the spirit of the small village, of a small city, where everyone knows each other. It’s like today. If you are 25, and you come to me and ask me ‘Can I have 100 kg of cashmere?”, I am happy if you can start something new. So I will give it to you, for sure.
We had a new idea: we had cashmere for women,
and in colour.
“So I bought the product. We had a new idea: we had cashmere for women, and in colour. And we started to sell the first sweaters . It was a very, very small family business. [When questioned by suppliers or customers as to his company’s heritage, Brunello would tell a white lie and say he had 72 employees working for him and that the company was founded by his father 50 years ago.] The first order we had was 53 pieces. I was alone. I had a small laboratory of 40sq/m in Perugia. I had to decide to go another step [to grow the business]. Where can I do it? I had been visiting this town, Solomeo (below) since 1972, because my fiancé lived here.
“And in this little town no one lived inside the castle. It was quite destroyed. I asked the owner of the castle if he could sell me a piece of the castle, and he agreed. And I started to re-build part of the castle. Because I didn’t have any money, it has taken me 30 years of re-building, including building the theatre in Solomeo (below). [It took Mr C. ten years to build this theatre – called Teatro Cucinelli – for his workers and the villagers of Solomeo to use for “seasons of prose, music and dance”. It’s an achingly beautiful theatre with views over San Mariano.]
“I started to restore [the town of Solomeo]. I had these great ideals: I would like that the people that work with me could work in a nice place. Because I know that the craftsman job is very hard. And my dream was to be a custodian and to be a re-builder. Not the owner… I don’t feel like the owner. I feel like a custodian. The custody of something brings you real beauty, because if you feel as though you are the custodian, you want it to last forever. I believe in the life of a small town. There is a nice sentence from Jacques Cousteau. He says, ‘Our cities are hard to live, you have to come back to the small towns to talk about and project new deals for the humankind.’ I thought that life in a village could be more successful in the future.
“Two years later we [the business] moved here, inside this castle. The great ideals [we formed] for the company were [the following]: We wanted to make a profit … we do believe in a profit. We try to find a profit and we try to do it with ethics, dignity and morality. What does this mean? We want to have profits and we don’t want to hurt the humankind. We don’t want to hurt the world. What do we do about our profits? First, we share the profits with the company because it has to be strong [Brunello Cucinelli reportedly invests 20 per cent of its annual company profits in Solomeo public works].
What does it mean to take part of the profits and give to humankind? Everything.
“So, first, is profit for the company. Second, profit for me. But I live in a small town so I don’t need any particular necessities. Third, we give to the workers [the company pays 15 per cent above the average minimum wage for beginner staff] so they could earn a bit more and have a better life. Fourth, we do it for the humankind. What does it mean to take part of the profits and give to humankind? Everything. [He points beyond the windows]. The theatre, church, the square, hospital … everything we can do, we do for someone else. This is the philosophy of our life.
“Today we are over 700 persons working inside the company. [Brunello Cucinelli has around 2300 satellite craftspeople in Umbria and Tuscany who hand-make the garments from home in their family setting.] Everyone has a key to the castle. But the rules are very strict. You have to respect the rules. It’s a matter of trust. When I started my business I had just 20 workers and it was quite easy not to have the security badge, just to give all the workers a key. Today we are over 700. It means that man is responsible.”
Talk turns to the importance of quality and craftsmanship.
“We always thought to have a high quality product. Great quality; high quality; high craftsmanship. We also hope to be creative. Quality, craftsmanship and creativity. And talking about mixed distribution, the product has to be exclusive, not too much. Very controlled. To me this is luxury. You can talk of luxury about something that is overrated, too much distribution. This is the philosophy, it’s clear that the lessons that I had from these great masters helped me to understand better the man, and better humankind.”