Brunello Cucinelli: Sustainable luxury

Brunello Cucinelli

Interview: Haris Stavridis // Photo: Courtesy of Brunello Cucinelli

You are self-starter. How hard was it for you to build everything from scratch?

It would have been difficult if I hadn’t had an interesting idea. I recently read a book by the famous American economist Theodore Lewitt who wrote that the only way to achieve success in business is to have an ingenious idea. While this concept has been greatly “overstated,” I have found it to be substantially true. It all started with the idea of making colourful, oversized cashmere pullovers for women.

Cashmere is one of the finest and most expensive materials in the clothing business. What made you decide to work with it?

I was fascinated by this precious yarn that is both delicate and resistant at the same time. In Umbria, in the area surrounding Lake Trasimeno, there is a long — standing knitwear manufacturing tradition. And don’t forget that Ellesse, an incredibly important brand known throughout the world, is located quite close to our company.

You have a very humanistic approach to business. Do you ever consider that dealing with very expensive materials and producing quality but rather expensive garments is somewhat contradictory to those principles?

I have always cultivated a dream: to make man’s work more humane. As a young boy, when my father worked in the countryside, he was always smiling and happy. Although he worked hard, he was happy with what he had. Then, in the 1960’s, we moved to the city where he began working in a cement factory. At the end of the day he returned home exhausted, both physically and spiritually. He asked God what he had done to deserve this kind of humiliation. In those moments I told myself that, if I was going to do something in my lifetime, “man” would be my most important focus. This is what we are attempting to do in our company: to make profit in a somewhat special way.

Your employees have keys to the company's premises; they are also not obliged to punch a card, and are treated as equals. Have you ever had to deal with people betraying your trust or taking things for granted? How would you handle such an incident?

We work in a fourteenth-century renovated castle nestled in the Umbrian countryside, just a stone’s throw from Perugia. No one has to punch a card before coming in and everyone is obligated to leave at 6 pm. We have a company restaurant where the local women prepare lunch for those who prefer not to go home and our employees earn 20% more than the salary rate established by national labour contracts. But this a business after all, and we want to make a profit. Part of the profits is redistributed to my people (Cucinelli employees —editor’s note), another part is reinvested in the company (expansions, restorations, improvement work), and I keep a portion of the profits for myself while another part goes to humanity. This latter concept is what inspired the construction of the Cucinelli Theatre and the Arts Forum. A non-industrial, 3-to 5-year project, but that thinks ahead 500 or even 700 years. In fact, I see myself as the “custodian,” and not the owner, of these places rich with spiritualism and mystique. In the castle where we work, who knows, 500 years ago, someone may have spoken of or even imagined that one day this castle would be what it is today. I find this truly fascinating.

You are producing Michael Bastian's clothes. How is this collaboration going?

This collaboration almost began by chance. Michael Bastian is a young American fashion designer with quite an interesting style. I’m sure we are going to be hearing a lot more about him. I have a wonderful relationship with him — he often stays with us here in Solomeo, where he creates his line.

Many people consider you a benefactor and you definitely enjoy giving back to the community. As your business expands, how are you planning to continue helping? Do you have any specific goals, charity-wise?

To be honest, no special plans are currently in the works. However, I can assure you that keeping our existing projects up and running requires a considerable amount of work.

How hard was it restoring the Solomeo village? Is it an ongoing process or have you reached the end result you wanted?

It was an intense and painstaking restoration process, day after day. The project lasted more than 20 years, and for all these years a team of masons were practically living with us. In fact, they still work here, taking care of restoration and maintenance operations.

There is a lot of talk lately regarding ethical fashion, respecting nature's resources, and so on. Do you think that designers are starting to acknowledge this as a necessity or is it just a new way to get into the spotlight?

I believe that the global recession in the last two years is actually an ethical, moral and economic wake up call about the way we have behaved over the past twenty years. I believe that people are looking for normality, I’m sure about this.

You have said that tolerant people will have a very interesting future. Would you care to elaborate on that? How do you define tolerance?

I think that tolerance is a sentiment that needs to be rediscovered in this new world. When I speak of the “new world,” I’m referring to the present — a time to breathe a better, more positive air, with hopes for a better future: that is why I call it a new world.

In order to find raw materials, you travel all the way to Mongolia. What has impressed you the most there?

I was impressed by the infinite spaces, the vivid colours of the extremely short summer, the tranquility and kindness of the local people. A place where time seems to have come to a standstill, when people lived as farmers. Incredibly beautiful, in my opinion.

Which is the most overrated and most underrated destination in the world?

I don’t like to speak negatively of any place. There are no bad places in the world. While some places may not be the most hospitable, they are always “home” to someone.

If you were to run your own hotel it would definitely be...

“Principe di Savoia” in Milan.

Do you have a favourite piece in the summer collection?

Cargo pants, a white shirt and a cashmere/silk sweater for my moonlight walking.

What is luxury to you?

In my opinion, the concept of luxury is incredibly overused lately. I believe that luxury is something made and designed especially for me.

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