The village of Solomeo is perched on the Umbrian hills ten minutes outside Perugia, about a two-hour drive from Florence. This is the home of Brunello Cucinelli cashmere luxury clothing.
Brunello Cucinelli, the son of a rural laborer, decided to drop out of engineering school in Perugia in the mid-70s. (A few years ago, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in Philosophy and Ethics from the University of Perugia). He got a loan from his local bank to try his hand dyeing cashmere a bright rainbow of colors.
Why cashmere? Cucinelli explains, “Because I never thought it would be thrown away. I wanted to manufacture something that theoretically never dies.” Other clothes may go to waste, but something made of cashmere goes from a piece of fine clothing, to every-day wear, to a favorite comfy knock-around-the-house outfit with holes or patches at the elbows. “You see the idea of guardianship; it all ties in together,” he has said. “[I]t has the fascination of eternity. You either pass it along, or find another use for it, but there is something eternal about it,” he told the men’s fashion magazine The Rake.
At the time there was no brightly colored cashmere being produced in Italy or elsewhere. He told the story to BusinessofFashion.com. “So I went to the dye shop and here we had the most famous dye expert, a young guy, who was wearing a ponytail and was very fashionable. … Alessio, he was 28 and I was 25, but he had such a taste and flair. I said, ‘I’d like this to be orange.’ ‘No, no. This is cashmere, you can’t possibly dye it. You’re crazy,’ he said. … [I said] ‘Alessio, you’re so young, how can you say we can’t possibly manage it? We can’t possibly do it? Yes, yes, come on, we can do it!’
“And I convinced him and talked him round. I took these six sweaters, three V-necks, three round [necks]… these six sweaters in six beautiful colors. In terms of the product, it was innovative. I was seeking perfection for one single thing. I was the man with the sweaters; the cashmere guy.”
The business started with 90% knitwear. Now, knitwear is only 35%, but still 60% of the collection is made out of cashmere. (In the winter collection, nearly everything is all made of cashmere.)
As the brand grew, so did the headquarters. In 1987, Cucinelli moved the business to the village where his wife was born, Solomeo. Slowly the company took over responsibility for restoration of the entire town, which today also encompasses a theater, an amphitheater, and the Aurelian Neo-Humanistic Academy, which hosts seminars on philosophy, history, architecture and spirituality.
There’s also a vineyard, a library and a school of arts and crafts that teaches masonry, gardening and farming, tailoring, knitting, cutting and sewing, darning and mending. In the tailoring course, students are awarded scholarships of 700 euros ($891) a month. Cucinelli relishes the exchange between students, artists and workers.
“Ever since my very first employee, I always thought the work should be done in a healthy and pleasant environment, with better human relationships. I can’t ease the weight of the job, which is often repetitive, but I can help with nice big windows for a beautiful view and to see the light outside.” While working conditions are important, his workers are also paid around 20% more than their Italian peers. The working hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a 90-minute lunch break. (Many employees go home for lunch, but the company offers a lunch three courses daily for €2.80 – including wine and olive oil from Cucinelli’s vineyards and groves.)
To ensure the continuity of his company, the unity of the village—as well as for his daughters Camilla and Carolina who both work in product development for the brand—Cucinelli has set up an irreversible trust. In 2010, Cucinelli received the Cavaliere del Lavoro award, Italy’s top business recognition, from the president of Italy.
The trust is a separate entity from the Fondazione Brunello e Federica Cucinelli, whose goal is “the improvement and beauty of humanity.” This Cucinelli thinks is part of the Umbrian culture, with a philosophy stemming “from Saint Benedict and Saint Francis, to never turn your back on mankind.” In 2011, the Cucinelli Foundation donated $1.3 million to help restore the Etruscan Arch in Perugia, dating back to the third century B.C. This year work is scheduled to start on Un Progetto per la Bellezza— “A Project for Beauty”—a plan for the development of a series of parks in the valley beneath the village of Solomeo
In 2012, the company gave Christmas bonuses of 6,000 euros ($7,513) each to longtime employees to mark the listing of the company on the Italian stock market to thank them for their support and for helping make the IPO possible.
Brunello Cucinelli’s business philosophy? “First, it is important to make a profit because there is nothing wrong with that and that is the purpose of a business,” he told FT.com. “Secondly, to take some of that profit for myself and my family, because there is nothing wrong with making Brunello rich. Thirdly, the profit must go to the workers to give their work dignity and lastly, profit must also go towards the local community, whether that may be a hospital, a theatre, a monastery.”
His responsibility to the customer? Again to FT.com, “If you buy a sweater for €1,000 and you know that the funds you are paying are also going to help to build a hospital and a school, wouldn’t you think better about it? If I know a product is made well I will buy. I don’t want to buy something that has harmed anyone, this is my absolutely strongest belief, and I believe other people think this too. Or if they don’t now, they will”.
He goes on to tell The Rake, “Quality artisanship and creativity could be used to create a brand that expressed exclusivity through very refined details. Otherwise, what would be the point of manufacturing in Italy if we didn’t take advantage of the top-quality artisanal know-how available here? I want to provide you with a garment that, when you look at it or put it on, it expresses all that is best in Italy. I want to communicate our heritage to you.”
There are thirteen Brunello Cucinelli Boutiques in the U.S.
In Florence, the Brunello Cucinelli Boutique is at Via della Vigna Nova, 47