From his idyllic hilltop perch in Italy's Umbria region, Brunello Cucinelli has created a new model for luxury consumption that's good for the soul. But everything comes at a price.
In the rarefied world of Brunello Cucinelli, the king of Italian cashmere, it is hardly uncommon to encounter a price tag that soars well into four figures. For nearly 40 years the designer has borne a reputation for crafting luxury sportswear and high-quality knits that come with a timeless and ageless appeal—and also eye-popping prices. But that is a subject Cucinelli prefers to approach, like all things in his life, from a philosophical point of view.
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“What is the cost of dignity?” he asks one afternoon from behind a spotless desk in his company’s headquarters in the Umbrian hamlet of Solomeo, a medieval hilltop village so tiny that virtually every building and person is connected to the Cucinelli enterprise in some manner. “Do you respect the people who are making your products? Where are they made? And how?”
A tall gentleman with a casual-chic style that seems well suited to his still boyishly handsome, studiously scruffy features, the 64-year-old speaks like a conductor, using his entire body. He places a sheet of white paper before him and draws a vertical line down the middle of it to organize the thoughts taking shape in his mind, on this occasion weighing the pleasures of indulgence against the dangers of gluttony in the age of fast fashion.
“There are 80 billion garments produced every year,” he says. “So there are two roads we can take in the future. We can make a very industrial product, always cheaper, in any part of the world—and I think there’s just too much of that in the market. Or we can make expensive, recognizable designs with incredible craftsmanship and details. That’s the road I intend to follow.”
Besides making beautiful clothes, Cucinelli’s mission in life has been to build a company with socially conscious values, where factory workers are treated as the equals of executives. He subscribes to a concept known as “humanistic capitalism,” in which a large portion of the company’s profits is returned to the community through preservation efforts and the establishment of a trade school. Cucinelli has acquired neighboring factories, replacing them with parkland and orchards, and he restored a 14th-century castle to such pristine condition that Solomeo has been described as “the Disneyland of cashmere.” On nearly every corner is a placard quoting a writer or thinker, from Confucius to Socrates. One of Cucinelli’s favorite quotations is from Dostoyevsky: “Beauty will save the world.”
Many of Cucinelli’s customers come to Solomeo, which is about a two-hour drive from both Rome and Florence, to see where and how their clothes are made. They often join the employees at lunch in the company cafeteria, where the menu may include bowls of rigatoni with tomatoes and basil (his wife Federica’s recipe), local fruits, and olive oil and honey produced on the property. “Nothing is perfect,” a worker warns one guest, sotto voce. “Never order white wine in Umbria.”
To see all this firsthand is probably the best way to understand why Cucinelli’s designs cost as much as they do, and why, as the company’s sales have grown by 10 percent in the past year to $500 million, more people are buying them. It may be a product few can afford—a basic blazer runs about $3,500, and shirts are around $500—but the mission is to benefit and enrich the entire region.
Before Brunello Cucinelli went public on the Milan stock exchange in 2012, most of the company had operated within the hamlet, much as it had since the designer—who was raised on farmland near Perugia and started a cashmere-dyeing company in 1978—moved there in 1982 to marry Federica where she grew up. As the company expanded, Cucinelli converted a factory at the foot of a hill into what is now a sprawling 430,000-square-foot campus of glass-walled buildings that blend into the countryside, ringed with yellow rose bushes and fountains. The average age of the roughly 1,000 workers is 38, and many of them look as young as college students, though they are far better dressed, as the company offers a steep discount to its employees. Cucinelli also gives bonuses for cultural enrichment, which can be used to see plays or visit museums, and he discourages emailing after working hours, which end promptly at 5:30 p.m.
Apart from his office, there are very few private spaces; instead, large rooms are dedicated to merchandise displays and design teams, dyeing and washing, various aspects of production and quality control, and accounting and online sales, all spread throughout with a neat but enigmatic order. The point of mixing everything together, Cucinelli says, is that everyone should feel valued, especially those in factory positions. “What they do is very repetitive,” he says, “so it is important to treat them with respect.” They also become more invested in the creative process.
What makes Cucinelli so interesting as a boss is that he maintains rigorous expectations—not only when to eat but also how to behave gracefully to co-workers—and yet he’s kind of a softie. When one of his daughters asked if she could move to America for a few months, he said yes and even suggested she invite her boyfriend. “She was surprised,” he says. “But I was just afraid she would go and fall in love with an American and never come back.”
In the womenswear room, where a team co-led by Cucinelli’s elder daughter, Camilla, is developing ideas, a fabric sample the size of a pot holder is passed around for inspection. (Carolina, his younger daughter, works in digital.) With a complicated pattern that combines hand embroidery with feathers and silver and gold yarns, the prototype will eventually become part of a sweater that fits into the theme of the next collection, which is “futuristic nomad.” But one of the yarns is pulling, so it is sent back for further refinement.
“The harder it is to make, the more they want to get it right,” Camilla says.
Down a flight of stairs, the factory floor is a sea of terra-cotta tiles and low shelves, where fall orders are being completed for shipping; roughly 200,000 pieces per season is typical. Maria Grazia Funari, who has worked for Cucinelli for 30 years, communicates the changes and translates technical information to the knitters. Sweaters subtly decorated with sequins are laid out to dry after a brief wash to soften them. Nearby, a group inspects the handwork on a dozen crewneck sweaters, each with a gold and lead gray leaf pattern that takes weeks to complete. Within a month, those sweaters will be headed to stores, each at a price of $4,925. (By coincidence, Suki Waterhouse posted an Instagram image of herself wearing one in June.)
“There were only 16 of us when I started,” Funari says. “So every day it’s emotional, when I see how much we’ve grown. We’re an extremely modern company, but we’re still keeping the heritage.”
Cucinelli’s ambition to place his employees on the same footing applies to his customers as well. His recognizable aesthetic is rooted in classic sportswear, with an emphasis on gray, navy, more gray, and the occasional pop of mauve—a soft, dreamy palette that is gender-neutral and appropriate for any age. In effect, he has created a wardrobe that is as easy to wear as a uniform. Like a good pasta sauce, a Cucinelli outfit rarely requires more than three ingredients: a beautifully tailored jacket, either a featherweight sweater or a linen shirt, and trousers tapered and cropped for a modern cut. You can do more with a few pieces of better quality than you can with a closetful of stuff. And he believes designers should invest in Italian manufacturing.
“We have history,” he says. “Here, I’m trying to give you an Italian identity. If I’m going to buy a watch, I’m going to Switzerland. If I’m going to buy Champagne, it has to be French. I’m not trying to be a snob about it, but I’m recognizing the culture.”