Conversation with Brunello Cucinelli

‘King of Cashmere’ reflects on life, compassion, and of course, creating fashion

MARIELLA RADAELLI

True to the tenets of St. Benedict, an Italian billionaire is translating the motto “Ora et Labora et Lege” — pray, work and learn — into action in the mountainous Umbria region north of Rome by making cashmere sweaters and other luxury sportswear in a very special way.

Brunello Cucinelli’s chic, sporty clothes are artistic indulgences produced in an enlightened work environment where the Benedictine motto forms the core values used in production.

St. Benedict is one of his greater teachers, but the philosophy behind Cucinelli’s business also draws inspiration from classics in ethics and theology by influential thinkers ranging from Socrates and Plato to Seneca, Dante, Inb Khaldun, St. Francis, Immanuel Kant, John Ruskin and Pope Francis.
Civita Bagnoregio
A castle has been converted into a large, modern Cucinelli factory that serves as one of his production hubs.

“King of Cashmere” Cucinelli likes to engage in philosophical discussions, but his real passion is shown for his workers in Solomeo, a medieval hilltop village about 90 miles from Norcia, the ancestral home of St. Benedict. There a castle with walls of honey-colored stone has been converted into a large, modern Cucinelli factory that serves as one of his production hubs.

He is able to make a profit using ethics, dignity and morals, paying his employees a higher wage than the market and infusing pleasure in the process of making clothes. Workers are offered education and cultural events that feed their soul with beauty. His employees are welcome at a Cucinelli theatre and library nearby, where art, spirituality and culture mingle.

More than any other figure among contemporary Italian entrepreneurs, he embodies the Renaissance humanist ideal combined with Benedictine rigor and Senecan stoicism.

The son of a farmer, Cucinelli grew up in abject poverty. His life is a real rags-to-riches story, and in person he is gentle, soft-spoken and thoughtful.

He has boutiques around the world: in Paris, Tokyo, New York, and now also Dubai. The latest collection, both refined and innovative, “fully embodies the flavor or DNA of our brand”, he says.
Civita Bagnoregio
The son of a farmer, Cucinelli (second left) grew up in poverty. His life is a real rags-to-riches story.

Q: Mr. Cucinelli, how do you adapt the use of cashmere to the Emirates where the temperature is different from most Western countries?
A: We use lightweight fabrics and lightweight cashmeres as well.
Q: How do you view the recent opening of the new Cucinelli boutique in Dubai?
A: It is a stunning boutique. With suavity, it represents our brand in that splendid land.
Q: Do you design special collections for the Gulf countries?
A: Seasonal collections are all alike, everywhere you go in the world. We simply select garments that are suitable to your people in their fit, style, cut, color and fabric.
Q: You consider John John Kennedy and Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli, who was world renowned for his classic sense of style and taste, the two most stylish men of all time. Can you think of some contemporary names?
A: Many people have a natural flare for style and dress with a taste and suavity that represent luxury, sporty, chic savor. I believe the combination of colors and fit is very important.
Q: What is your definition of elegance?
A: Elegance is innate. It does not depend on socio-economic status.
Q: Your childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship. Your father was exploited in the workplace.
A: Each human being needs to be treated with dignity, everywhere in the world. I haven’t done anything extraordinary, just looking for a profit that would bring ethics with it, both moral and economic dignity. We like to produce clothes that try to do no harm to humanity.
Q: Both Prince William of Britain and Bond actor Daniel Craig wear Cucinelli.
A: We are glad when internationally recognized public figures wear our garments. We are honored that Prince William wore a Cucinelli cardigan when posing with Kate Middleton in their official engagement photos. In these cases it is like Italian creativity and know-how were exported even more all over the world.
Q: What’s the secret of your success?
A: The world is totally new. With the birth of the Internet, everyone has the possibility of knowing everything. Resources are available online, but to be credible you must always be authentic under changeable circumstances — when you are caught up in fear, when everything is going well, when something is not so good.
I envision a sort of contemporary capitalism that is capable of answering the great man's dilemma of how to balance profit and solidarity. I am trying to make the great dream of my life come true, creating more human work, giving my employees moral and economic dignity.
Q: Who is the industrialist you admire most?
A: They are so many, but if I have to think of a name at the moment, I would choose a great entrepreneur like Adriano Olivetti, a most avant-garde, enlightened man and humanist.
Q: You are supporting the restoration of the Benedictine monastery adjacent to a 13th-century basilica reduced to rubble by earthquakes. Is there a special link between you and the Norcia monastery where Prior Cassian Folsom, your American spiritual father, lives?
A: Our beloved Norcia is the city of the soul: it embodies the motherland of Benedictine culture with layers of history that date back to the Roman Empire. It is a place where you feel your ability to breathe beauty, simplicity, tolerance, spirituality, mysticism and truth, besides the important quality of eating and living well (Norcia is known around the world for its black truffles and wild boar sausages).
Civita Bagnoregio
The village of Solomeo, headquarters of the Cucinelli fashion empire.

Q: You love philosophy and the thought of our great Latin authors, with Seneca among your favorites. They all observed the world before we did, and it seems that they have already written and understood everything. Is there is a thinker of today who stimulates you?
A: I like to look attentively at contemporary thought from different cultural perspectives, and I must say that there are many thinkers whom I respect. Today I like to mention our esteemed Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco, who passed away a year ago. Many public figures are a constant subject of my admiration: above all, there is Pope Francis who has brought us to observe the world around us and to admire its beauty, inviting us to be the guardians of all of creation, to protect the whole of creation. I also cannot help but mention Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the current Grand Imam of al-Azhar. I completely shared his position at an international meeting in Paris about dialogue between West and East when he expressed the necessity to focus on the concepts of human dignity, democracy and human rights, making recommendations on certain issues of peace, justice and equality among men.
Q: In your ideal village of Solomeo, the 240-seat Cucinelli Theatre offers an interesting season every year. Do you personally choose the annual program?
A: I am proudly pleased to preside over all 16 of Umbria theatres. Together with the entire staff, we also decide on the program of the Cucinelli Theatre in Solomeo, where highly regarded international theatre directors and actors such as Peter Brook, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Michel Piccoli, Lambert Wilson and Isabelle Huppert honor us with their performing arts.
Q: Is there a book on Islamic culture that is particular meaningful to you?
A: I am mesmerized by the work of Inb Khaldun, a medieval Islamic philosopher who pioneered the scientific understanding of history. His Universal History is a masterpiece.”
Q: Is there a Western poet that you hold in high regard because it represents your personal way of being human?
A: Dante is certainly the poet who affected me most during my lifetime. He fascinates me a great deal. He was not only a great poet but also a Christian visionary. As Dante contemplates God, his soul enters into God’s love. This union is physical as it moves his soul along with the rest of creation. It’s “The Love which moves the sun and other stars.” Dante said that he was searching for supreme human happiness that he really only found in God.
Q: Future projects in Solomeo and outside in the world?
A: I try to live as if it were the very last day of my life, but I plan as though I will live for eternity. I was taught this by another great teacher of mine, Emperor Marcus Aurelius. We are working on wonderful things in favor of our beloved Umbria region, especially for our treasured city of Norcia, birthplace of Benedictine culture, which remains extremely contemporary.