Some designers think in collections. Brunello Cucinelli thinks in millennia. At a time when the fashion industry seems to be outpacing its production every year, the Italian designer known for his subtle and sumptuous cashmere that will last a lifetime has forged a more intentional path: One he calls Humanistic Capitalism. In lieu of fast fashion, Cucinelli has stationed his eponymous fashion empire in the 13th-century Italian hamlet of Solomeo, Umbria, dedicating his life and work, in part, to its restoration. Here, the designer-cum-philosopher shares his views on craftsmanship, quality and an unmistakably Italian way of life.
Abbye Churchill: You clearly have such a devout appreciation for your materials — cashmere in particular. How did you start working with it?
Brunello Cucinelli: I wanted to produce something that you wouldn’t throw away. I’ve never met anyone that threw away a cashmere sweater. In my personal closet, I’ve kept all my clothing, even from when I was a young boy. Every garment represents a moment in my life. I come from a farmer background where we use everything, we repair and restore everything. I’ve always lived in this way.
When I started this business, I only wanted to produce in Italy. I thought I could produce beautiful cashmere in Italy with a very high quality of craftsmanship and materials so that what we make would last for generations.
You are very dedicated to Italian manufacturing, but also to Solomeo, the hamlet where you’ve based your business. You have spent the past several decades donating a portion of your profits to restoring the town. I wanted to speak a little bit about your commitment to that restoration, and what inspiration you find in living there.
I think about living here like regaining an equilibrium with humanity. I’ll give you an example: Let’s say you have a plant, and you give that plant some fertilizer. The plant will grow at a rapid rate. Perhaps you’ll yield great fruit, but the land around that plant will all burn. If you give that same plant natural compost, the plant will grow at a more normal pace, and the land around that plant will be nourished.
This building that I’m in now was built in the 1300s. Can you imagine how many people died here? How many people lived here? How many people loved one another here? We are just but temporary guardians of the world, and I would like to be a guardian of this town. A guardian restores and perhaps builds something new. Up until 50 years ago, this town produced oil, grain and wine. Now we produce cashmere, oil and wine. Even so, I don’t think that I have made major changes to this hamlet. We’ve made some additions and we’ve built some new things, too: a theater, a winery and a monument dedicated to human dignity that will perhaps be there in a thousand years’ time. I think this idea of integrating with your surroundings is to be a temporary guardian.
It was the Roman emperor Hadrian who said, “I feel responsible for the beauty in the world.” However, I’m also quite fascinated by the Greeks. The Greeks wanted to build for eternity. I would like to build for eternity. If, in 50 years, my grandson Brando wears this sweater that I wear now, I’ll be so happy.
You’ve also created a school in Solomeo. How did that come about?
When I arrived in Solomeo, there were about 350 people living here. People were leaving the village and the population was diminishing. I wanted to bring work back to the hamlet. Now there’s almost 800 of us living here. Life is back. But to live here, you need to have culture. You need to have a theater, a park, a cinema, a library. You need to have schools—they are the seed for civilization. We have our school of tailoring, agriculture, of gardening, of masonry, because I think that these schools have a great value. It’s not desirable to live in a location that doesn’t have these things. Because we can’t just work 14 hours a day. We work eight hours a day. Then there’s time for the soul, time for the body and time for the spirit. This is another big topic in life for me: Do one thing at a time, but do it well.
I wonder if you could speak about the philosophy you’ve developed, Humanistic Capitalism. How did it develop and how, in a moment of intense globalization in the fashion industry, have you created a way to care for communities both locally and internationally?
Humanistic Capitalism is the concept of turning fair profits, and doing so in an ethical way and with respect for creation. I think this is achievable because we’ve done it. Why should I earn on someone else’s difficulties? If you earn an extra dollar but you know that you’ve taken advantage of somebody, can you live with yourself? I don’t think so. I wanted to try to not cause any harm.
When I started this company, I wanted to ensure that individuals would earn a little bit more, they would work in environments that were nicer because you spend eight to nine hours a day in them, and I would try to produce without creating any sort of harm to humanity. Today, there are nearly 2,000 employees and no one punches a clock in the morning. I want to ensure that the individuals that work for me are compensated with a fair amount and enjoy a high quality of life.
I wanted also to turn a fair balance between profit and giving back. Growing up, when we were farmers, we would harvest the wheat. The first bale, my grandfather would give that back to the community. We had nothing, but he would always say, “For those that have a little less than we do.” Really that’s the idea: Care for those that have less than we do.
During the pandemic, many people have been relocating to smaller towns. I came across something you wrote in your book, The Dream of Solomeo, in 2018 that seems almost prosaic: “I was once told that working in a village could not be compatible with the speed of modern life, but the company instead has continually grown at a gracious pace. Today I’m certain that the internet is the answer to reversing the trend of individuals leaving ancient villages, as it permits us to work in these beautiful places, minimizing the need to travel.” That seems so relevant to right now.
I’m very fascinated by this moment. This pandemic has of course been painful for the soul and the mind, but I do think it has in some sense opened a new vision toward the world. When I started the company here 40 years ago, people would ask me, “How are you going to manage from a small hamlet?” But the idea of being connected allows us to live anywhere.
I believe that there will be a great return to life in hamlets and villages. You can eat well, you breathe fresh air, you see beautiful architecture, you can have the smell of wood burning from the fireplace, but still have the efficiency of being connected. You earn a little bit of extra time for yourself — and serenity.
I think this moment has also really heightened — I would say for the better — our relationship to waste. I think that during this period, no one has wasted a thing. I doubt anyone has thrown anything out of their refrigerator. On the other side of this, I think each and every one of us is going to be more curious about how and where things are produced. Have we harmed mankind or the planet, or animals, or the environment in the process of making something? That’s why I’ve said I believe that we need a new social contract with Creation. I’m certain it’s not just between human beings.
The Trust Questionnaire
Where will you take your next holiday?
It is not easy to choose from among the many places where ancient and contemporary history, art, landscape and people arouse high humanistic feelings, but I would answer India, a place I have visited only fleetingly on a business trip. When I was there, I had the chance to perceive the scents of that land—its widespread spirituality and sense of eternity, its vision of the world, the harmonious relationship between its history and its present day. It left me with a great desire to return to meet its mysteries.
What is the one indispensable thing for you when you travel?
For my personal care, some things are indispensable for the right measure of self-decency and respect for others; but for the care of the soul I can never do without taking with me an old edition of The Meditations by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, where I find practical wisdom and some sort of comfort of the spirit every single time I read it, as if it were the first.
What was the happiest moment for you during one of your travels?
Happiness is something very difficult to define, but I think I was very close to it on the day I visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. For a few minutes I happened to be alone inside the great circle of the monument, surrounded by the immense forest, with the boundless sky above me, mesmerized by the voice of silence that spoke to me of the millennial mystery of the Chinese people, and of the fate of all men. I seemed to perceive the true meaning of life.
If you could live in any hotel, what would it be?
I don’t know which hotel it would be, but I would like it to be located in front of the ocean. For me, the gaze of a man reaching out to infinity is the truest symbol of the daring that drives the search for knowledge and leads to a good and great life.
The place/travel that challenged you the most?
Years ago I went to Malawi. Although I was born and lived for many years in a farming family, until then I didn’t know how hard life can be in some parts of the world. On that trip I witnessed widespread suffering first-hand.
What is the most unforgettable dish you have eaten during one of your trips?
Honestly, a hot dog with mustard on a beautiful spring morning in the stands of New York’s Shea Stadium, full of excitement about the baseball game I was about to watch, which pitted two giants against each other: the host Yankees on one side and the San Diego Padres on the other. Unforgettable!
Strangest place you’ve ever spent a night?
In the province of Parma, in the Bardi Renaissance castle, as a guest of a friend of mine. The castle had a reputation for being haunted by ghosts, and that night I didn’t sleep a wink and kept my light on. It was like being in a Gothic novel by Horace Walpole.
What is your favorite market in the world?
I like Oriental markets, and generally any market where you buy and sell what you need at a fair price and driven by fair profit. In this case humanity is the mediator.
What are the most beautiful and noteworthy places in your hometown?
The places of memory. The medieval Umbrian village where I was born had no great monuments, but for me its ancient church was the most beautiful in the world, its castle was full of an archaic charm and its narrow alleys seemed to me to be paved with gold, because they spoke to me of the time they had lived through, of the nameless generations that had walked them, and they were, all together, tangible proof of the strength that history can instill in our hearts. People think that history is about the past, but for me it is the reason for the future.
If you could travel anywhere in any era of your choice, what would it be?
If I could ride a ray of light and, as if by magic, reach the time of ancient Athens, when this city was queen of the world, I should like to ride up to the Parthenon and, sitting apart, in silence, forgetting time, listen to some great philosopher conversing with his students about the human and divine nature of man.
Where would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month and a year, and why?
A weekend in Amalfi, where the air is so sweet, the sea so blue, the pizza so good that an Italian poet, Renato Fucini, wrote on a plaque placed between the cathedral and the sea: “When the people of Amalfi go to heaven, for them it will be a day like any other.”
Then I would like to spend a week in Paris, to grasp the secret of a city that for centuries has dictated style to the world and inspired the ability to think big.
I’d like to spend at least a whole month in San Francisco to enjoy the sublime enchantment of that city that overlooks the sea from the green hills like gardens, and to understand how a global technological phenomenon such as Silicon Valley is in harmony with such a romantic country.
Finally, a deep curiosity would drive me to spend a year in Beijing, to try to penetrate the mystery of that industrious people and of the beauty they have given to the world.
Is there a place you are ashamed not to have visited?
Auschwitz. The thought of the suffering that took place there, where the joy of life was trampled into the mud with ferocity, denies me the courage to go there and to look at such great sorrow.
Abbye Churchill is a multidisciplinary artist and author who works with textiles, plants, food, and community. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Food + Wine and W, among others. She was the Editorial Director of Wilder magazine and her first book, A Wilder Life was featured in the New York Times Book Review’s “Best of Summer.” Her most recent title is The Gardens of Eden: New Residential Garden Concepts & Architecture for a Greener Planet. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.