The questions asked of a designer at a sunset press conference on the Umbrian hamlet of Solomeo on Tuesday evening, as the temperature cooled and the marble tiles turned bright pink, could only make sense if you knew that the man being questioned was Brunello Cucinelli, Italy’s most philosophically minded creator of fashion.
“Does the word dignity have different connotations for different people?”
“What is the worst thing you have done in your life?”
“What is the meaning of life?”
True, we – 500 journalists from around the world – were gathered here in this hilltop village midway between Florence and Rome, to witness the fruits of Cucinelli’s 40-year-old cashmere empire, which have been meticulously harvested into a company that prioritizes human dignity and social good over mindless production of merchandise. For decades, Cucinelli, who turned 65 on Monday, has invested millions of dollars in the revitalization of Solomeo, beginning with the medieval castle and fortress atop Solomeo, and continuing with renovating or removing the dilapidated factories and warehouses that once blotted the landscape below. He has planted fields of sunflowers, opened a state-of-the art factory where large workspaces suggest a vastly democratic hierarchy, constructed a winery that will someday produce Brunello Cucinelli vintages, and most recently erected a striking monument made of travertine marble.
The monument is called the “Tribute to Human Dignity,” and features a circular marble base nearly 80 feet in diameter and a grand series of five arches symbolizing America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceana. Cucinelli says this monument was designed to stand for thousands of years, a testament to his lifelong pursuit of a company that balances style with soul, which is, you might think, a fairly idealistic goal for a man who makes a living selling four-figure cashmere sweaters and suits. But, in fact, his example is worth studying more seriously as we enter another rat-race season of fashion shows, with New York Fashion Week beginning on Wednesday, followed by collections in London, Milan and Paris.
While the designer landscape has been vastly altered in recent years due to technology, changing attitudes toward luxury goods, and an unabashed embrace of marketing buzz among millennials, Cucinelli’s business has produced gains of 20 percent or more. This makes a solid case that some especially affluent customers still long for clothes that are well-made, thoughtful, seasonless, and not wasteful, since they are designed to be worn for many years. They are also quite beautiful, as his guests observed while touring the company’s 430,000-plus-square-feet factory, filled with cashmere knits and leather jackets in the process of being made. Here, factory workers, who are treated as equals to executives, begin their day at 9 a.m., enjoy a company subsidized lunch break, and, after they leave at 5:30 p.m., are prohibited from using e-mails for work after hours. The company now has more than 1,700 employees.
Cucinelli has long subscribed to a concept of “humanistic capitalism,” in which a large portion of the company’s profits is invested in initiatives beneficial to the community at large – such as beautification projects and the creation of trade schools. Solomeo itself has been described as “the Disneyland of cashmere,” and increasingly, the company welcomes its customers to visit as a form of tourism that will only be enhanced by the addition of the winery and monument. Having interviewed Cucinelli many times over the years, I have found myself seduced by his vision, which seems almost preposterously at odds with the prevailing mentality of luxury, which is to constantly sell more, make more, squeeze more. And I often wonder, how does this man actually make any money?
It ultimately comes down to his beliefs in the good of the whole, rather than the self, which were ingrained in him as a young man, raised a poor farmer, and his interest at an early age in philosophy. Cucinelli rarely uses e-mail, and designed his open plan offices with seats far apart not only for personal privacy, but also to encourage people to get up from time to time and walk to meet their counterparts. These are beliefs he has now published in a book called The Dream of Solomeo: My Life and the Idea of Humanistic Capitalism, and ones that he regularly shares among corporate leadership thinkers.
“I think we made two huge mistakes as parents,” Cucinelli says of the message he wishes to pass on to the next generation. “We told our children to be fearful all the time. And second, we said if you’re not good at school, you’ll end up working all the time.”
It is a mistake, he says, for mankind to try to rule the world only through science, without paying attention to the soul. And while he didn’t have a ready answer at the press conference for the meaning of life, he did say it was one of his favorite questions.