10 Things You Didn't Know About Brunello Cucinelli

Fashion

August 26, 2016 | BY Madeleine Ross

There’s more to the Italian fashion baron than beige cardies and business brawn. We reveal the quirks and qualms of the cashmere tsar

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Photograph by Lorenzo Pesce

 

If you've never set foot in one of his boutiques, here is the skinny on Brunello Cucinelli. Since establishing his eponymous label in 1978, the 62-year-old has carved out a niche as the foremost purveyor of high-end cashmere clothing. His understated aesthetic has lured a steady following of old money (and new money that wants to look like old money) and earned the respect of the world’s  fashion critics. That much is common, or at least public, knowledge. But what, you may wonder, diverts and provokes this doyen of debonair? What makes him tick?  We visited Brunello in his hometown, the Lilliputian, medieval hamlet of Solomeo, to find out:

 1. He's a ju-jitsu master

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 Brunello has been practising the martial art of ju-jitsu for six years and says it helps with self-control and peace of mind. He also practises a Tibetan form of yoga. "Every day I do the Five Tibetans, the ancient rites for a healthy mind and body practised by eastern monks," he adds. 

 2. He never, ever wears green

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Sample materials in Brunello Cucinelli's Solomeo factory. Photograph by Lorenzo Pesce

 

Brunello was raised by farmers in the tiny Umbrian village of Castel Rigone. Money was scarce and his parents, who had three sons, could only afford the bare necessities. When Brunello was eight years old, his parents gave him a pair of green corduroy pants for Christmas. That same afternoon, he dug a hole in a field and buried the pants in the dirt. Why, when presented with a choice between pants and no pants, did he choose pantlessness? Because green is just not his colour—nor is it almost anyone’s colour—he maintains. "There’s an Italian proverb that goes 'chi di verde si veste, di sua bellezza troppo si fida' which translates as 'those who wear green place too much confidence in their looks,'" he says. "Green is a tricky colour for someone fair like me. You need a good tan or an olive complexion. Personally I prefer paler colours: whites and greys. It seems that black is coming back into fashion, too."

 3. He only takes holidays when forced

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A frescoed study in Brunello Cucinelli's HQ. Photograph by Madeleine Ross

 

It's not what you're thinking; Brunello is not a workaholic. In fact, he’s a vocal advocate for work/life balance and ensures his employees clock off everyday at 5:30 pm. It’s just that he finds zipping down to the Dolomites or Mykonos completely unappealing. Of course, he'll buckle if coerced by his wife Federica and two daughters Carolina and Camilla, but Brunello prefers to be at home in Solomeo among his books, of which he has many. Whether it’s Plato’s Symposium or the writings of Jean Jacque Rousseau, he’s an avid bibliophile with a passion for Classical and Englightenment philosophy. These days, when his wife and daughters beg him to go to the seaside or ski slopes, he kindly requests they lock him in his study.

 

 4. He swears by swimming laps and taking powernaps

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A propensity to nap is a trait common amongst history's great men. Winston Churchill loved a bit of horizontal inaction, as did Napoleon Bonaparte and John F. Kennedy. Brunello, too, sleeps everyday for 20 minutes after lunch. "After my afternoon nap I take a shower and I feel like new. This is something I've done since I was a boy. On the farm we used to get up early to feed the animals, work in the fields until it got too hot and have lunch at noon. Then we would sleep a little to recharge our batteries. Today when I visit my showrooms around the world, I sometimes make the excuse of going to the bathroom, then I close the door and take a little nap." He also likes to keep in shape, but moderation is the name of his game. “I swim for an hour every morning and I run once a week. The Benedictine monks, who I've always admired, eat only once a day between September and April. If you eat too late at night you put on weight more easily. If I eat a light meal in the evening, the next morning I am convinced I've lost weight."

 5. His clothes are so expensive because…

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Employees walk to the company cafeteria for lunch at the Brunello Cucinelli headquarters. The hamlet's chapel looms on the crest of the hill. Photograph by Madeleine Ross.

 

Every piece is designed and made in Italy—mostly in Umbria and the neighbouring Tuscany. His workers, who receive a 90-minute lunch break and a three-course meal that would put most restaurants in Hong Kong to shame—are paid a wage that is 20 per cent above the market average. Part of the brand’s profits go towards the Brunello Cucinelli Foundation, whose raison d’etre is to enhance the cultural life of the town. The foundation restored the medieval hamlet of Solomeo, built a 200-seat theatre, organises plays, classical and rock music concerts and academic lectures, as well as banquets for the people of the town. It also resurrects historical monuments in other towns, including an Etruscan arch in Umbria’s capital city of Perugia and a monastery in Norcia. 

 6. Technology grinds his gears 

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Brunello doesn’t watch television, has no personal presence on social media and only sends an email when he has to confirm something in writing. Nothing tests his faith in mankind like the seeing a dinner table of people glued to their mobile phones. That's not to say he's a troglodyte. He recently visited Silicon Valley where he met with the  gatekeepers of the world's most innovative tech companies—and gave them a piece of his mind. “The kids who mind Instagram, Facebook and Salesforce are, essentially, latter-day Leonardo da Vincis," he concedes, "but Leonardo was also a great humanist. I believe that whoever manages to humanise the web will be the true 21st century Leonardo. That is what I tell these kids."

 7. Right now, his favourite book is...

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Moralia by Plutarch, but particularly an essay within this collection called On Listening to Lectures. He gave a copy of the text to all his friends for Christmas last year. “It’s a wonderful book," says Brunello. "In my view we would solve half the world's problems just by listening. Listening is a huge sign of respect. Socrates once said 'I want to convince you of my ideas, but I also want to hear yours.' It's not a matter of imposing one's ideas on others, but of trying to persuade them."

 8. He’s a stickler for order

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Brunello Cucinelli's office. Photograph by Madeleine Ross

 

The Brunello Cucinelli HQ boasts perfectly manicured gardens, white walls and clutter-free desks. In the CEO's  airy  office are meticulously arranged jars of coloured cashmere, a centrepiece of stacked vintage soccer balls and a desk which supports nothing  but a jar of lead pencils and a stack of white A4 paper (like a university tutor, Brunello likes to draw diagrams to illustrate his points). We have pizza together one night in the Solomeo town square, during which my plate amasses a small pile of pizza crusts. Brunello insists that I have a new plate. “An English philosopher and poet [Alexander Pope] once said 'order is heaven's first law.' If you look at creation you find that everything is perfectly ordered."

9. He’s a dreamer—literally

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 "I'm lucky in that I dream a lot," says Brunello. "An expert on dreaming once told me that as soon as you wake up you should concentrate for a few moments to try and remember your dreams, otherwise you lose them. These days the first thing people do in the morning is check their phones which doesn't help." Has he ever been inspired by his dreams? “No, the ancients used to devise their strategies based on dreams but I have always been more of a mathematician.”

10. He likes to play pranks

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His pranks aren’t reserved for his nearest and dearest; everyone is fair game. Once, before an important meeting with Japanese partners in Tokyo, Brunello surreptitiously adjusted the hands of their office clock to make it appear one hour later than it was. When the employees arrived for work they flew into a panic. “The company workers were rushing about because they thought they were late. It was great fun! My interpreter told me I shouldn't have done it, but a joke is not the end of the world. A couple of years later I spoke to the company chairman and we laughed about it. For me, playing a joke is a form of respect."

Don't miss the full story, Portrait of a Paladino, out in Hong Kong Tatler's September issue