Portrait of a Paladino: Three Days in the Life of Brunello Cucinelli

Fashion

September 19, 2016 | BY Madeleine Ross

In the Umbrian hamlet of Solomeo, Brunello Cucinelli embellishes cashmere - and mankind. Madeleine Ross meets the enlightened entrepreneur

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Brunello Cucinelli beside a 12th Century frescoe in his Solomeo headquarters. 
Photography by Lorenzo Pesce and Madeleine Ross

Days before his eponymous knitwear label was publicly listed in 2012, Brunello Cucinelli requested an audience with the prior of the Monastery of Saint Benedict in the hilltop town of Norcia, Umbria. To the average holidaymaker, the central Italian town is probably unknown. For the spiritually inclined, however, it is a place of pilgrimage as the birthplace of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism. Saint Benedict, the extoller of moderation and temperance, also happens to be Brunello’s favourite saint.

Despite its cultural cachet, by 2012 parts of the 16th-century monastery were in ruins. Brunello drove to the town with an unusual proposal for its monks: if his initial public offering (IPO) went well, he would restore their monastery. “But,” says Brunello, “there was a condition. I told Father Cassian, who is one of my great friends and mentors, that he and his monks would have to help me pray that the IPO goes well—and pray hard!”

A few days later when the company went public, Reuters described it as a “sparkling market debut.” Shares in the brand soared 50 per cent on the first day of trading. Brunello called on Father Cassian the next morning to deliver on his promise. “I arrived at 5am. All the monks were standing in a row to greet me in their black hoods with their hands crossed, the beautiful Gothic monastery behind them. Ah, it was a picture.”

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From left: Carolina, Camilla, Federica and Brunello Cucinelli in the library at the brand's Solomeo headquarters

It’s not how most CEOs would guarantee strong financials, but Brunello is cut from a different cloth. In 1978, this farmer’s son intuited a gap in the market for high-end, fashionable knitwear. After securing a meagre loan, he began crafting garments in Umbria from Mongolian cashmere. Today his clothing, which is still made in Italy, has cult status among addicts of both comfort and high fashion—as long as they have the financial means with which to indulge such an addiction.

Brunello’s business acumen is indisputable. On getting to know him, however, it’s clear that his success stems from something way beyond his flair for budgets and balance sheets. He is a polymath of the highest order, a man for whom religion, science, hedonism, humanism, poetry and patriotism inform every aspect of his business and approach to life.

Norcia is just over an hour’s drive from the medieval hamlet of Solomeo, where Brunello lives and runs his global enterprise. This part of the Umbrian countryside glows with yellow fields of sunflowers, shimmering wheat and the silvery greys of heavily laden olive trees. The sun beats down on the earth with an intensity that makes it hard to muster energy for anything more than a 10-minute meander.

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Clockwise from top left: the Umbrian landscape glows yellow with vast fields of sunflowers; the Solomeo crest; Brunello hosts concerts and banquets in this amphitheatre, which he built when he restored the hamlet

Brunello moved his headquarters to this bucolic backwater in 1985. He knew Solomeo intimately because his wife, Federica, had grown up here. He restored its medieval town centre, which now houses his offices and a boutique, refurbished an old factory, built a School of Crafts, a company cafeteria, an outdoor amphitheatre and a 200-seat indoor theatre. He also restored the hamlet’s chapel and many residents’ houses. “He likes things to be beautiful,” explains Roberto, a muscular young man with a shaved head who drives me to meet Brunello on my second morning in Solomeo. Roberto’s father has worked for Brunello for decades, and Roberto is following in his footsteps.

A third of Solomeo’s 500 inhabitants work for the brand. Millennials and grandparents work side by side. Like a good headmaster, Brunello knows everyone in the hamlet by sight and almost everyone on his payroll by name. After two days of shadowing the brand’s founder, it’s evident that he inspires the kind of affectionate respect a subject might have for a benevolent monarch. “He is a very kind, very genuine man,” says a taxi driver. “Whenever he sees me on the street, even if I have not seen him, he will come over and ask me how my family is.”

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The restored chapel and farm land beyond Solomeo; plaques bearing the quotes of
legendary philosophers, like Aristotle, pepper the walls of the hamlet 

I first meet Brunello at dinner in the Solomeo town square, where I join his family and friends for wine and wood-fired pizza. He’s more casual than I’d expected, in a long-sleeved T-shirt and carefully distressed pale jeans. Brunello’s five-year-old granddaughter, Vittoria, revels in an opportunity to practise her English on a native-speaker. “Would you like some more pizza?” she asks a seventh time—and for the seventh time I accept. There’s buffalo mozzarella (a hunk the size of a melon) and Brunello’s home-grown olive oil for the grilled vegetables—simple food in generous quantities. “Please, act as if you were at home,” he says, urging me to help myself. His two daughters, Camilla and Carolina, here with their beaus, look as if they’ve been plucked from a Brunello Cucinelli catalogue. It’s a sea of white, beige, green eyes and high cheekbones.

This is how Brunello spends most evenings in Solomeo. It’s hard to reconcile his quaint, simple existence with his brand’s luxury image (a Brunello Cucinelli cashmere jumper retails for more than US$3,000, while a cotton shirt can set you back US$600), but he is an ardent champion of village life. “The philosopher Rousseau believed cities were difficult places to live in,” he says. “He believed we needed to go back to the villages to rethink and replan mankind. Life in the village is different. There is no spiritual poverty, no economic poverty, no loneliness.” Is Brunello replanning mankind in Solomeo? “Yes,” he considers. “A little bit.”

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Brunello's granddaughter Vittoria serves homemade, wood-fired pizza; when waitressing became too taxing
she opted for the arms of her aunt, Carolina

The youngest of three, Brunello was raised on a farm near the even smaller hamlet of Castel Rigone. His father grew sunflowers, wheat and olives, and reared pigs, sheep, oxen and cattle. Brunello and his brothers—one now a plumber, the other a carpenter—slept in the barn above the sty. “It was a great life. We would work the land with these animals—there was no mechanisation, no tractors. I drank milk that my uncle milked fresh from our cows and…” Church bells clang and Brunello stops: “Bellissima,” he whispers. “This sound is so romantic. When we were farmers these bells signified the start of our day.”

When Brunello was 15, Cucinelli senior gave up farm life and took a job in a factory. He slogged away in a windowless room from 7am to 7pm, seeing the sun only on weekends. The experience grated on his son. “My father was the subject of humiliation, of offence. He was treated so badly. It was undignified.” Perhaps in reaction, Brunello has tried to create a kind of utopian workplace in Solomeo. He pays his employees 20 per cent more than the market average and, when he moved here in 1985, installed floor-to-ceiling windows in the factory and landscaped the grounds. “Why shouldn’t you look outside while you work?” he asks. “Like Rousseau said, creativity happens when the mood around you is special. The more repetitive the task, the more the place must flood with light.”

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Grilled zucchini served with Brunello's homegrown olive oil; the colossal hunk of buffalo mozarella

While Brunello’s father struggled at work, the son grew disillusioned at school. He spoke a rural dialect and was teased for being a “peasant.” Brunello began skipping class, spending his days in a local cafe where he conversed with its motley patrons. They’d talk politics, philosophy, the cosmos, the Creation, women—nothing was off limits. “Between the ages of 15 and 25 I did not study anything. I did not do anything. It was 10 years of pranks. It was wonderful.”

I ask Brunello if he regrets having no tertiary education (he dropped out of an engineering degree after sitting one exam). He asks my permission to smoke, lights a cigar (Cubani, he notes) and takes a puff. “Well, put it this way,” he says. “If you are a dickhead you will still be a dickhead after tertiary education. Einstein used to say that one year is the time one’s mind needs to roam freely. I roamed freely for 10 years, which I suppose means I now have 10 times the mind of Einstein.” He takes another drag. “Seriously, though, I don’t think you should study too much because you must give a part of your time to understanding life and human beings. Saint Francis of Assisi used to say that you must work hard at making people love you—and it’s true, there’s an art to making yourself loved. If I had my time again I would do exactly the same things, although I would do 15 years in the cafe instead of 10. The only extra thing I would do is take piano lessons.”

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From the archives: Brunello, second from the left, as a child; Brunello as a teenager.
Images courtesy of Brunello Cucinelli

Brunello had a precocious interest in philosophy. As a teenager, he would muse on the relationship between the here and the hereafter, and, somewhat presciently, between making and donating wealth. While in the cafe he honed his conversation skills, at home he consumed the writing of Plato and Pericles.

Now, at 63, he’s a natural and exuberant storyteller and holds court like an old hand. His anecdotes are punctuated by aphorisms and he can summon the words of emperors, warriors and astronomers with such ease you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d conversed with these great men. His passion for philosophy permeates Solomeo, too; its buildings are studded with plaques that bear the quotes of classical thinkers, its theatre houses busts of the likes of Cicero and Seneca, and on the walls of Brunello’s office hang framed portraits of everyone from Gandhi to Alexander the Great.

One of the greatest thinkers of this century is, in his view, Barack Obama. A few years ago he commissioned a marble bust of the US President. “I think he is a most enlightened man. He has changed attitudes towards Islam, opened dialogue with Cuba and Iran, and has encouraged debate, but always in a soft manner.” The bust is now in his daughter Carolina’s home, alongside portraits of Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Jimi Hendrix—“anyone who thinks outside the box. If you’d like to get some busts made I can introduce you to a sculptor who uses the same marble Michelangelo used,” he offers, as if commissioning busts is as common as buying stationery. 

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Portraits of history's great thinkers line the walls of Brunello Cucinelli's office: the theatre he built in Solomeo

Of all the philosophers, Socrates speaks to him the most. “The other day I was rereading Plato’s Symposium. I think it’s a work of art,” he says. For those unfamiliar with ancient Greek philosophy, in Symposium Socrates addresses a gathering on the subject of love. “Socrates considered love the most important topic of mankind. He says to the party, ‘Let’s eat a little less and let’s drink a little more to elevate our souls.’ You see, the soul needs to soar just a little bit to discuss love.”

It’s 10pm now and, after wine, our souls have soared considerably so attention turns to matters of the heart. “How did you meet your wife?” I ask. Federica is alert. She smiles wryly. Their eyes meet; hers roll. “We met when she was 16 and I was 17,” says her husband. “In the beginning she was not very into me. My hair was down to here,” he says, pointing to his waist. Was he a hippy? He supposes so. They grew up in the sixties. For a while he and Federica were, from the back, indistinguishable.

Each morning Federica would take the bus to school and Brunello would ride behind on his Vespa, trying to get her attention. “She pretended she didn’t see me. The exhaust from the bus would fly in my face every day but when you’re in love you make sacrifices. I sacrificed my lungs,” he says, taking a bite of homemade sausage. “Buona, buona!” he shouts to his friend manning the grill.

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Brunello and Federica on their wedding day. Image courtesy of Brunello Cucinelli

Today, Federica is the driving force behind the Brunello Cucinelli Foundation, the main objective of which is to “embellish mankind—to make it more beautiful.” Its duties include planning the season at the Cucinelli theatre (which regularly lures the likes of actor Charlotte Rampling and director Peter Brook), staging classical and rock music concerts, hosting banquets, organising academic lectures in the Cucinelli library and restoring historic monuments in Solomeo and nearby towns.

Brunello takes a paternalistic interest in cultivating the minds of his staff. “Some employers will make donations towards employees’ medical expenses or their children’s textbooks. I don’t like that sort of thing,” he says on the subject of giving back. “If someone were to say to me, ‘Here is money to buy your children’s textbooks,’ I, as a working parent, would see it as a giant offence. Instead I would want to be paid a fair amount and, if you want to give me a gift, it must be some higher kind of gift, not something petty. Here you might read a good book in the library, you might see a fantastic play, or go to a Pink Floyd concert. What I want to give you is something more elevated. Workers need to have their dignity.”

Dignity, in the end, comes down to a good work-life balance. Brunello’s employees, who start work at 8am, have a 90-minute lunch break during which they dine on three courses of fresh local produce with wine in the company “cafeteria,” which bears no resemblance to an American-style canteen. I dine here twice and am served Parma ham, stewed chicken with olives, pasta, minestrone, stuffed vegetables and giant platters of Parmesan cheese. The workday finishes at 5.30pm and, for fear of their boss’ disapproval, employees dare not check work emails after hours.

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The Brunello Cucinelli boutique in Solomeo; the bucolic Umbrian landscape

Technology, particularly the mobile phone, is a source of much internal debate for Brunello. He recognises its virtue as a tool for sharing information but he’s vehemently opposed to the way it disengages people from one another. “I think the phenomenon of being hyper-connected has spawned a sort of sorrow and pain in the soul, a kind of background noise,” he says. “We’ve stopped raising our gaze to the heavens and instead we share photographs of our breakfast.” He spies my mobile phone on the table, picks it up and shakes it like a piece of evidence. “This is a kind of brothel. Unless we rule it, unless we control it, it steals our soul—and I don’t want my soul stolen. Like everything else, it needs to be used in moderation.”

If technology destroys the soul, what revives it? Holidays? “No. If it were up to me, I would never take holidays. I say to my family, ‘Whenever you want to go on holiday, lock me in. I am happier here.’ I prefer to be at home among my books. Immanuel Kant’s life consisted wholly of reading and walking to church. I have always longed for this kind of life—the monk life.”

One can only win over the background noise, he says, by embracing culture, the “nourishment of civilisation,” and by retreating to the tranquillity of the countryside. “When we were farmers there was a kind of human inclination to discuss important questions. Without mobile phones or television, we would talk about things that mattered. Too often now when I meet people for dinner the conversation is about nothing—about trivial everyday things.”

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I’m surprised, then, when Brunello says he feels humanity is entering another “golden age.” He believes that in the past 30 years, humans have forsaken the great ideals of mankind. “But,” he says to me, “your generation is starting to blend science and soul. We have had too much science, too much technology. Now mankind is craving romanticism. I think in this century we will be mixing and matching Rousseau’s romanticism and the Enlightenment of Voltaire.”

Brunello is convinced that his soul is immortal. When you decide your soul is immortal, he says, you are far more invested in the future of your world. He sees himself as a kind of guardian, a paladino in Italian. The word has no direct translation but a quick web search throws up images of mythical heroes and chivalrous champions. “It’s a kind of warrior, a defender, a guardian, but one which walks just a step behind you,” Brunello says. “I want to be the paladino of my children, of mankind. Marcus Aurelius once said you should live like it is your last day, but plan as if you will live forever. That is what I try to do.” 

 

This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Hong Kong Tatler.  For more on the brand's founder, see 10 Things You Didn't Know About Brunello Cucinelli