EVERY STORY ABOUT BRUNELLO CUCINELLI TALKS ABOUT HIS BIG HEART (HIS STAFF WORK IN A RESORT-LIKE FACTORY) AND PROFOUNDLY ETHICAL APPROACH TO RUNNING A FASHION BUSINESS (HIGHER WAGES, FREE GOURMET MEALS FOR EMPLOYEES). NOELLE LOH REPORTS ON THE OTHER THING
Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli makes cashmere a class act.
Italian cashmere designer Brunello Cucinelli deserves a place in economic textbooks as much as he does in fashion history tomes. Since founding his eponymous label in 1985, he’s been practising what he calls “humanist capitalism”, a business philosophy that’s based on the simple, righteous logic that work should be a dignified activity. The 61-year-old had grown up poor in the countryside of Castel Rigone in the Umbrian region, and the way his farmer-turned-factory worker father toiled left a deep impression.
Today, his staff work in a sprawling production house that looks more like an idyllic hillside resort – every room is designed with expansive windows to let the postcard views and natural light in. According to fashion trade journal Women’s Wear Daily, they’re paid about 20 per cent more than the market average and get off on the dot at 6pm. Lunch every day is a three-course meal, prepared by gourmet chefs, that includes wine and olive oil from Cucinelli’s own groves, and doesn’t cost a thing. The charismatic designer tells us: “Since the beginning, my dream has been to confer moral and economic dignity on work, because it can so often be hard and repetitive.”
And in his case, goodness does pay. He’s practically Lord of Solomeo, the 14th century Perugian hamlet where his company, factory and own home are based – he restored most of it, including the town’s castle (now his HQ); set up a theatre, amphitheatre and “philosophers garden”; and even hands out student scholarships. Five years ago, he received an honorary degree in philosophy and ethics from the University of Perugia. It’s a happy tale of a good king adored by his people.
The man is also a billionaire, his brand publicly listed since 2012 and selling in more than 60 countries. This raises something often overshadowed by his storybook life: Consumers dig this whole humanist capitalism utopia of his. You see, it’s what enables him to create genuinely luxurious clothes. This season’s ethnic-influenced collection, for example, includes cashmere knits hand-woven using classic macrame or braiding techniques for a net-like effect, while skirts are made from fine wool gauze then swathed in silk feathers.
In Singapore, where the brand opened a 2,000 sq ft boutique – its first in South-east Asia – at Paragon (#01-17/18) in December, prices start from $300 for a basic
tee to $21,000 for a leather jacket. Even in an era of hyper luxury, few ready-to-wear labels are as consistently artisanal or command as much.
“I choose to produce extremely high quality, exclusive, hand-made products created through traditional artisanal methods,” he says. “We need human beings to produce them… In order for people to want to stay and work with me, and build their skills, they have to be offered something more… If you can see the sky, you are more creative. If you are in a special environment, you become special.”
Despite his humble background, Cucinelli has known no other way of making clothes. His first foray into the industry was in 1978. Then a college dropout, he got local artisans to produce 53 cashmere sweaters in bright, Benetton-inspired hues when dyeing cashmere was unheard of . “I’ve always been attracted to the material and its long-lasting quality,” he says. “You hardly ever throw cashmere away.” While he’s gradually expanded his repertoire to cover a whole lifestyle – ready-to-wear, accessories, homeware – in the 2000s, at least 60 per cent of every collection is still made out of the fine goat-derived fleece, according to industry newspaper The Business of Fashion.
The luxuriousness of the fibre, he says, is reason enough to buy his signature sweaters, even with the local tropical climate. “It is a highly specialised product. Out of the whole fleece, you only use the fine fibres from a very small area beneath the animal’s neck… Only around 250g of this under-down is obtained per goat per year, which is why cashmere is so precious,” he explains. “The difficulties associated
“IF YOU CAN SEE THE SKY,
YOU ARE MORE CREATIVE. IF YOU ARE IN A SPECIAL ENVIRONMENT, YOU BECOME SPECIAL.”
with sourcing and inspecting the fibre further increases its value. (His long-term yarn supplier) Cariaggi and I make annual visits to Mongolia and China to select the best quality.”
Of course, it helps that the knits have been skilfully crafted by his artisans to be pillow light. Cucinelli readily admits that his “is not a fashion brand”, focusing instead on “contemporary luxury pret-a-porter” – everyday wearability is key. His Spring/ Summer 2015 collection is a mix of sophisticated sports-inspired separates (wool pinstriped jogger pants and paperthin suede bombers); relaxed yet elegant tailoring (gilets and culottes); and pretty, flowing skirts and dresses. Colours are pleasing and easy-to-match, with powdery pinks, greys and an off-white dubbed biscuit. The overall look: understated and effortless, without losing that glamour so intrinsic to Italian dressing.
The term often brings to mind the sartorial peacock attendees of Pitti Uomo, the Florence-based menswear trade show, or bold female clotheshorses like stylist Giovanna Battaglia, but Cucinelli delivers it with subtlety. “The whole idea of wearing clothes is not to look ridiculous,” he says. For him, looking and feeling dignified is more important than being fashionable, so much so that women would feel at ease even in his men’s pieces. “When we try our men’s samples, we say, ‘Would you feel comfortable, ladies, if you went out dressed like this?’ Now you get dressed to come out to have dinner with us,” he says of his creative approach.
It’s no wonder Prince William wore a Cucinelli sweater for his official engagement portrait in 2010, while Kim Kardashian reportedly lived in the brand after giving birth to daughter North West. The label is the epitome of modern-day luxury – quiet, functional, exquisite enough for royalty. For those who want to look tasteful, it’s an elixir. “We create things you will never want to get rid of – you can wear our pieces for years,” says the designer. In this age of Insta-gratification, that alone is an immense luxury – and every customer’s happily ever after.