There are interviews, and there are conversations. And this meeting with Italian cashmere tycoon, Brunello Cucinelli, definitely falls into the category of the latter. Cucinelli has conquered the world with his products, his perception of style and beauty, and has published a book outlining his particular approach to doing business which he defines as “humanistic capitalism”.
This distinction between interview and conversation is a necessary contemplation; understanding the meaning behind the words, selecting them carefully, tasting each of them in a silent meditation. This is, in fact, the first step to allowing you into Cucinelli’s world, where external quality is just as important as inner quality. To him, as to late 18th century German philosopher Kant, beauty is a moral interest.
The word “interview” is composed of two parts: “inter”, which implies reciprocity, and “view”, which refers to sight; each looking at the other, trying to truly see. It is not a given that this is always successful.
A conversation, however, is different. The word derives from the Latin “conversari”, composed of “con” meaning “with” or “together”, and “versari”: to reside, to find oneself. It is a meeting – a graceful way of getting to know each other, or getting to know each other better. It is a way to agree upon certain behaviours and visions in order to truly share a physical place, as well as a state of being. In this conversation, we meet Brunello Cucinelli in Solomeo, Umbria, Italy. He reminisces that, The New York Times once published a map of must-see places in Italy – in which Solomeo was included along with Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. Cucinelli states this with no small amount of pride.
Despite the lockdown, and an obligation to talk through a screen, encouraged by both the pandemic and by a sense of caution, Solomeo is truly the location of our meeting – and not just because Il Sogno di Solomeo (The Dream of Solomeo) is the title of his book, in which he recounts his life story, the roots of his success, and his vision as an “entrepreneurial custodian”. Solomeo enters through the window, breathing audibly in the background of the words and thoughts which define our conversation. It speaks through Cucinelli’s expressions, bringing to light a kind of organised peace within his sense of time, its horizons are centuries-old, and reside in diligent silence. It speaks of a knowledge acquired through generations passed, to be shared with generations to come.
We are in Umbria, just 15 minutes from Perugia and only one hour from Florence. Only 800 people live in Solomeo – a stunning, almost-abandoned medieval village brought back to life by skilful restoration work led by Cucinelli over the last 25 years. The village of Solomeo was revitalised as an allusion to Rome, the city of Emperor Hadrian’s soul, according to French novelist and essayist Marguerite Yourcenar. Creativity needs a “genius loci”, a safe space. Cucinelli restored a village that was “robust, useful, and beautiful”, as instructed by Vitruvius. Onora tutti gliuomini (“honour all men”) is the inscription displayed in Solomeo’s Piazza delleArti, and is also the motto which inspired Cucinelli’s humanistic capitalism. He believes gift-giving to be one of the kindest forms of the soul, and he loves to give presents of homemade oils and wines; believing that, in every gift, there is also a piece of Solomeo.
Cucinelli’s love of philosophy, and his habit of allowing the great minds of history to dictate his approach to beauty, is also a lesson Cucinelli learned in youth as a farmer, when he used to pull the ox plough and till the fields. In the evenings, his father would encourage him to admire the beauty of those ploughed fields, the neat ridges stretching over the hills.
His sensitivity to the idea of living in harmony with nature was born from this, as was his ability to recognise that there is greater value in that which is carried out with beauty in mind. His more practical attention to the selection of raw materials also stemmed from these roots – his respect for producers and collaborators, and his ability to think in terms of centuries, not years. All this has rendered Brunello Cucinelli one of the world’s most famous luxury brands.
Beauty is also a form of truth. As three Buddhist monks remarked to him, upon visiting him in Solomeo, there are three things which cannot remain hidden: the sun, the moon and truth. In order to live well, beauty requires you to take care of your soul, your mind and your body. This is why, at Cucinelli’s company, at half past five in the evening, the computers are switched off, the working day completed. The body, mind and soul need a life outside work, to be able to look themselves in the eye and overcome the “soul-ache” that creativity can also help to alleviate.
To him, beauty is also a business method; his humanistic capitalism was not cast aside even during the crisis sparked by Covid, during which time Cucinelli did not let a single employee go, or ask for any discounts from producers or suppliers. This is part of an ethical business vision which considers humanity as an end, and never as a means; it is defined by considering the businessman as a “custodian of creation”. Developing this idea of being a custodian, Cucinelli sees that luxe can be interpreted as an orchestrator of sustainable development.
Brunello Cucinelli smiles. He likes the words of 15th century Florentine Republic ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent – “How beautiful is youth, / though quickly it does flee! / be happy if you want to: / for tomorrow may not come” – which recall an Italian sense of national pride. Although home to only 0.7% of the globe’s population, Italy boasts one of the the world’s top 10 economies; it excels at quality manufacturing and craftsmanship; it offers a welfare state which leaves no one trailing behind. He sees a great country and a golden era, in spite of the crisis. He does so with a pinch of the “Italiote”, as Plato called the people of Syracuse when he reached Sicily from Greece, “a population which feasts twice a day and never goes to bed alone”.
We are also like this, he says, before returning to consider the ideas of creativity and responsibility. “It really is possible to live in harmony with creation. And this makes us custodians, not consumers. I also think of my product as something to be desired, something to be inherited. That is why I chose cashmere. I wanted something that was already precious. I’ve learnt to transform it over time. I’ve made mistakes, had teachers and guardian angels that have helped me and taught me. But the principle was already clear to me, right from the beginning: to create beauty, you need to begin with something beautiful, from an exceptional raw material. And you also need to believe that it will last for centuries, not for years. Before it became fashionable, we had already opened a restyling and reusing department for our garments. Because, for a jumper to be beautiful and precious, it must also stand the test of time.”
“Verum factum”, as stated by 17th century Italian political philosopher Giambattista Vico: nothing is true unless it has been done. The humanistic capitalism in Solomeo is evident: an art of Renaissance-style trading which has taken over the world, yes. But it has done so with honour. It possesses a beauty which is markedly exclusive, moving against the crisis of civilisation. It is something that manages to make itself be considered as rare, something precious, only for you. It requires time, artisanal hard work and precision, fighting against the culture of impatience. In fact, Solomeo’s theatre is crafted from hand-cut stones, with walls built to endure. The company itself is located within a restored factory which opens out onto gardens and spaces where it is impossible not to inhale the surrounding beauty.
Most of the employees and managers within Cucinelli are young: this is because they are hard workers. It is also because beauty and fairness produce brilliance. Cucinelli is the one to engender this genius. “Oh, myesteemed men!” (O miei stimati uomini!) Cucinelli quotes Marcus Aurelius. It is from this statement that he has learnt to recognise value, to respect and admire, and to never rise above dignity. He applies the concept of remote working only when strictly necessary, because creativity dwindles and becomes degraded by a lack of human contact.
The story of humanistic capitalism is so long to recount (and so wonderful to hear) that Cucinelli has summarised it within his book, Il Sogno di Solomeo. These ideas, typically influenced by previous generations, took inspiration from the manual The Book of the Art of Trade by Benedetto Cotrugli – an Italian merchant during the Renaissance era – which speaks about “getting rich honourably”. One can choose whether to be “a seeker of work or a creator of work”: therefore, an entrepreneur is someone who creates development for themselves and for others. On one hand, there is the revaluation of the role of whoever decides to take this risk; on the other, there is the idea that they are doing so by enforcing a strong sense of ethic. A sort of return to business. An important lesson.
Cucinelli notes that, in Cotrugli’s story, this is fulfilled out of duty rather than pleasure. The death of his father in 1438 forced him to abandon his studies and take the reins of the family business. This was during a time when Italy was bestowing the Renaissance upon the world; and Cotrugli, who originated from Ragusa (currently known as Dubrovnik – which, at the time, was considered the fifth Italian Maritime Republic), was catapulted to Naples, in an environment where ethics and morals evidently left a lot to be desired. The family business, and by extension, he as the owner, “bought wool in Barcelona; turned it into cloth and thread in Florence and Prato, to then sell it on again in Constantinople and Venice”. Cotrugli travelled, visiting cities which formed the heart of that golden era. He breathed in the air of Florence, which was, at the time, Europe’s most powerful guild, and produced figures such as Donatello, Masaccio and Brunelleschi.
Among the 15 golden rules for “getting rich honourably” outlined within The Book of the Art of Trade, Cucinelli feels a “deep resonance” not only because of its modernity and its entrepreneurial insight, “but mostly for the system of values it imposes and passes on”, to “get rich honourably” by creating work and development with consistency. And he thinks back to the crisis, echoing the words of Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, as quoted by Cotrugli: we must not waver in the face of adversity or lose ourselves in our own prosperity. “Let’s talk about what this year has brought us, not what it has taken from us,” he states.
And this is the truest representation of a dedicated and kind businessman, who has spent half his time gazing up at the stars and loves to watch a fire flicker because it makes him “drunk on pleasant thoughts”. Life is blessed. We eat only what we must, so that there is enough for everyone. There was Seneca, there was Epicurus, and now there is the wonderful dream of Brunello Cucinelli and his beloved Solomeo. He spends his years contemplating centuries past and considering those to come. This, in itself, is a rare form of immortality.
In 2011, Cucinelli planted vines in the valley below Solomeo, and the first vintage of the wine made from this special site – 2018 Castello di Solomeo – is available from FINE+RARE. Read more about the project.
This article was originally published in FONDATA, Issue One