Brunello Cucinelli on being Italy's king of cashmere

Fancy a cardigan for €3,000? Then Brunello Cucinelli is your man. MT visits the cashmere billionaire in his Umbrian castello.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2016

It's shortly before Christmas in the Umbrian village of Solomeo. The frost lies on the ground, thin but crisp and even. Inside, Brunello Cucinelli, Italy's newest billionaire, is getting ready to address the young troops of his eponymous cashmere company at the end of what has been a very satisfactory year.

Founded in 1978, Cucinelli part-listed on the Milan bourse in 2012 and the shares have more than doubled in price since then. Last year, the company powered through the €300m turnover mark. Like many luxury houses, Cucinelli has got through the global economic slump in fine fettle. Its 90 stores across the world are ticking over very nicely.

He has a special gift for each and every one of his gathered employees. 'Si. I am giving them donkey shot.'

'Donkey shot?' I look baffled.

'Si. Donkey shot.'

Perhaps it's some weird Italian version of the Mexican pinata, the ass-whacking game performed with a stick. Except that here they do it with a pistol after a few Christmas Peronis. Seeing I'm confused, out he rushes and comes back with a hardback version of the Cervantes classic Don Quixote.

It's all down to the pronunciation. (Our interview is being conducted in Italian with Pietro, a bilingual comms guy who struggles manfully to reproduce the full rococo panoply of Cucinelli's Italian.)

Such a present is typical of Cucinelli. He is not only a doer - one of Italy's most successful entrepreneurs - but a thinker as well. In a global garment industry beset by the sort of employment practices that led to the Rana Plaza building collapse disaster last year in Bangladesh, Cucinelli is trying to rework the warp and the weft.

He's on a mission to create a more benevolent, non-exploitative and humanistic capitalism with Saint Benedict as his guide - 'Try to be strict and sweet, a demanding master and loving father.'

The walls of his office are lined with framed portraits of the thinkers he admires: from Socrates, Marcus Aurelius and Thomas More to Wittgenstein, Gandhi and, bafflingly, Barack Obama. Our interview is a whirlwind of pencil sketches, quoted insights from John Ruskin, William Morris and Theodore Levitt, a 1960s marketing guru and one-time editor of the Harvard Business Review. Chats with Tommy Hilfiger, one suspects, are not like this.

Cucinelli operates in what is known in the trade as the absolute luxury sector. The lower levels are, in descending order, aspirational luxury and accessible luxury. Gucci and Zegna are aspirational. Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren are accessible.

Cucinelli is neither. Being absolute means embodying 'elitism, iconic status, heritage and uniqueness'. He crafts the sort of 'luxury sportswear' in which you step from the Lear at Aspen or Biggin Hill airport into your limo. Both Prince William and Daniel Craig wear the cardies, which, at up to €3,000 a pop, are the kind of sportswear that doesn't feature fleece. Neither does it have much in common with Chelsea's latest away strip.

Cucinelli - the man and his products - comes in tasteful but never overstated goat-coloured hues. Each year, Cucinelli is out there on the Mongolian plain at shearing time, negotiating with the herdsmen for the finest threads going.

The clothes are all made in Italy, 80% of them in Umbria. The company uses an outsourced network of hundreds of craft workers in many dozens of small family businesses.

In Solomeo, half the inhabitants work for Cucinelli and he has spent great sums restoring the village, a scheme described by the New Yorker as 'a peculiar fantasy of beneficent feudalism'. He has even constructed a 240-seat theatre in 16th-century architectural vernacular from scratch, with B. CUCINELLI CVRAVIT A DOMINI MMVIII inscribed over the portico.

In a country where much of the ancient built heritage is falling to bits, it's very odd to see a brand-new Renaissance building. It looks slightly Poundbury but will weather nicely over the next 400 years.

Sante Castignani, Solomeo, restored by Cucinelli

The business began 36 years ago when Cucinelli bought a small volume of cashmere and made half a dozen sweaters that he dyed in bright colours a la Benetton. He got an order for 53 pieces from a northern Italian retailer.

'That made me feel like Alexander the Great,' he has noted. Previously a bit of a misfit and dreamer who had dropped out of engineering school at 24 and drifted around in bars, and even considered the priesthood, he'd finally found his way in life.

He was and remains hugely influenced by the unhappy working life of his father, Umberto, who is now 92. Cucinelli senior was a farmer who left the land to labour miserably in a Perugia cement factory. The subsequent loss of dignity affected the youngest of his three sons deeply. With his father poverty-stricken and humiliated, Brunello wasn't much happier having the mickey taken out of him at school because of his rustic dialect.

'Throughout the company's history, I have invested everything in human dignity, always believing that working in the best conditions makes people more creative, ingenious and responsible,' he wrote in his book, Solomeo: Brunello Cucinelli - a humanistic enterprise in the world of industry.

His staff are very young - the average age of a manager is a mere 31. Cucinelli is able to pay his people around 20% above what similar employers offer. He's open about how he can do this, citing the fact that the price of his products to retailers is around 11 times what they cost to produce.

They appear to be a contented lot, working away with great care at pieces of woven cashmere under a magnifying glass. The working day runs from eight am to 5.30pm.

There is a subsidised canteen that looks more like a posh monk's refectory where everyone can sit together and be served delicious homemade food for only a few euros. Everyone has a compulsory 90-minute lunch break. Cucinelli himself has a 20-minute snooze. (If he's in the New York showroom, he takes an armchair and puts on his shades before napping.)

Twenty per cent of the company's annual profit goes to charitable causes. A product ad from a while back read: 'According to Dante, Virtue and Knowledge save Man from Brutality.'

Staff are paid 20% over the going rate

Wildly eccentric, romantic and a trifle unworldly it may all seem, but Cucinelli's belief system, combined with his optimism and dynamism, are refreshing in a country where resigned fatalism is the more frequently observed norm. (Neither can you argue with the rock-solid numbers that this very individual brand creates.)

Italy has a poor reputation for ease of doing business - in the World Bank Index, it comes 65th, below Kazakhstan and Botswana. So does he feel that he has had to struggle against the odds to achieve so much for what, by Italian standards, is a relatively new company?

'This is the way it goes here. I know when I want to build a new factory - as we are doing - it will take five years.' But he refuses to whinge. 'Too often in Italy, we find excuses to make up for our lack of competitiveness. Too many people say life is too difficult. In Italy and in Europe, we just have to accept that there is no room for us in the lower end of the manufacturing market. China and now India can do this. But there remains plenty of space in the higher-end, luxury sector. I really believe the best is yet to come for Europe.'

This may provide little succour for the 41% of Italian youth who are on the dole. But he has what might appear an unsympathetic answer to this. 'In Italy, small manufacturers have little kudos. Young people don't want to say they work in some small factory because they. feel it removes their moral dignity.' Needless to say, when Cucinelli recently advertised positions for the company craft training scheme in cashmere manufacture it was 15 times oversubscribed.

Back in 2008 when Lehman Brothers went bust, ushering in the Bad Times, a great shiver went through the luxury goods business. Surely £2,500 cardigans were in for a hard time? He got his people together and told them he had enough money in the bank to keep going for 18 months.

'I said tomorrow will be another day. Don't be scared. We'll all work harder and be more creative. Ruskin said: "If it's beautiful and true it will be useful." And in 2009 we produced our most beautiful collection in our history and got the biggest order book. This was because people felt esteemed.'

Cucinelli remains, despite his great success, small and independent. Italy does very well in the world of luxury but has no large conglomerate that brings different brands together. There is no Milanese equivalent of the French aggregators LVMH and Kering.

Why couldn't he become the Italian Bernard Arnault, the veteran boss of LVMH? 'These are finance people,' he replies. 'I am a true industrial person. We are very many in Italy and being separate means we can co-operate and share. I can ring Luxottica (the glasses maker), for example, to compare ideas.'

This independence also means the firms are often fierce, proud rivals. A few years back when an Italian dealmaker proposed getting Prada and Armani together to consider a merger - Giorgio is 80 this year - the Master of the Universe moaned: 'I couldn't even get them into the same room.'

So Cucinelli could never see himself at the head of the table, the capo of a mighty conglomerate including Maserati, Bulgari and the finest Barolo vineyards? 'I want to be in charge of one brand,' he responds. 'My brand. Our businesses are our little children. We want to see them grow and become successful in the world. And we want to keep hold of them until we are old.'

He's slightly opaque when it comes to queries about the succession. Cucinelli has two daughters, Camilla and Carolina, in their early 30s and 20s, respectively, both of whom are involved in the business, but he doesn't seem to regard it as a conventional family outfit. Whatever succession plans he has, he is keeping the finer detail to himself.

'You cannot inherit a company. You can acquire the ownership but not the ability to run it. As far as my daughters are concerned, I want them to do what they wish to with their lives. And when my time as custodian of this company is over, I will make a little step aside. Old men cannot speak of the future.'

He's very keen on promoting from within and each senior role has an apprentice or collaborator ready to take it on eventually. And, anyway, why should he think about giving up? He's in remarkable nick for 60, still playing football twice a week in the midfield with his old friends in a stadium he had built. He also swims and does plenty of yoga. His new institutional investors in the UK and US have faith in him and his vision.

That's all very well, I say to him, but his clothes are fantastically expensive, well out of the reach of middle income - never mind poor - people. He occupies a fortunate bubble in the world of commerce.

'My daughter rang me from Milan the other day. She'd seen a pair of very nice trousers in a shop for €19. In 2014 the world is transparent. We all now know how you make trousers for €19. How much of that went to those who made them? I try to make a gracious profit. Neither do I want to be the richest man in the cemetery.'

He also makes a point about what has become excessive consumerism in the area of clothes - the throwaway Primark piece. 'When I was small, my parents bought me a beautiful coat. They made a real sacrifice to get it. For four or even five years I wore it at school. And I had one pair of trousers which my mother would iron every night ready for the morning ... I've had my Ray-Bans for 35 years. That jacket there is three years old. I just bought a Bentley, which is beautiful. Before it I had a Jaguar that was 16 years old.'

La vita may be dolce in Solomeo but in Italy things remain tough. The country had been enduring years of flat growth before the downturn when others were booming. As we were speaking, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was speaking to the nation and warning of 'widespread social tension and unrest' for Italy as the Long Slump carries on. To sceptics, eurozone membership looks like an inescapable trap that has put social cohesion under real strain.

On the long drive back to Rome airport in the dark we pass a demonstration on a roundabout. The protesters are huddled around a brazier. Through the darkness you can make out the banners of I Forconi (The Pitchforks), a disparate but growing group of anti-austerity protesters. Their existence shows that there are large, angry sections of Italian society that don't feel represented by anyone - political parties, trade unions or business.

Cucinelli has been careful to steer clear of direct political involvement, although he was noticed at a recent meeting addressed by Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence and new leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, who has been hailed as Italy's late-arriving Blair/Obama.

As a driven entrepreneur, Cucinelli has to believe things will get better. His boundless optimism will not even allow any criticism of the European Project.

'The United States of Europe is a great idea and I think the next decade will be special for Europe. I have always loved Britain and what it stands for. Not just your art and culture but for me it embodies reliable rigour. I just feel sad that you stay outside Europe. I wish you were more involved.'

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