A visit to the Brunello Cucinelli factory in the Umbrian countryside in the heart of Italy is an unusual introduction to the world of high-end fashion manufacturing.
Pulling up to the complex right outside the city of Perugia feels more like visiting a modern monastery, rather than a facility that makes some of the country’s most finely crafted clothes.
And, much like in a monastery, I see how at a regular point in the early evening, work stops and silence descends. The company has a strict no-work policy after 5.30pm.
The impressive atmosphere of the place is the result of the sprawling intellectual ambition of Brunello Cucinelli, 69, who, despite growing up in rural poverty, is now firmly entrenched in the most elite circles of Italian industry. Although, interviewing him, I quickly get the sense he is prouder of being in more humble ones.
Cucinelli enters his office pondering out loud the afterlife and the friends that will help him get there. It very much sets the tone for the next hour and a half.
“If I don’t get even a tiny spot in paradise I’m going to be very upset. I have all these friends, friars and monks, whom I help out. They say they are praying for me in return,” he says with a laugh. His service to them is in large part helping with the upkeep of the historic places in which they reside and worship.
“I have this passion for guardianship and safekeeping, you see. They have always been my guiding principles. When you restore something and know that it’s going to be there for the coming centuries, you have not spent or squandered your money. It means you are guarding something for the future,” Cucinelli says.
I fear that my opening questions about the brand’s autumn/winter 2022 collection may fall a little flat after an introduction like that. But there is no need to worry. The answers to my questions do not interrupt his grand train of thought.
“Our collections have always been contemporary,” he says, turning to observations on history to support his point. “If you look at style after the trauma of Spanish flu at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a decade when people wanted to dress elegantly. After two years of the pandemic, we feel similarly, wanting to feel sleek, refined, elegant, polished.” His autumn/winter collection is just that.
Labelled In The Elements, the approach, in typical Brunello Cucinelli style, is to focus first on comfort and quality. From there, a Nordic style emerges, a slight diversion for the very Italian company.
Cucinelli stresses, however, that the core principles of his collections never change. “Our company still cherishes the feeling that when we buy something, we truly appreciate it, we don’t ever want to throw it away.” Or, in other words: “John Ruskin stated that when you build, always remember to build for eternity. Beautiful isn’t it?”
His clothes are designed to be enjoyed, restored and reworn. The lightweight blue suit jacket he is wearing perfectly exemplifies this. It was made in 2014 and he has been pictured in it many times before. It is this approach that distinguishes Brunello Cucinelli collections from the more radical season-by-season aesthetic shifts seen from other designer labels.
This flexibility also means that the brand works in all corners of the globe. Until this point our conversation has focused on European tailoring and tradition. But when I switch to questions about the Middle East, he does not skip a beat.
“I’ve been studying Islamic culture for two decades now,” Cucinelli tells me, expounding his love for the medieval Arab philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun and the Persian polymath Avicenna, among many others. One year, his Christmas gift to his staff was a copy of the Quran.
When it comes to the Middle East, he sees a particularly interesting business opportunity because Italian and Arab culture, in his mind, are similar. One of the 10 principles in his manifesto on Humanistic Capitalism, which he presented to the G20 Summit last year, is respect for forefathers, because “they taught us to respect the law, and our story is written in their words”. In our conversation, he calls family one of the three great ideals, something to which many in Middle Eastern societies would relate.
Aesthetics are similar, too. The traditional clothes of the Gulf focus on understated style and comfort. “I like this comparison very much. We are a no-logo brand, and after a five-year cycle when fashion has been on the flashier side, I think the next few years will see a focus on simple, linear elegance. Chic, but not too much.”
Most of all, he recognises in the Gulf a similar optimistic energy to the one that has driven his success. “There is something brewing in that part of the world,” he says at one point.
Cucinelli’s plans to consolidate his brand’s presence abroad are clearly getting the same intellectual treatment as his European operation, then. But however global his label might become, it will always be rooted in Italy.
For all the talk of a global future, the way our conversation goes implies that his vocation remains guarding the best of Italy’s humanistic past, in a modern market that all too often decimates the traditional way of doing things. It is a battle that needs to be fought. Twenty-first century economics has not been kind to rural Italy. An increasing number of young people are leaving countryside villages for the cities, a trend seen all over western Europe. In Spain, France and Italy, it is now possible to buy abandoned villages for tiny prices.
Cucinelli has used his commercial success to keep one of these hamlets not just alive, but thriving. The village of Solomeo, which is perched on a hill just above the factory, is now the spiritual home of the company, with a Renaissance-style theatre and amphitheatre, as well as a vast humanities library that is currently under construction.
Perhaps most importantly of all, I am shown an old stone studio in which five young tailors are being paid by the designer to learn the difficult art of suit-making. It could hardly have been a more successful example of keeping a proud tradition going in modern Italy, by using the best of sustainable capitalism.
The impression of the visit is that Cucinelli’s brand has been built up around strong ideals, not in spite of them. Fashion is obviously an industry that knows how to put on a show, and it is the case that the company’s philosophical message serves as a form of branding. But there is proof enough in our conversation and tour of something deeper. Quite simply, he treats his staff, culture and environment well.
“I am basically here to help take care of creation,” Cucinelli says. Whether that’s nurturing the next generation of artisans or an increasingly global business, there is a strong sense that this part of the world, which might otherwise be scarred by less sustainable industry at best, desolated at worst, is now thriving and full of life.
His final line at the end of this remarkable presentation? “Don’t be afraid.” He might mean many things. For my part, I feel less afraid that modern fashion and industry must necessarily harm the planet and human dignity.