An audience with Italy's 'king of cashmere'
Italy's 'king of cashmere' tells Francesca Fearon about how philosophy has shaped his life and work
An hour with Brunello Cucinelli is not spent discussing colours, next season's shapes or spreadsheets. When we meet in Milan, just before the presentation of his spring-summer 2013 collection, he instead peppers the conversation with quotes from Aristotle, Kant or Confucius.
Philosophy is a passion that grips the 59-year-old founder and inspiration behind one of Italy's best-known luxury cashmere brands. In his library he has 3,000 books, including 350 on philosophy - many of which are translated languages such as Arabic or Chinese. He has a warm, generous personality and says it's so that if a friend comes to visit "they can sit in the evening with a cigar and a glass of wine and read something in their own language. It is a token of my hospitality."
Cucinelli, who stopped by Hong Kong this week as part of a tour of his Asian stores, is proud of the fact that he comes from a village in Umbria in central Italy near where Giovanni da Pian del Carpine set off on his travels to the court of Genghis Khan, well before Marco Polo's famous journey. He has eight boutiques on the mainland, and a 21-year partnership with Swank in Hong Kong.
Solomeo, a pretty, medieval, hilltop town in Umbria that he has rebuilt and restored, is the nerve-centre of his cashmere empire. Its 600-year-old castle, with frescoes dating back to 1398, is the company headquarters and where Cucinelli likes to spend most of his time, either designing or meeting customers.
He has evolved over 27 years a luxury lifestyle brand built on casual, laidback chic in a palette of muted shades. They are the kind of clothes that take you from your plane to your limo, to your ski chalet in winter, or yacht in summer. The look is both classic and modern with emphasis on detail and craftsmanship.
Cucinelli describes it as a very Western collection. "We [the Italians] have given cashmere a more contemporary taste, and I think 'Made in Italy', has its own allure." He explains how he loves the creative process, working with cashmere and overseeing the brand's visual imagery. "I enjoy feeling the fabrics, and when I meet someone - this may be my flaw - I reach out to touch their clothes to feel the fabrics."
The son of a farmer in Umbria, Cucinelli remembers an idyllic childhood until his parents moved to the city. His father found work in a factory but the humiliation heaped on him by his workmates affected his son. "That's when I decided that whatever I did in life I would definitely want to work to improve human dignity," he says.
It is a philosophy that dictates the humanistic way he runs his business, trying to infuse pleasure into the process of making clothes, and his generosity of spirit not only in renovating Solomeo, building a theatre and library for the inhabitants and employees, but other cultural and charitable works. In 2010 he received Italy's Leonardo Prize for contributions to business and culture.
"Between the age of 15 and 25 I was living in a bar, spending every evening debating politics, religion, women - that was my university of life," he says. Someone introduced him to a book by Kant, the German philosopher. "I fell in love with philosophy and started to think that it is the healing of the human soul."
He abandoned an engineering degree and at 25 came across the idea of manufacturing cashmere sweaters. Umbria is renowned for its knitwear but the colours were limited. Cucinelli says he didn't have a clue about cashmere, but he knew that he wanted to make something that was luxurious, so he had the idea of dyeing the pale cashmere sweaters into soft muted tones of beige, grey, blue and taupe. "Bright colours were never part of my DNA," he says.
Cucinelli was penniless but he must have had business acumen, because he took the dyed sweaters to northern Italy, where he heard they paid well and sold his first designs. He also took his creations to Germany and as his business grew, to the USA and Hong Kong.
He married his teenage sweetheart, Federica, and set up his factory in her village, Solomeo. As his business grew he started renovating the village - early every morning for 27 years he spent an hour with builders discussing the day's work - the castle, the church and his own 17th-century house, Villa Antinori.
He set about building a theatre in the village, which is designed to blend into the architecture. "I listened to what the great architects like [Andrea] Palladio had to say."
Cucinelli sees himself as a guardian of the village for the present and future generations. Creating something luxurious from a goat that lives in a remote, barren land has given him the means to do that.