An enduring Umbrian passion and minute attention to detail lie behind the seemingly effortless chic of Brunello Cucinelli’s sumptuous clothing, says Lucia van der Post.
When it comes to a certain sort of relaxed, nonchalant luxe it’s hard to beat the clothing made by Brunello Cucinelli. Dubbed, some years ago now, the ‘Cashmere King’ by the Wall Street Journal, these days he purveys complete casual wardrobes for those (both men and women) who share his tastes and have wallets sufficiently fat to indulge them. For Cucinelli clothes do not come cheap: they are the hautest of haute luxe.
Cashmere is where he started out and he is still determined to use nothing but the finest of materials — soft-as-butter cashmere, swishy silks, tender suedes and shearling, gentle flannels… He seems, almost like no others, to make the most glamorous and luxurious of garments seem somehow insouciant. His clothes never have a hint of the showiness or pomposity that is the danger zone for some high luxe brands, and yet at the same time he avoids that other hazard of the would-be stylish: the aggressively austere and understated that can so easily veer towards the dull. He has a way of adding glamour (one fashion writer was so overcome on seeing what she called his ‘insanely glamorous’ coats that she devoted a whole page to his wares) without making them ever seem swanky.
When it comes to men’s clothing, he has softened the traditional look, giving it just the right degree of insouciance, removing the stiffness and formality. For instance, he takes the standard double-breasted jacket and makes what he calls a ‘one-and-a-half-breasted’ version (the overlap is smaller). He mixes fabrics in unexpected ways — putting, for instance, a denim shirt with a tuxedo jacket. He takes the casual bomber jacket but makes it in the most beautiful and elegant of cashmeres. He is addicted to the gilet, which can be zip-fronted or button-fronted, with a V-neck or round-neck, and comes in all manner of fabrics. His gilets are designed to be teamed with anything from a slightly more formal jacket to a parka or a city suit.
In his women’s ranges he always adds a surprising touch or two. He’ll stitch some sparkly sequins into an otherwise formal sweater, or allow a frilly piece of floral silk to peep out from a plain cashmere V-neck dress. On his cardigans he might add a sparkly string, almost like a necklace, or a flower or cut-away hole in the shoulder. Always there is something to delight. For last winter he created this range of ‘insanely glamorous’ coats — beautiful cashmere paired with generous fur-trimmed hoods.
Cucinelli’s success has been phenomenal. He started with a range of cashmere sweaters — which he produced entirely, he says, to catch the eye of a girl he fancied who ran a small knitwear shop. To make them stand out from the crowd he coloured them in glorious fondant colours, which back then wasn’t the way cashmere was usually treated. But perhaps even more unusually he was exceptionally fastidious about how they were made. As a passionately proud Italian, he not only wanted them to be truly fine and beautiful, he also wanted to support small artisanal ateliers and their craft-based skills, and their Italian roots are a large part of their appeal.
It wasn’t long before they were picked up by the beau monde. In 1977 he’d had the canny notion of opening a small shop every summer in Sardinia’s Porto Cervo, the epicentre of the smart yachting set. Today the business is reckoned to be worth some €1.21 billion, with more than 100 stores besides hundreds of other outlets in department stores and the like. Both sales and profits grow year on year.
But perhaps even more compelling than the clothes is the back-story. Cucinelli was born into a poor farming family in Umbria and still tells tales of pulling the oxen, and of how he didn’t live in a house with electric light until the family moved into a village when he was twelve.
But it’s not just his clothing, hotly desirable though it is, that makes him so admired, it’s that in the small Umbrian hill town of Solomeo, where he has his headquarters and many of his workshops, he is forging a special kind of relationship with those who work for him. Because he has a successful business he can pay his workers 20 per cent more than is standard in the industry. And beyond that it allows him to create beauty around him. In the hilltop town he is busy restoring its ancient buildings — healing, as he puts it ‘the wounds that time had wrought on the old houses and streets’, adding fountains, an Aurelian Library, a Square of Peace, and a theatre.
Through his Fondazione Brunello e Federica Cucinelli he has launched ‘A Project for Beauty’, which is designed to ‘support and enhance the value of the beauty and dignity of the land, with the idea of being able to leave behind, to those who will come after us, a territory more beautiful than when it was passed down to us’. So today he is busy creating parks and orchards, vegetable gardens, vineyards and olive groves.
‘The land,’ he has declared, ‘will be cultivated with a respect for nature and its produce will be used for local consumption and in the company dining halls.’ Cucinelli bases himself and his family in Solomeo, where he has created a fine restaurant for the workers and has started a project to teach the skills his business needs so that they may be passed on.
He believes deeply, passionately, in the dignity of work. Seared into his memory is the distress he felt at watching his beloved but poorly educated father being humiliated by fellow workers when he turned from farming to working in a factory. He felt then that all work was dignified and wanted to make sure that no worker of his ever would be treated the way his father was. He always dreamed, he says, of ‘being able to endow labour with moral and economic dignity, imagining the possibility to create a sort of contemporary capitalism which I call humanistic’.
With his projects in Solomeo, Cucinelli is forging a new, 21st-century way of looking at luxury. For him there is no luxury, or no decent sustainable luxury, if the workforce isn’t treated respectfully, if there is a lack of beauty around to sustain them. His is an entirely holistic approach — beauty begets beauty, he believes. He is a philosopher, a thinker, a man who effortlessly quotes Aristotle and Virgil and whose approach to creating a business has been influenced by some of the great thinkers of the past, as well as by his own deeply felt personal history. He is an unusual proprietor of one of the world’s most sought-after and fastest-growing luxury brands, but one that perhaps others might seek to emulate.
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