First you must understand that we are dealing here with a man who is at home quoting Saint Francis, Plato, Rousseau, and Theodore Levitt. He enjoys talking about globalization of markets, the history of the Industrial Revolution, and the socialism of George Bernard Shaw. He is very interested in the idea of Ethical Humanism in the business world, which is the way he runs his own company.
Not to mention that he is handsome, has a beautiful wife and children, and lives and works in what surely must be one of the most lovely villages in the world.
We're speaking of Brunello Cucinelli, founder of the cashmere knitwear manufacturing company that bears his name. The man himself is sometimes called "the Franciscan of cashmere" for his enlightened managerial views and practices. These practices have resulted in the Solomeo Project, a manufacturing model he calls "a humanistic enterprise in the world of industry."
The product itself—if indeed one can refer to the results of craftsmanship as a "product"—on which the name Cucinelli rests is cashmere. Which is somewhat like saying that the product of Mozart is musical notes. This is the finest Mongolian cashmere heightened by exquisite contemporary design. Woven in two- to 12-ply weights, in classic models and haute designs (models incorporating shearling or leather and featuring color-contrasting zippers or hook-and-eye closures), the styling is at once modern and sensual.
There is the sense of stylistic contradiction being resolved on a higher plane—a tone of peasant chic which bypasses the trendy fashions of mass production—that mirrors the work philosophy at Cucinelli, where the artisan has an intimate relationship with technology. The insouciance of a chiffon back on a cashmere sweater provides a graceful note of whimsy, a beauty that doesn't take itself too seriously.
And then of course there's the rich array of colors. Brunello Cucinelli was the first to introduce color in a big way to cashmere, which had previously been confined to the white-tan-gray realm. Now the collection runs the rainbow from berry and citrus shades to jewel tones and pastels. And no matter how bright the hue, there is always a subtlety that can be found only in cashmere.
This is all a result of meticulous craftsmanship, because what Signor Cucinelli is really interested in is bringing the age of the artisan back into fashion. Originally from Castel Rigone (an early influence was Saint Francis, from nearby Assisi), he founded a small knitwear factory in Perugia with a loan of 500,000 lire in 1978. At first he was a one-man band, doing everything himself, including answering the phone in the disguised voice of a nonexistent secretary.
One day in 1985, while driving out of Perugia, his gaze happened to light on the distant village of Solomeo. Situated at the foot of the Umbrian hills, it had cottages, a 13th-century castle, a villa, and a 17th-century park, most of which were on the verge of ruin. He decided almost instantly that it was the perfect place for his future, and spent the next 14 years buying these structures and restoring the village.
Today, amid the stone arches and fireplaces, the terra-cotta floors and frescoed walls, there's a "factory of craftsmen" to ensure the survival of this wonderful historical legacy. This seems to be a particularly Italian idea, conjoining craftsmanship and technology, returning man to the center of creativity, and revering the past while looking ahead.
The Solomeo Project is about an entrepreneur who decided to reverse the 19th-century industrial trend in which workers were merely inarticulate cogs. At Solomeo, Cucinelli took the chance to test his beliefs spiritual and temporal, his sense of stewardship, and his ideas about teamwork for the future, reinvestment of profits, and making the work environment the basic impetus for production. Virtually every worker has the keys to the factory, the 13th-century castle restored and outfitted with all the modern amenities (including a restaurant-quality cafeteria) but a time clock. Artisans don't flourish with time clocks and assembly lines.
This synthesis of seemingly disparate points of view is indeed very much in the Italian mind, Brunello Cucinelli muses. "What else was Florentine humanism, he asks, if not the synthesis of two realities—the Eastern and Western ones—confronted with one another?" In an era of overhyped media personalities, pseudo-events, disk-driven fashion, and history more as a matter of decor than an accurate accounting of the past, Cucinelli is a man who indeed knows his past, and is ready for his future.
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