On a late summer evening as warm as one of his wooland-cashmere coats, Italian fashion brand CEO and self-styled “humanistic capitalist” Brunello Cucinelli held a peach up to his nose, closed his eyes, and inhaled. Then he invited me to do the same. Freshly picked from his own orchard in the Umbrian village of Solomeo, the blushing pink pesca bianca was fragrant, with a hint of wild strawberries; firm, with a slight give that promised juice; and still covered in the soft fuzz that its distant supermarket cousins rarely retain.
The peaches—whole, uncut—were among the spread of starters laid out by Cucinelli’s wife, Federica, and elder daughter, Camilla, for that evening’s dinner party (Camilla’s sister and fellow company director Carolina was away on business). There was buttery corn on the cob from the family’s kitchen garden; a mound of sheep-milk ricotta that still bore the imprint of the basket it had been made in; schiacciata (a sort of Umbrian focaccia with onions and zucchini embedded in its golden crust) made by Federica and cut into little toasted squares onto which Camilla was busy spooning black truffle paste; bruschetta topped with tomatoes, basil, and a thread of Cucinelli’s own extra-virgin olive oil; a whole plaited mozzarella di bufala from Battipaglia, south of Naples, that weighed 11 pounds; and a leg of Cinta Senese prosciutto that one of the guests, family friend David del Prete, was busy carving into transparently thin slices.
Three things struck me. First, how simple and seasonal these antipasti were. Second, how pretty much everything on the table except for the mozzarella was locally sourced, with most of the vegetables and fruit traveling around a hundred yards from garden to table. It took a good hour before the final surprise dawned on me: There were no helpers in sight all evening, no staff taking plates away or filling glasses.
Everything was done in the most natural way by the Cucinelli family and the 20 or so local friends they had invited. This level of authenticity and 360-degree worldview has been Brunello Cucinelli’s business model since the beginning. Founded in 1978 as just another knitwear company among the many in the district around the regional capital of Perugia, Cucinelli soon made a name for itself by focusing exclusively on brightly hued women’s cashmere sweaters before gradually expanding to full menswear and women’s-wear collections as well as a range of lifestyle products. Today it spreads across 126 boutiques and employs around 1,700 people worldwide; in 2017 it declared net revenues of nearly $600 million. And yet here he is, the man whose name the company bears, fit and dapper in a pair of artfully ripped jeans and a crisply pressed white shirt, telling me about his memories of growing up in a family of 13 that lived in a house with no electricity.
“On school days,” he began, “we kids would breakfast at 6:30. I used to go into the stable where my uncle was milking… and he’d take the cow’s teat and tug on it, and I’d drink the milk straight from the cow. Then I’d take a jug and go back into the house, where the bread was toasting on the fire.” His eyes glisten—and it suddenly occurred to me that for all its simplicity, that evening’s menu at Casa Cucinelli was a feast compared with the basic fare of the cashmere magnate’s youth in the village of Castel Rigone, when bread soaked in water with a little sugar sprinkled on top was considered a teatime treat.
Cucinelli sees a strong connection between a frugal, natural approach to feeding the family and the simple, self-denying culture of the early monastic orders that found fertile ground in Umbria—then a poor, pious region in central Italy. He tells me approvingly about the Benedictine practice of eating, in summer, one main meal at midday, and then an optional collation just before sunset. “We did the same at home,” he told me. “Dinner was a bit of bread, a bit of ham, a bit of vegetable broth, a bit of salad. Really light. You feel better. You sleep better. You lose weight.”
I wonder aloud about the paradox of a man who makes cashmere sweatpants that retail for $2,375 yet extols a monastic way of life that grew out of the rejection of ornament, ostentation, and an unhealthy attachment to material things. But Cucinelli, whose company channels part of its profits into a charitable foundation that he and Federica set up in 2010 with the aim of “making humanity more beautiful,” sees no contradiction. For him, luxury is not about excess but about excellence: “If I give you a piece of good bread from a wood oven and some really good olive oil…if I give you the best mozzarella I can find”—and here his voice drops to an intense whisper—“Sono una meraviglia. They’re a wonder.”
In the kitchen, Federica is dressed in the same elegant pair of terra-cotta-red palazzo pants and simple, striped, sleeveless blouse she’s been wearing all day (as a concession to dinner, she has added a black silk waist sash). She has just tipped a small mountain of rigatoni into a huge pan of fresh, homemade tomato sauce. Then she adds a ladleful of the starchy water the pasta was cooked in and stirs vigorously (ignored by so many pasta beginners yet second nature for most Italians, this process, known as mantecatura, helps to bind the sauce to the pasta). Finally, she grabs a handful of grated Parmesan and sprinkles it over the pan, stirring once more to blend. The perfect result, served utterly plain, without even the addition of fresh basil leaves, could be bottled and sold as “Essence of Italy.”
Earlier that day, I’d visited the company restaurant, where most of the roughly 1,100 staff who work in the Brunello Cucinelli factory, offices, or teaching facilities choose to eat during their 90-minute lunch break—not least because they pay a little more than $3.50 each for a three-course meal and access to an all-you-can-eat vegetable and salad buffet. As Federica serves the pasta, I mention to her how oddly similar my two Cucinelli dining experiences that day had been, in that both were about simple, seasonal food served in a convivial setting. She tells me the family provides the guidelines for the restaurant, which follows a chilometro zero approach and orders food directly from local farmers. (“Zero kilometers” is the new Italian sustainable cuisine mantra—it means assembling your ingredients within the closest possible radius.)
Soon the kilometers traveled by some of the ingredients will be even closer to zero. Though Solomeo has a pretty medieval historic center (its Cucinelli-restored houses are occupied today mostly by the School of Arts and Crafts, where Cucinelli sponsored courses on tailoring, horticulture, building in stone, and other artisanal disciplines are taught), the valley at the northern end of the city was until recently blighted by industrial warehouses, most of them erected in the 1970s.
As part of what he calls the Project for Beauty, Cucinelli bought all six warehouses and tore them down between 2014 and 2017. Where they once stood, the Umbrian entrepreneur has created a landscaped industrial park around the main company factory and offices; a 173-acre agricultural park that is being planted with grapevines, olive, fruit, and nut trees, corn, wheat, and sunflowers; and a recreational area for the children of his employees. There’s a winery and an olive press, which, when fully up and running, will turn out Cucinelli-label wine and olive oil (“If the wine’s horrible,” Cucinelli joked before dinner, “we’ll just buy some good stuff and switch the labels”). He sees this greening of the land around Solomeo as “a little example of a cared-for, curated periferia.… People who work here will be able to go for a run in the park and eat fruit directly off the trees.”
A CEO who, at times, seems more of an enlightened landowner or a benevolent country priest, Cucinelli clearly cares deeply about the physical, spiritual, and cultural welfare of his flock. Built over eight years by local craftsmen on a site just below the old village center and inaugurated in 2008, the handsome, Renaissance-style Teatro Cucinelli is studded with the busts of eminent Romans from Hadrian to Cicero. It hosts staff meetings and seminars, a season of plays and concerts, and the annual Villa Solomei music festival. Nearby is a library open to company workers and villagers, who can use it for everything from quiet reading to choir practice. Marble plaques dotted around the village bear edifying quotes by Socrates, Confucius, Goethe, and other illustrious men.
The same serious dedication to philosophers and men of letters is evident in the books that lie in neat piles on the floor of Federica and Brunello’s dining room, cluster around busts of stern, bearded Greeks, or nestle together, by subject, in the Palladian-style wooden bookcase that frames the couple as they sit at the head of a wide antique table, chatting with their guests. Federica comes and goes with consummate ease, working almost wordlessly in tandem with Camilla to keep the food and conversation flowing. When small, delicious plates of panzanella arrive—a Tuscan salad of bread, cucumber, and tomato served with a few torn basil leaves, a splash of olive oil, and a splash of white wine vinegar—I start worrying about how I’m going to politely refuse the main course.
But true to the couple’s light approach to dinner, the panzanella, which most Italians would consider part of the first course, turns out to be the closing salvo.
As we adjourned to the terrace and Camilla circulated a large plate of those thrillingly good white peaches, this time cut into slices and served with toothpicks for spearing, Brunello handed me a glass of Dom Pérignon 2006. I wondered for a second if Signor Cucinelli, whose boyish sense of humor had emerged more than once in the course of the evening, was playing an elaborate joke. Dom Pérignon was a Benedictine monk and cellar master who pioneered some key champagne-making techniques in the late 17th century—so the champagne was a fitting nightcap for a Benedictine dinner, despite its luxury cachet.
The closing act of a dinner that has been all about good food, good wine, and good company was a plate heaped high with Dai Dai—individually wrapped vanilla gelato cubes covered in dark chocolate, which speak to older Italians of a lost world of dolce vita, beach parties, and smiling, ponytailed girls on Vespas.
They disappeared in no time at all, and I couldn’t help thinking as I ate mine of how Brunello Cucinelli first arrived in Solomeo, aged 17, on his Kawasaki motorbike to court Federica, whose family had a clothes shop there. Then, Solomeo was an obscure little village near Perugia that nobody outside Umbria had heard of. Now, the couple’s daughter Camilla told me, it has become a legend for many of the brand’s clients worldwide: “They come here to see if this Solomeo really exists—or if it’s just a fairy tale.”