Brunello Cucinelli: Fashion's Jean-Jacques Rousseau on being a humanist entrepreneur and the need for a social contract with creation
Besides staging the opening online from his headquarters in Solomeo, a medieval village he has restored into creative space, tailoring school and manufacturing district boasting its own theatre, Cucinelli also had time to celebrate his sponsorship of the restoration of Norcia, the city near Perugia devastated by the August 2016 earthquake. The designer paid for the rebuilding of the town’s Bell Tower, part of the 14th-century Basilica of St Benedict, a spiritual father of Cucinelli.
While over in France, Cucinelli opened a new boutique on Avenue Montaigne; and a brand-new showroom in the French capital. His Paris boutique, located inside the former store of Joseph opposite the five-star Plaza Athenée, brings to four the number of Cucinelli retail doors in the city.
Remarkably, given the huge impact of the pandemic on the fashion industry, the brand Brunello Cucinelli weathered the storm fairly well, or better than many competitors. In its most recent results, net revenues fell 17.5% in the first nine months of 2020 to €378.7 million.
So, we caught up with Brunello in a Zoom from his hamlet in Umbria, where 18 months ago he staged a Solomeo Summit, inviting a dozen hi-tech leaders from Silicon Valley to discuss how to be a humanist entrepreneur. An event that drew the likes of LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston; Twitter CFO Ned Segal, a handful of tech CEOs and investors, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.Three days in the Italian countryside to consider a more philanthropic vision of capitalism. Brunello is known to pay his workers some 20% more than average, and gave scores of them large bonuses when the company went on the stock market, a move that made Cucinelli Italy’s latest fashion billionaire.
Last week, Amazon announced that it would spend $2 billion creating affordable housing at its three new headquarters. Could the germ of the idea of building homes for his workers first been planted in Bezos’ mind at Solomeo?
Cucinelli, an avid reader of philosophy who often tosses quotes by the likes of Dante, Chaucer and the Emperor Augustus into his conversation, also has another new agenda, a call for a New Social Contract with Creation.
Fashion Network: What exactly do you mean by a New Social Contract?
Brunello Cucinelli: Well, as you know from Plato and Aristotle all the way to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, philosophers have discussed the idea of a social contract. Today, we have to envisage a new social contract, one that includes creation – where humans and animals, land and water live in harmony.
Hundreds of years ago, when we lived in the country we lived in harmony - harvesting and husbanding animals and using no fertilizer. It was a natural rapport. Today we need a fair profit and fair growth but with a fair relation with creativity. In our small hamlet there once were three wells and that was enough for a population of 400. Now we have 53 wells and a farmer nearby said to me the other day, ‘it’s not true that world that changed, but us.’ With our 53 wells, the level of the groundwater has fallen dramatically. 'Cause we wanted two harvests and not one. That’s why we a need a new sort of equilibrium. So my idea is to bring back the dignity of work.
FNW: You have met Jeff Bezos many times, both in Solomeo and visiting his home in Seattle. Do you think he shares your ideas?
BC: I want to say so -- that when he talked in Solomeo or in America Jeff always spoke about how he wanted to improve the world and to help people with their conditions of life. When he was in my house he got quite emotional, and I recalled that he said, “You know Brunello, I eat three meals a day like you.’ Which is of course. And I recall he said that this is time of humility and courage to improve the world.
FNW: How did the pandemic affect you and your house?
BC: It’s been a very particular year where I see three legacies. Following so much pain and sorrow we are not ready to accept arrogance anymore, but need kindness and grace. Then I believe we learned not to turn our back on poverty. I see few of us wasting any food. You know, a year and half ago, we asked some Buddhist monks to come here to Solomeo, and they said let’s eat a fair amount, but then set aside the rest for mankind.
In terms of creation I think everyone is determined not to damage the world or any of its creatures as we produce. Plus, there has also been the lesson of restoring and fixing what is damaged, and not just throwing it away.
FNW: Italy was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and its fashion industry too, no?
BC: Our nation has always been based on culture, beauty and architecture. We account for 0.7 percent of population of world, but we rank as seventh in the world economy. We rank second after Germany as Europe’s biggest manufacturers. Yes, we have debt, but we also have the best welfare state in the world. Did you know that back in the 16th century when you looked at the GDP of the world, 55% was from India and China? Back then, here in Italy we set up Monte di Paschi the world’s first bank. So, we have always been a culture mediating between Europe and the East, and that will continue.
The 250 years of Renaissance gave us a very important legacy. So I say to Italians, don’t forget: people love us. When I did a virtual road show going around the world, I discovered how much people love us. This past year has been painful but fascinating for our soul. We have gone through a sorrowful time, but are now entering a time of grace when we will need to look our best and avoid waste. I think we have become better people after the pandemic.
FNW: What was the toughest part about 2020?
BC: Curbing the pandemic. My father became 99 years of age, on April 1 last year. I noticed that day the cherry trees had blossomed, and he replied, ‘when it’s spring, they do.’ I asked him what was the best day of his life and he responded May 8, 1945, VE Day in Europe, when World War Two finally ended, and he came back from three years in the war. And to me now, the best day in my life was November 9, when scientists said the vaccine was available.
FNW: Qu'avez-vous pensé des événements de la semaine dernière à Washington?
BC: Je ne suis pas aussi négatif que de nombreux
FNW: What did you think of last week’s events in Washington?
BC: I have to say I am not so negative. The actual number of people was very small and this attack made us reflect. It means that we need to move to a world where relationships are more about love. We need a universal humanism and the courage to be open and welcoming to all. Six hundred years before Christ there existed the seven wise men, one of whom was Solon of Athens. He as such a good ruler they asked Solon to stay in power longer, but he replied, ‘No, because I could turn into a tyrant. From the throne of tyrant, no-one steps down alive.’
FNW: When was the last time you left Italy?
BC: In December 2019 when I went to New York. I always go in early December to see how the stores are looking and check out our displays.
FNW: How do you see fashion retailing evolving?
BC: Generally speaking, from next season, our stores will have to be modern and fascinating, and I firmly believe you cannot showcase last season’s product. Why would a consumer want to see that? I also am convinced that when the pandemic ends, I am going to restaurants seven days a week. We will all want to dress up and fondle fabric again. For our store in Paris, I wanted contemporary, fresh and with taste. When you go in, our people should be friendly and have good manners. When I step into my store I want to be met by a salesman who tells me I have lost a few kilos. A lovable advisor.
FNW: How has the Brunello Cucinelli style evolved in in 2021?
BC: I believe that after a year in T-shirts and polos people want to return to being very beautiful and dressed up. Like back in the 1920s after that war. People want bello e moderno. Easy chic but softer forms, a little wider silhouette; slightly shorter pants and knits that are a half-size larger.
Knitwear will also be very high on the agenda. With beautiful chenille roll-neck sweaters – in rich blues and greens. You know that down vests and jackets have always been part of my signature. Well, this season we’ve made knitted sweater and filled them with down; or covered a down jacket in a cashmere knit. Or we produced vests in knitted cashmere.
It’s really new in the market. Plus, we’ve included some broad chalk stripes. We are still making suits, but pairing them with turtle necks. It’s a deconstructed suit and a luxury comforter.
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