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Brunello Cucinelli: design philosopher

It’s not often that a fashion designer channels the wisdom of the ancients into his work. But as Peter Howarth discovers, Brunello Cucinelli is a man on a mission to educate and dress us

15 March 2022

Brunello Cucinelli
Solomeo's 18th century church
Brunello Cucinelli HQ in Solomeo
Sun-dappled Umbria, the home of Brunello Cucinelli

There is a little bit of Sloane Street that is forever sun-dappled Umbria. It’s at number 159, and is the home of one Signor Cucinelli, the maker of beautifully understated wardrobe pieces that exude a sense of effortless sophistication. 

This is not fashion, because it is not concerned with being fashionable. Instead, it is much closer to something we might call a timeless aesthetic. The people who wear Brunello Cucinelli are connoisseurs; members of a club that whispers its own good taste.

A trip to Solomeo, the 12th-Century medieval hamlet in Perugia, Umbria, where Brunello Cucinelli is based, explains a lot. The clues to the appeal of the clothes designed by this friendly, expressive Italian lie here: their evident excellent quality that speaks of skill and craftsmanship, their natural spirit, which comes from the use of luxurious wools and cashmeres in a colour palette that favours earth and water tones, and their relaxed construction, a nod to the type of comfort and functionality required of the working clothing of the countryside, rather than anything more metropolitan and formal.

It is a beautiful location, and this is important to the designer. He talks of how the ancient hamlet, which is his wife’s hometown, symbolises for him the idea of man living in step with nature. ‘It’s about harmony – our connection to the environment,’ he says. It’s also about beauty: ‘Beauty and nature feed the human soul.’

In Cucinelli’s office, with its expansive views of the countryside, a pile of footballs reveals the designer’s love of more down-to-earth pleasures, and it turns out that he still plays regularly with a group of friends. And yet look around and on a wall there is a gallery of portraits that make for intriguing viewing – what is Marcus Aurelius doing there along with Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Socrates, JFK and Italian comic Roberto Benigni?

Sitting at a big wooden table, Cucinelli explains: ‘Those are the people who inspire me – from philosophers to artists, musicians and comedians.’ But most of all, it would seem, philosophers. Because it doesn’t take long for the 69-year-old designer to start explaining how his reading of humanist and ancient philosophers has profoundly impacted his world view. ‘I believe passionately that if you understand the thinking of people such as Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus and respect the dignity of labour, you can create a happy working environment.’

‘I understand it has true value and I want my artisans who make my clothing and accessories to be respected and valued for their skills and craft.’

All this is reflected in the setting of Cucinelli’s HQ, which takes in the old town, and now spreads down the hill and through the surrounding landscape. A Neoclassical theatre he has built stages productions for the townsfolk and his staff, and a library he created is also open to all-comers. A Cucinelli-created vineyard produces local wine and there are schools he has opened with the express mission to train new generations in traditional skills. And while you might expect these to include a tailoring course, which they do, landscaping and stonemasonry are more of a surprise. The graduates don’t have to work for Cucinelli, though. His hope is simply that they will be educated both in a trade, and also in the values he holds dear. 

Cucinelli’s championing of what he calls ‘humanistic capitalism’ sees him paying his white collar and blue collar workers the same rates. ‘In the Renaissance, the carpenter had as much respect as the artist.’ He explains how his father was a farmer and that therefore he knows what manual labour is. ‘I understand it has true value and I want my artisans who make my clothing and accessories to be respected and valued for their skills and craft.’ To this end, he has not only provided them with access to the theatre and library in town, but also set up a restaurant in the factory where they are given lunch each day. 

This factory – where incidentally there is a required going-home time of 6pm, after which the firm’s electricity is switched off to prevent anyone staying late – is an old structure Cucinelli acquired when his operation outgrew the historic buildings in the town, and it sits at the bottom of the hill on which Solomeo perches. Typically, he renovated the place to improve working conditions, including the installation of large windows to introduce daylight and provide views onto the countryside and the fountains that were built as a focus for the eye. 

It’s all part of a programme of investment in Solomeo and its surroundings that started in 1985. This has seen the restoration of the medieval town and a local 18th-century church, the planting of a forest, the creation of the 200-seater theatre with its amphitheatre garden, the development of a vineyard and wine cellar, and the construction of a travertine marble monument called “Tribute to Human Dignity”.

Back in 1985, Brunello Cucinelli was building the cashmere knitwear business he’d launched seven years earlier with a loan of $550. Today, while cashmere is still a pillar of the Cucinelli look – both in knits and tailored pieces – the collections for women and men provide a full wardrobe that is subtly luxurious. The aesthetic manages to combine sporty influences with more traditional tropes – typically, deconstructed blazers, knitted sweatshirts, sneakers and drawstring trousers for men, and shirt dresses, cashmere and silk sweaters, down jackets, vests and coats for women. 

Ultimately, it is the designer’s contention that his belief in the power of beauty, the importance of respect for your fellow human beings, and the spirit of Solomeo and the passion of the people who work there making Brunello Cucinelli products, is all discernible in his collections, and contributes to their desirability. It’s impossible to prove such a claim, of course, but the serene, calm and unhurried atmosphere of number 159 Sloane Street, along with the palpable and undeniable elegance and comfort of its wares suggests he may be onto something.

Brunello Cucinelli is at 159 Sloane Street, SW1X 9BT

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