Fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli may have built a business that puts his personal worth in the region of €750 million, but he knows what it is to scrape by.
“Those early years of life are so formative: I have more money now than then but don’t feel much different about it, only that more funds mean the realisation of more dreams,” reckons Brunello Cucinelli. “It’s funny, but my father still isn’t really able to comprehend my wealth because he gets by on €500 a month. When he sees us taking on a [philanthropic] project he thinks it costs a few thousand, rather than tens of millions. But he appreciates the value of donation. He understands the point.”
Cucinelli, Italian fashion designer and purveyor of a minimalistic, carefully co-ordinated, international super-lux aesthetic — from ever-so-tasteful crown to cosy cashmere socks — may have built a business that puts his personal worth in the region of €750 million, but he knows what it is to scrape by; he was raised in a dirt-poor peasant farming family but his insistence on setting the dinner table just so and ironing his one pair of good trousers won him the nickname of ‘The Lord’. His sartorial role models were the landlords who, periodically, came to collect their money. Indeed, his memories of those times have cut deep.
“Seeing my father suffer in his work, how every day offered up some kind of humiliation, how he was living in a contemporary form of slavery, all that leaves a stamp on you for the rest of your life,” says Cucinelli, with genuine conviction. “I knew I wanted a company that gave employees dignity, not just in working conditions but in being part of something bigger.”
Working conditions, sustainability, land management, fair pay to and support of the 2,500 or so small-scale artisanal craftspeople across Umbria and Tuscany to whom the manufacture of many of his products is farmed out — all this is something Cucinelli says he’s big on, not least, he argues, because a better working environment makes for greater creativity. His position is easier given the kind of product he sells, and the prices he sells at, but he’s adamant that it’s “why I’m not impressed when other businesspeople tell me about how they’ve given money away to charity”, he says. “I’m much more interested in how they made the money in the first place. Tell me that, then we can talk.”
But it’s also why the designer’s philanthropic efforts have been focused on the very surroundings many of his employees live in. His business started small: it was 40 years ago this year that he spotted a gap in the market for more colourful cashmere sweaters, started dyeing them, and predicted an upward projection in demand for ever-higher clothing quality. From that small insight, season by season, a monolith was formed, a blend of the corporate (the company now produces huge seasonal collections and operates dozens of shops worldwide, an expansion powered by an IPO in 2012) and the intimate (both of Cucinelli’s daughters and his son-in-law hold senior positions in the business).
But over those decades he has also, piece by piece, been transforming Solomeo — the town where his company is based and where his wife was born — building, so far, a Forum for the Arts; a Square of Peace; a theatre; library; school; agricultural park; and public stadium. But latterly he has been casting his cash net further afield. In 2011 he paid for the restoration of Perugia’s Etruscan Arch. And this year he has been quietly having Norcia’s Torre Civica re-built — the 18th century heart of the Italian town that was devastated by an earthquake last year.
“Of course, everyone feels better after doing something good,” concedes Cucinelli. “And yes, it makes me feel good to do all this, although there’s no real correlation between the feeling and the size of the donation. But while I respect, say, the work of Bill Gates in fighting disease, for me it’s about saving the arts. That, so to speak, is a donation to mankind. It’s a different way of thinking.”
It is, perhaps, a typically Italian way of thinking too: several big Italian fashion brands have, over recent years, put their money into saving or restoring landmarks. “It’s clear that to be Italian is to be in love with the land one was born on,” Cucinelli jokes. But his are less glamorous, more heartfelt and, one suspects, less-calculated choices. Sure, he admits, philanthropy is good for business. After all, he argues, a new consumer sensibility is developing in which a brand’s actions increasingly count for as much as the quality of its wares. But if PR was his main concern, there are far more obvious causes to which he could give his money.
Rather, and one has to take Cucinelli at his word, he sees philanthropy not as something society expects of him so much as a duty. “When I was a young person I always imagined that I’d someday have the ability to give back. To me what I donate is simply what is due,” he says. “Philanthropy should be a very important theme in a life. You have to find the right balance between profit and donation.
“My grandfather, a farmer, would look to the sky and ask for the right amount of water and sunlight; just what he needed, not too little, not too much,” Cucinelli adds. “I want a correct profit, generated ethically. As for the rest of the money, I think we’re just custodians of the land and, at the end of my life, to leave it in a better condition than I found it would make me extremely happy. My father still lives in the country and doesn’t really grasp my financial position but he did once say that he hopes I don’t want to be the richest man in the graveyard. And I don’t.”