He was the Italian “Entrepreneur of the Year 2009”, has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Perugia and describes himself as a philanthropist. A farmer’s son, Brunello Cucinelli removed knitted cashmere from its conservative pigeonhole and revolutionized it. Today, an entire town depends on that snug idea.
The production of knitted goods has a long tradition in Umbria, a region of Italy with a more rugged landscape than its bigger neighbour, Tuscany. The finest yarns are spun and worked into premium-quality knitwear in small studios and workshops. When Cucinelli started producing cashmere jumpers in the small village of Solomeo in the late 1970s, cashmere was disparaged for being conservative and boring. Classically, it came in two understated shades: grey or brown. But then Cucinelli made it colourful. As simple as it was daring: when he started out, he had just two employees and seed money of no more than 500,000 lire in his wallet, and had yet to develop a procedure to dye the fine undercoat of the cashmere goats.
Ethical capitalismToday he employs almost 600 people and some 1,500 more work in the Umbrian workshops as suppliers. Cucinelli and his fifteen-strong design team, which also includes Cucinelli’s daughters Camilla and Carolina, have long combined cashmere with other natural materials, such as wool, silk, linen, leather and cotton. The new style models from the design department are sent along with the yarn to the workshop of Stella Salvatelli and her colleagues, located in one of the antique stone cottages of Solomeo. She crafts the prototypes with hand-operated knitting machines. Whatever the design department dreams up, she has to make a reality with her machine, which is sometimes quite tricky and can really test her patience, especially the final stitching: for example, attaching a collar to an evening dress that is intended to seamlessly connect together all of the finished component parts of the dress. Salvatelli attaches the parts to the needles of her machine stitch by stitch, then moves the carriage with the yarn to and fro by hand. One row in each direction. An additional challenge is caused by the unwieldy sequins that have been worked into the yarn. The prototypes are intended for the various producers; their workshops also produce items by hand. The particularly elaborate pieces are made entirely in the Cucinelli workshops. Other items come back to the heart of the company to be checked after each individual operation. There, behind the thick walls in the middle of the village, the workers draw the knitted fabric slowly over a backlight. Every single stitch has to be perfect; the holes have to be in the right places in the knitwear. If a stitch has been dropped or is too loose, Rita Tiradossi is called into action. She repairs everything that isn’t perfect with minute crochet hooks and darning needles. Cucinelli has even set up a dedicated training centre for the next generation. The entrepreneur values constancy. After all, he says, he is producing “for eternity”, because you don’t throw a cashmere jumper away.
“Beauty will save the world”The cashmere wool he uses comes from China and Mongolia, and Cucinelli probably knows each goat personally. He visits his suppliers at least once a year to ensure the quality of the animal husbandry. Which is the foundation for his company’s success. The fact that Cucinelli is an animal lover and a philanthropist even extends to the smallest details of his company philosophy of “ethical capitalism”. He restored Solomeo, had a theatre and a library built, and ensures that they are brought to life: he personally invites artists and musicians from around the world to perform there. More than half of the approx. 450 residents work for his company. “Beauty will save the world”: that Dostoyevsky quotation is Cucinelli’s maxim; it is written on a metal sign near the entrance. Even the company canteen provides sustenance not just for the stomach, but for the eyes, too: it looks like a restaurant. “Pleasant surroundings inspire creativity and make people work better,” says Cucinelli. Unsurprisingly, he also provides an hour and a half’s lunch break. And work is banned after 5:30 pm. Cucinelli is strict about that. After that time, no emails are sent and the machines are switched off. After all, people don’t live on work alone. Video: Behind the Scenes at Brunello Cucinelli
The craftsmanship, the passion, the perfectionism, the company values: those are the most essential criteria to make a sought-after brand. Something that you can best sense when you’re surrounded by the goings-on in the heart of the company. We have been permitted to visit the studios of the labels in the Goldenes Quartier and look of the shoulders of the creative minds who work there. Part 2 in the series: Brunello Cucinelli.