SINGAPORE (Oct 8): Major designer labels choose fashion capitals of the world — Milan, London, Paris and New York — to locate their headquarters. But not Brunello Cucinelli. He started his eponymous label in 1978 in the small town of Solomeo in the province of Perugia, Umbria in central Italy and it is still there today.

It all started in a small workshop (40 sq m) that churned out high-quality cashmere sweaters. Over the years, an increase in awareness of these exquisite designs drew global attention and with the expansion in orders and clothing line extension, the company moved to a castle in the mid-1980s.

In September this year, about 500 print and broadcast media from Italy and all over the world descended on this historical hamlet to view the manufacturing facility and the surrounding areas in Solomeo, which some have called “the city that Cucinelli built”.

For the first time, the media was allowed into the sprawling 30,000 sq m facility, where about 1,700 employees work on various aspects of the business that cover design, sewing, the warehouse and administration. The walk-through was a rare chance to observe some of the design and manufacturing processes that produce garments known for their quality and reliability.

The Brunello Cucinelli facility covers 30,000 sq m and has about 1,700 employees

We witnessed how each piece of knitwear is stitched together, before it is inspected by another group of people. Garments that do not pass the stringent quality checks go into a separate box, either to be worked on again or discarded. Everywhere you look, you will see bales of materials, accessories and spools of thread arranged neatly. Leather pieces are stored away from the sunlight. The best part is men and women both old and young work together in total harmony. The whole place, with its manicured gardens complete with water features and building in the colour of honey, exudes a warm welcome to everyone.

The garments that leave this factory  make their way to stores in 60 countries, including Singapore (at Paragon and Marina Bay Sands), where you can find the Brunello Cucinelli signature style that has been described as effortlessly elegant with a touch of chic casual. The clothes come in the classic colours of sand, caramel and tobacco.

But how did this farmer’s boy, who grew up poor and lived from hand to mouth, and by his own admission “with very little education”, become so successful? I found the answer a week after my trip to Solomeo when I read Cucinelli’s book, The Dream of Solomeo — My Life and the Idea of Humanistic Capitalism. In one chapter, he reveals his admiration for The Marketing Imagination by Theodore Levitt, which deals with the market economy. In his own book, Cucinelli says, “The strong idea was that developed countries would have to specialise in high-quality products if they did not want to be ousted by emerging countries, which were learning to make medium-quality products at a much lower cost. I was struck by the simple logic of this concept, which would become the cornerstone of my entrepreneurial mindset.”

Cucinelli’s well-written book reads like a diary. Every intimate detail of his life is revealed — from the struggles he faced growing up poor to the lessons he learned from his parents; his father’s mistreatment at his job in the factory; the time he fell in love with his wife Federica; and the 63-year-old’s voracious appetite for books, especially those on philosophy. Cucinelli quotes liberally from the books during the press conference at the Piazza dalla Chiesa — considered the city hall of Solomeo.

Giving back

To Cucinelli, his empire goes beyond stitching and selling beautiful clothes to everyone, including celebrities such as Blake Lively and even Prince William. It has been Cucinelli’s dream to go beyond the seams and create something that he can use to give back to the people and the community.

He speaks about this at length at the press conference just before the sun sets over the picturesque hamlet of Solomeo. Cucinelli says in Italian, “The great dream of my life has always been to work for the moral and economic dignity of the human being. I imagined a company that would make a profit, but I wanted this profit to be achieved with ethics and respect [for] human beings, manufacturing products without harming the creation. This is also why I believe it is important for people to work in a pleasant environment, to be paid a slightly better wage, and to feel a shared sense of responsibility and respect.”

Cucinelli with his wife and daughters, Carolina (left) and Camilla

Cucinelli, dressed in a blue double--breasted blazer and white shirt and trousers, is the epitome of the Brunello Cucinelli look. When the church bells begin to chime at one point during his speech, Cucinelli pauses and when it is over, he remarks, “Isn’t that the most beautiful sound you will ever hear?” He makes it no secret that his Catholic values are what keep him going, even admitting that he spent some time at a Catholic seminary as he had harboured thoughts of becoming a priest.

Well, we all know that this did not happen as matters of the heart got in the way. In his book, as mentioned earlier, he writes about how he met his wife. “I met my beloved Federica when I was about 17. Today, she is my wife, and she was born and lived in Solomeo; she took [the] same bus to go to school in Perugia. I liked her small figure, her elegance and her discretion; it took me a long time to talk to her, because the desire to do it, which was great, was always restrained by the fear of seeming trite or saying something silly.” He went on to say that he overcame his shyness and courted her. Today, the couple has two daughters, Camilla and Carolina, and two grandchildren.

The beauty project

With the fashion business humming along nicely, Cucinelli wanted to do more. He says, “Today, outskirts are a problem throughout the world, but it is precisely for this reason they have potential to become pleasant and special places. I am convinced that the future of the outstanding civil, human and spiritual renewal will start to take form in these locations.

“In Solomeo, we seem to have reached this goal. It’s my dream come true because now this hamlet is a beautiful place, and after several years of individuals moving away, it has now come back to life and is in harmony with nature. Solomeo has renewed its old manufacturing tradition — oil, grain and wine — and today, we still produce the same products with the addition of cashmere. What we have done here in our hamlet seems beautiful to me, but at the same time I am absolutely convinced the same can be done in similar circumstances in other parts of Italy, Europe and the world.”

The beginnings of Cucinelli’s plan, which he calls Project for Beauty, began in jest with the monks at the St Benedict church. Cucinelli had said that if his company was accepted for listing, he would help restore the monastery. This was in 2012 when companies found it difficult to list on the stock exchange in Milan. Perhaps with divine intervention, the listing of Brunello Cucinelli was successful and the promise to restore the monastery was fulfilled.

Cucinelli says that today, Solomeo and its outskirts exemplify the same vital relationship that existed long ago between the Benedictine monasteries and the countryside surrounding them. After restoring the church, Cucinelli worked on building a new theatre, beautifying the public spaces, constructing a huge monument dedicated to human dignity and building a new vineyard and wine cellar.

The theatre is dedicated to the arts and celebrates culture. It is inspired by the canons of Renaissance models. Elements reminiscent of classical art can be found both in the exteriors and the structure. The unique building is built on a high platform that is accessed by a great staircase. The interior is adorned in soft hues and seats more than 200.

Cucinelli even worked on beautifying the suburbs. To him, a “pleasant suburb” defines the city. He adds, “It doesn’t matter where the outskirts are, they will always be a pleasant suburb, one in which we can recognise our identity, giving meaning to our existence. We must do everything possible, each of us doing what we can. Action can be taken for all types of outskirts, both residential and industrial, whether yet to be designed or that already exist.”

The tribute to human dignity symbolises Cucinelli’s work and dedication to humanity. The monument is about 5m high and 24m long and incorporates a tripod in the centre and five arches, above which bold bronze letters spell out the words: Tribute to Human Dignity. To express the universal nature of this structure, the names of the world’s five major continents are listed, one under each arch: America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Finally, Cucinelli built the vineyard and wine cellar. He says, “Growing grapevines is a sacred act and, inspired by this idea, the meaning of the wine cellar is clear, as it is linked to grapevines, a deep spiritual symbol in the world’s most ancient sacred texts.” He explains that the vineyard and wine cellar are the material symbols of man, on the one hand, and land, on the other — man and land, united from the moment man ceased his nomadic wandering and settled in one place. Mother Earth is a universally sacred value, and the wine cellar is the temple that he dedicates to her.

We also hear that a bed and breakfast is next on the drawing board. From what we have seen, nothing is impossible for Cucinelli. His love for Solomeo and her people is real. We see it everywhere, especially in his team, which pulled off this global event for the first time without any problems, as well as the inhabitants of the town, who at every stop asked us if we were here for the Brunello Cucinelli event.

Kudos to the poor farmer boy who dared to dream big and found himself on the international stage, but chose to remain in his hometown to provide jobs for the people he loves and respects. In his book dedication to his daughters, Cucinelli says:

“You must have a dream, a dream that can bring happiness to the humanity of today and the one yet to come. You will experience hard days; they will not be many, but your soul will carry a burden. Reason will possibly explain it, yet your heart will not be relieved. Therefore, do not stay at home. Go out, alone, in the green countryside, and plunge your gaze in the infinite blue of the sky: God is there and, at night, the playful light of the stars will restore your lost peace of mind.”