by Natasha Wolff | October 30, 2015 1:00 pm
In the 1960s, Umberto Cucinelli would return home each night from his shift in a cement factory, tired and broken, and ask the same question: “What have I done wrong to God that I should be suffering such humiliation?” That’s how his son Brunello remembers it—and the recurring scene has had a lasting impact. “He was basically working like a slave, and I decided that’s not what I wanted from life,” says Cucinelli, now 62, looking out over the manicured lawns and burbling fountains of his company’s idyllic headquarters in Solomeo, Italy. “I said to myself then, ‘Whatever I do, I want to work for human dignity.’ ”
Fifty years later, after turning a $550 loan into a $1.3 billion fashion empire, Cucinelli appears to have stayed true to that promise. Since taking the company public in 2012, the exquisitely casual luxury brand has nearly doubled in value and, with more than $400 million in total sales last year, is more popular than ever. But the success is probably more impressive for the way it’s been achieved. Cucinelli champions a concept he calls “humanist capitalism.”
“I am a capitalist, mind you, and I want to make profit,” he explains, sitting in his office among stacks of dog-eared books, photos of his heroes (Gandhi, Roberto Benigni, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs) and rows of vibrantly colored thread. “The only thing is, I would like to make this profit without harming people.”
To do so, Cucinelli has for years gone against increasingly common garment-industry practices that overlook low-cost labor and poor working conditions
in the name of hand-over-fist revenues. His employees are paid well over scale, and he has gone to great lengths to shepherd a culture in Solomeo that prioritizes tradition and family over around-the-clock productivity. “At least in Italy, it has become fashionable to work 15 hours a day, all the time,” he says. “Our work is strict and focused, but then you need time for family and you must look after your mind.” Employees go home to eat with their families during the company-wide 90-minute lunch break. Alternatively, they can dine family-style at the steeply subsidized company trattoria, with fare that puts most Manhattan restaurants to shame. Touring the facilities, there is a general sense of pride and tranquility—staffers smile and seem happy to be at work.
Solomeo has been likened to the cushy corporate campuses of Silicon Valley, but Cucinelli points to a fundamental difference between the two. The elliptical machines and smoothie stations at your typical tech-plex are a ruse, he says, a trap to keep workers on-site and on-call. Rather, his headquarters are comparatively austere; besides the tools needed to complete the day’s work, there’s not a whole lot of excess beyond the beauty of the surroundings. Cucinelli advocates a healthy compartmentalization—don’t take your work home with you and don’t try to make a home out of your workplace. “In this company, it is forbidden to work past 5 p.m.,” he says. “There are no e-mails coming to you at half past five, it does not happen. The idea that you could work from home and that you are connected 24/7—I would be stealing your soul by doing this.”
As much a dreamer as he is a businessman—he can quote you Marcus Aurelius or Immanuel Kant with alarming ease—Cucinelli theorizes that without his utopian workplace in Solomeo, there would be no global luxury brand. He’s able to do such a brisk business selling $2,000 sweaters and $1,000 sweatpants not just because of the quality of materials and craftsmanship, but because the goods embody the lifestyle he and his employees actually lead. Without that, he says, it’s all just empty marketing. Cucinelli points to the company’s now iconic 2014 advertising campaign, which features employees seated at a seemingly infinite table that cuts through the Umbrian countryside. “It was taken at a real company dinner,” he says proudly. “Without Photoshop!”
“You should really be able to perceive the mood and atmosphere of the place where something is created,” he continues. “Dignity should come through in the product. People should know that in manufacturing it, there comes respect.”
Michael Silverstein, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, which advises more than two-thirds of the Fortune 500, devoted an entire chapter of his recent book, Rocket: Eight Lessons to Secure Infinite Growth, to Cucinelli’s approach. “Brunello has set such a high standard,” Silverstein says. “He treats every associate, every supplier with kindness. It’s part of the company’s credo. What’s particularly unique is that this combination also delivers sales growth, high profit and a better workplace.”
The overarching vision is on full display in the careful preservation and stewardship of Solomeo. Cucinelli funnels 20 percent of company profits into the Brunello and Federica Cucinelli Foundation, which has shaped the medieval village into a cultural center over the last decade through its “A Project for Beauty” initiative. In addition to a theater, library and philosopher’s garden, Cucinelli also constructed the School of Craftsmanship, which trains the next generation of garment makers, keeping the region’s tradition alive while producing a steady stream of talent.
It was in the same custodial spirit that he took the company public three years ago. “I wanted this company to survive for 200 years,” he says, motioning to the employees diligently working outside his office. “It will be up to them at that point.” Throughout the transition, he’s taken steps to ensure the company’s guiding principles won’t be compromised. “I tell my investors, if you want a factory that works respecting human dignity, then you should join us,” he says. “But if you think I make over-the-top profit by compromising or exploiting, you should not invest in me.” The same goes for being pressured into a growth rate of 25 percent. “If you grow by 10 percent a year, then everything goes along with grace,” he says.
The IPO has granted Cucinelli a certain type of immortality, propelling his personal net worth north of $1 billion. Yet, for a man so accomplished, he seems to keep things in perspective. “We are all just guardians,” he says. “We are here temporarily.”
At a dinner held in the village square later that evening, Cucinelli is enveloped by family, friends and, of course, cashmere. (He also has a sweater for me, “in case it gets chilly.”) After a feast of brick-oven pizzas, he looks up as a villager raises his glass. “Long live the king!” the man shouts, with just enough sarcasm. The rest join in, and the good cheer reverberates off the ancient square.
“It’s a new world now,” Cucinelli remarks to me, swirling his wine. “If we can work in a better manner, respecting the human being at the same time, we can be more creative.” He looks over at his granddaughter. “And maybe then at the end of my life, if someone were to say about me, ‘A decent man just died,’ I would be happy with this.”
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