The philosopher of luxuryBrunello Cucinelli
Brunello Cucinelli makes some of the most discretely luxurious modern clothing in the world. But his inspiration comes from somewhere altogether more ancient. By Peter Howarth
‘I remember growing up the son of a farmer in a little house with no electricity,’ says Brunello Cucinelli, speaking of his childhood. The Italian fashion designer turned 70 last month, and we are in the medieval hilltop village of Solomeo in Perugia, Italy, where Cucinelli lives and bases his extraordinarily successful fashion business.
Solomeo is the hometown of his wife, which is how the designer discovered it. He fell in love with the place and decided to move the company headquarters here in 1985, when his label was young, and he was making cashmere knitwear. At that time, Solomeo’s ancient buildings were in need of repair, and so Cucinelli was moved to invest in restoring them. Today the village stands as a monument to his belief in the importance of provenance and the connection to the environment that we inhabit. Like the farmer’s son he remains, Cucinelli proudly protects and nurtures the cultural landscape where his products are designed and made.
The man’s signature refined and softly tailored style is undoubtedly infused with the spirit of his home. Walk into the temple to Italian luxury that is the Brunello Cucinelli store in New Bond Street and the first thing that strikes you is the colour palette. It’s rooted in the natural world – sands, watery blue, sheep-fleece ecru, cattle browns, the lush green of the hillsides of Umbria, the stone hue of Carrera marble, the reds of the Barbera Italian grape. These are the colours of Solomeo. Then touch the fabrics and you are in no doubt about the natural origins of the fibres – cashmere, wool, vicuña, shearling.
Housed in a grand British building made from Portland Stone, and featuring stone columns out front and ones of jade inside, you might be forgiven for thinking that Cucinelli’s store would be at odds with its Italianate contents. Not at all, says Cucinelli who turns out to be quite the Anglophile. ‘I’ve always loved the English taste,’ he confesses. And he goes further, saying that he has drawn ‘inspiration from the British culture, but with the Italian twist and savoir faire – because I want to mix colours the Italian way, with an Italian flair’. He says his look is ‘the result of a mix of the very strict English style culture with the Italian way’. For example, he says, he took a ‘typically English-inspired tuxedo’, softened it and made it in grey. And the construction is lightweight. He holds up a blazer and says that ‘it’s like a T-shirt, the same feeling when you wear it… as light as a feather’.
‘Bond Street was the natural choice for the London flagship store. You can feel the history in the area, and history is so important for understanding who we are,’ says Cucinelli. For example, he says he believes that our post-pandemic present is a period that mirrors the time after World War I and the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century. ‘It was your Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, who said we now have to dress up, to dress elegantly. That was when a decade started in which everyone was dressing up, and I think this matches this moment in time: we feel like being sleek, elegant, refined, polished.’
But the philosopher in him wants us to do this in a sustainable way, and as a paragon of good practise he cites another British Royal: ‘I subscribe to the idea that when you buy something, you shouldn’t want to throw it away. As an example I always use the former Prince of Wales – your current King; we have pictures of him everywhere [in the design studio], dating back to 20 or 30 years ago. I’m not saying that he is literally wearing the very same garments, but you can tell that he keeps things in his wardrobe for years.’
The idea, he explains, is that you should buy something beautiful and beautifully made new, and then recondition it, and keep wearing it – mix it with something different. ‘It’s part of a new culture of beautifying mankind,’ he says. ‘You should not consume. I am not a consumer. Epicurus said human beings have two great issues that they have to settle – the malaise that they carry in their soul, something which can be healed and cured through philosophy, and then using what mother earth gives to us without consuming it. I find this a very contemporary idea.’
Of course, as a son of the soil Cucinelli grew up steeped in nature and natural lore. ‘I know what it is to work on the land,’ he says. ‘And I believe in the dignity of manual labour.’ But when he moved to the city he acquired an education in the bars and cafés, discussing the topics of the day and exchanging ideas. ‘I read voraciously too, and that is where I discovered the wisdom of the ancients.’ And this is where the story gets really unusual. An autodidact, Cucinelli found in the writings of the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Plato – and later in the way the Renaissance brought the ancient world to life in his country – a humanist credo that he applied to his business.
So for his 70th birthday he invited some 500 guests to Solomeo to witness a curated presentation of several decades of work, and to explain how he has got here. Set in the amphitheatre Cucinelli has built in the village, a stream of models walked two-by-two in menswear matched with womenswear, arranging themselves on raised platforms. Classical music played and the olive trees and poplars were joined by a huge, 20ft-high bust which we would learn from the designer was a representation of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, one of his heroes.
Cucinelli himself was dressed in a double-breasted ecru suit, with a white shirt teamed with a silver tie, blending perfectly with his surrounding models who were wearing similarly neutral-hued outfits from different decades of his work, as if to make the point that the label’s signature look has evolved minutely over time through the consistency of cut, colour and material.
Speaking to his guests, the designer told of his journey and how he is pleased that now he has the opportunity to put into action the humanist teachings of his beloved philosophers. He pays his factory workers the same rates as his office workers. In addition to the amphitheatre, he has built a theatre, a school of craftsmanship and tailoring, and is currently constructing a ‘universal library’, a homage to that which famously stood in Alexandria. He has planted a vineyard, makes wine here, and has landscaped the area surrounding Solomeo. He is also restoring the nearby town of Norcia that was damaged by the earthquake in 2016, a gesture of friendship to the monks he knows there who inhabit its monastery.
This is all a far cry from the revolving trends and celebrity marketing ploys of the fashion industry. That said, of course, there are many of the great and the good who are fans of this quietest version of quiet luxury. And several made the trip to Solomeo to celebrate Cucinelli’s birthday, among them Patrick Dempsey, Jonathan Bailey, Martha Stewart, Vanessa Kirby and David Gandy. Maybe you’ll spot some of them, as well as others known to appreciate the tasteful style of fashion’s philosopher-in-chief, like Taron Egerton and Jennifer Lopez, at the Bond Street store. Or Pep Guardiola, whose Cucinelli sweaters in cashmere have apparently made appearances in the dugout at Manchester City.
Brunello Cucinelli is at 135-137 New Bond Street, London W1S 2TQ
Peter Howarth is the editor of The Times’ LUXX Men’s Style and the former editor of Arena, British Esquire and Man About Town.