How to build a luxury empire from scratch, by Brunello Cucinelli

To celebrate the release of a candid new memoir, Gentleman’s Journal presents six lessons in business (and life) from the King of Cashmere

“In the evenings, I get drunk off good thoughts,” said Brunello Cucinelli last month in the twilight of the Umbrian Hills.

If that’s possible, then the entrepreneur’s new book is like a magnum of Chianti downed at short notice. It spills over with intoxicating ideas.

But the most compelling thought is this: that kindness and capitalism don’t need to be enemies.

You could tell that without turning a single page, however. Brunello Cucinelli may have built his company up from nothing to a valuation of more than 1.7 billion euros, but the designer has long insisted his success is meaningless without an overriding empathy and civility.

Solomeo, the tiny hamlet in the Umbrian hills to which Gentleman’s Journal was recently invited, is a case in point. Once a shrinking agricultural community, the town has been revitalised and restored single-handedly by the Brunello Cucinelli brand.

How to build a luxury empire from scratch, by Brunello Cucinelli

Mr Cucinelli grew up in a tiny rural farming community in Umbria. His family home had no electricity or running water. His overriding memories from childhood are of dawn starts at harvest, ox-drawn ploughs, and reading by candlelight. When he came to launch his company in 1978, his first run was just six cashmere jumpers, each dyed in bright, unexpected colours and made from yarn lent by an old friend.

Since then, the company has grown to become a modern luxury behemoth. When Brunello Cucinelli S.p.A was listed on the Milan Stock Exchange in 2013, it outperformed all market expectations at a time when the Italian stock market was in a historic slump.

“The first day the share increased by fifty percent — some sort of record,” Mr Cucinelli says. “I believe I gave a very effective speech focused on the humanistic company and the moral and economic dignity of human beings.”

It’s this philosophy that sits at the heart of Mr Cucinelli’s business empire. He calls it ‘Humanistic Capitalism’, but we say it’s just good sense. Here are six business lessons from The Dream of Solomeo, the entrepreneur’s remarkable new memoir.

The coffee shop holds better lectures than Harvard

How to build a luxury empire from scratch, by Brunello Cucinelli
The restored Church of San Bartolomeo at Solomeo

“The Italian cafe has played such an important role in my youth. I consider under a different light things that were behind many cheerful jokes, card games, coffee cups drank around two in the morning and endless discussions about women, politics, philosophy and spirituality that lasted until dawn. I look back at things from that time and I recognise them for what they were: a personal university course in life and human knowledge.

“The cafe was like a theatre staging every night the tales of human life, ever the same, yet always new.”

Future-proof yourself

“In my early twenties I stumbled upon a text by Theodore Levitt, The Marketing Imagination, which dealt with the market economy. The strong idea was that developed countries would have to specialize 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 mind-set.”

Question conventional wisdom

How to build a luxury empire from scratch, by Brunello Cucinelli

“The first meeting with Alessio, perhaps one of the most expert cashmere dyers in the world, was wonderful. I brought him six women’s jumpers and asked him to dye them in six different colours.

“His first blunt reply was: ‘You are crazy to dye cashmere in these colours’. I tried almost for a whole morning to convince him. I begged him to satisfy my request.

“At the end he told me: ‘Let’s try, but I cannot vouch for the outcome.’ It was undoubtedly the most important moment of my life.”

Be kind and be personable

“A major American bank went bankrupt with a thud resonating across the international financial world.

“I sent a personal letter to every single customer, almost in confidentiality, which more or less said: ‘Dear…, we have been working together for years, I do not know what is happening, but you should be aware that you can count on us.’ I received some touching and humane replies: if you are going through a difficult time and I offer my help with dignity and respect, everything become slightly easier.

“Still today I admittedly owe much to the good relations we constantly tried to create. Use always a pinch of kindness, because offensive words are easy to leave your mouth, but difficult to re-enter it, and they cause wounds that are hard to heal.”

If you’re going through hell, keep going

How to build a luxury empire from scratch, by Brunello Cucinelli
The Brunello Cucinelli theatre and ampitheatre, in the hills of Solomeo

“I find this thought of Seneca very enchanting: ‘The wise man is always ready to defend himself against every attack, he will not retreat if poverty, mourning, infamy will assail him: he will advance, fearless, towards them and in the midst of them.”

Treat work as a game

“Work must never be so exhausting that it devours people’s lives, their rest, the time needed for establishing a balance between body and soul.

“The right work may be wearying, but it should just be a matter of physical fatigue; the mind should accept it as a game. The quality of a job depends on the work environment, and even more strongly on personal relations.

“Nietzsche says creativity develops its roots during childhood. It is very important to try to be always a little childish, to keep our ability to dream and laugh.”

Further Reading