ESQ&A: Italian Menswear Designer Brunello Cucinelli

On challenging authority, being a kind boss, and the importance of gazing at the stars

BY Grace Cormier and Adam Grant | Feb 8, 2018 | Fashion

Over the past four decades, Brunello Cucinelli has built one of the world’s leading fashion brands. He grew up in Italy without running water, gave up engineering to teach himself philosophy, and then began making cashmere sweaters. Today, he is a billionaire—not to mention one of Esquire’s best-dressed men—and he donates 20 percent of his company’s profits to charity.
Esquire: You once said that you focus on “craftsmanship, quality, and, hopefully, creativity.” Why did you say “hopefully”? How often do you doubt your own creativity?

Brunello Cucinelli: When I started my business, I had no money in my pocket. I wanted to manufacture something that wouldn’t go to waste—to be a guardian of creation. I say “hopefully” because you cannot budget for creativity. You can’t be sure that it will be there, whereas you can definitely vouch for craftsmanship and high quality because you can work for that. If you are a writer, for example, you cannot be sure that you will be creative tomorrow. It’s always up to others to judge your creativity.

Esquire: What advice do you have for promoting creativity?

Brunello Cucinelli: We need to have more time for ourselves so that we have time to raise our gaze to the heavens, to meditate, to reflect. For me, meditating, the ancient Latins actually called it creative idleness. You can take a stroll, you can think about things; that is what I mean. You see, we tend to be online for futile reasons. I want my workers to work a fair number of hours, and not longer than that. Because I do not want to steal the soul of anybody working for me. We need to rediscover a fair balance in our lives.

In my company, we start working at 8am sharp and we stop working at 5.30pm. It is forbidden to answer emails on Saturdays, Sundays, or in the evenings. In the morning, I am sure that they are all more creative. Focus for five hours a day—not longer than that.

Esquire: What inspired you to start your company?

Brunello Cucinelli: The great dream of my life has always been that of working to boost the moral and economic dignity of the human being. My family, we were farmers. We were working the land using animals, not machinery. Since we had no electricity, there was a lot of silence, quiet. But we were joyful. I led this kind of life until I was fifteen, and I still hold particularly beautiful memories of those years. Then we all moved close to the city, where my father took a job in a factory. When he would come home from work, he would always repeat, “What have I done wrong to be subject to such humiliation at the workplace?” I said to myself, I don’t know what will happen to me or what I will do with my life, but one thing is for sure: I want to work in order to foster human and moral dignity.

Esquire: What does dignity at work mean to you?

Brunello Cucinelli: First of all, you attach moral dignity to work. Which means that every human being, they consider their trade important; even if it is the humblest trade, they consider it important. So that is moral dignity. Work elevates the dignity of man. Combined with that, there is economic dignity to be considered. Which means if I sell a cashmere blazer, my company should have the right to fair profits. A fair profit means that every single stakeholder in the value chain should profit and everyone should be remunerated—the workers, the investors, the bankers, every single link of the chain should receive a fair amount. I wanted to manufacture goods of top-notch quality without harming mankind.

Esquire: What’s your philosophy on interaction with others?

Brunello Cucinelli: I basically spent ten years at the local café, the Italian bar. One evening, students started mentioning this philosopher Immanuel Kant. So I looked him up and I started reading. It really changed my life when he stated that you should act always bearing others in mind. Not as a simple means, but as a noble end. I think that mankind has a universal wish to be treated with honesty, respect, and consideration.

I have lived all my life recalling the fearful eyes of my father, who was badly treated. We need to feel respect for every single human being regardless of where they come from, regardless of their position, religion, or culture.

Baruch Spinoza, in the 17th century, said that we have not come to the world to judge, and even less to condemn; we have come to the world to know. That is what I want: to know. I don’t want to pass judgment, and I don’t want to condemn. I want to know. I want to convince people of my thoughts. But I try to listen to them, too, because others might want to convince me, too.

Esquire: Sadly, many people don’t have bosses who treat them with that kind of respect. How do you recommend challenging authority figures?

Brunello Cucinelli: In my company, more than a thousand out of 17,000 employees are under 30 years of age. As parents, we have basically hammered into their heads to be afraid all of the time. They should replace fear with hope. Young people should take part in graceful defiance. They should not passively accept the status quo. They should be polite and well-mannered, but defiant.

While I have led the life of an Italian, I have always thought in Greek. They say it’s essential to leave the next generation a more beautiful species than we inherited. It’s an invitation for young people to take part in things. To be involved in mankind. To be five percent better than yesterday.

Esquire: The fashion industry focuses a great deal on image. What advice would you give on managing impressions?

Brunello Cucinelli: I believe the online world, the Internet, tends to magnify—to amplify people and power. That is something that I think we should be able to manage better. For example, I don’t need to see you every day, everywhere. I do not need to listen to your words every day, everywhere. Rather, if I hear from you every twenty days, once in a while, you become more fascinating.

Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman emperor, once stated that you should think as if this were the last day of your life, but you should plan as if you will be here forever.

This feature was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, January 2018.