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The Profile Dossier: Brunello Cucinelli, the Philosopher King of Cashmere
“I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals."
Brunello Cucinelli is often called the "King of Cashmere," but he rules his fashion empire with a gentle hand.
Born on a farm in the central part of Italy, Cucinelli has never abandoned his roots.
Today, his eponymous Italian fashion brand specializes in luxury menswear, women's wear and accessories. Cucinelli has built a $600-million fashion empire based in Solomeo, a tiny town with roughly 400 inhabitants, most of whom he employs.
Every year, Cucinelli re-invests 20% of the profits for the upkeep of Solomeo and its residents. He has given money toward infrastructure improvement, he has restored the church, opened a school, and built a brand new theater. His employees receive generous time off and they are not allowed to stay past 5:30 p.m.
His motivation for creating an ethical workplace came from watching his father, an uneducated farmer, be demeaned by his superiors when he worked at a cement factory.
“My father was humiliated,” Cucinelli says. “He didn’t make much money at all. His work didn’t do anything to make life more beautiful. He worked in a very tough environment.”
When Cucinelli saw his father's "teary eyes," he decided that the objective of his life would be to give those with whom he worked a moral and economic dignity.
As a result, the fashion mogul has been preaching a new business approach called "Humanistic Capitalism," in which money is seen as a tool to improve the human condition. Services, schools, places of worship, and cultural heritage require capital, but they empower the community.
"I believe in capitalism," Cucinelli says. "I need to make a profit, but I would like to do it with ethics, dignity, morals. It's my dream."
Here's what we can learn from the business powerhouse who finds inspiration for building his company's culture in the ancient texts of philosophers, artists, and writers.
On developing a 'humanistic capitalism': Cucinelli looks at business through the lens of a philosophy that draws on Renaissance humanism, Senecan stoicism, and Benedictine rigor. “I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I’m trying. Of course, I believe in a form of capitalism. I would just like it to be slightly more human.”
On his daily routine: St. Benedict said to take care of your mind, body and soul — so Cucinelli has taken his advice to heart. He swims for an hour every morning (after eating a cookie or two), he does 15 minutes of Tibetan stretching and breathing exercises, and he plays soccer with friends four or more nights a week. Here's why a daily ritual or a routine is so important.
On building the Brunello Cucinelli brand: In this podcast episode, author David LaRocca explains why Cucinelli's eponymous brand is so powerful. For one, Cucinelli has masterfully intertwined his brand with the work of inspiring philosophers. It made his company appear timeless. "So instead of being tied to a fad or trend, Cucinelli has hitched his wagon to one of the most eternal elements of human existence," LaRocca says. This is a masterclass on how to build an enduring legacy.
On being a trailblazer: Cucinelli likes to quote Voltaire: "If you do not accept the changes of your time, perhaps you will miss the greatest part." Let's use the most innovative technologies, he says, but let's use them in a considerate way.
On the importance of beauty: Everywhere he looks, Cucinelli sees beauty. He often quotes Dostoyevski: "Beauty will save the world." In this fireside chat with Marc Benioff, Cucinelli explains that if something is both beautiful and fair by being manufactured without harming mankind, then that is a spiritual creation. In other words, you cannot create something beautiful by abusing and disrespecting the people around you.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Study philosophy to gain a better understanding of the world: Cucinelli is an ardent student of those who came (way) before him. He refers to Plato, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, St. Benedict, and Immanuel Kant as his teachers. And if you didn't know any better, you'd think they were alive today. From Kant, Cucinelli learned about the importance of living a moral life. St. Benedict taught him that the wise "have to exercise, have a measured diet, [and] have to listen to music.” While time has passed and the world has changed, Cucinelli believes the great answers to humanity's thorniest problems lie in philosophy. If you can study the great figures who came before you, you'll arm yourself with tools you can use in everyday life.
Dignity is a pre-requisite for doing quality work: Cucinelli understands that investing in your people is a strategy that pays off in the long-run. He pays his employees a higher wage than the market rate. The whole company takes a ninety-minute lunch break; employees can go home to feed their families or eat at the heavily-subsidized company cafeteria. He has also installed a library where workers and visitors are encouraged to peruse works by Dante, Kafka, Proust, Ruskin, Rawls, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Deleuze, in many different languages. Here's his thought process: “If I give you the right conditions to work, and I put you in a beautiful place, where you feel a little bit better about yourself because you know your work is being used for something greater than producing a profit, maybe you will get more creative, maybe you will want to work more.”
Stress is not conducive for productivity: Cucinelli believes you need to bake in moments of relaxation in your day where you feel at peace. Why? "I've always believed that the human being is more creative when he is at peace with humanity," he says. Work at places and do business with people who inspire you to be the best version of yourself by treating you with dignity and respect. Nothing is more important for your own creativity and expression.
The point of business — and life — is to pay it forward: Every year, Cucinelli earmarks 20% of the company's annual profits "for humanity." As his business has grown, he has revitalized the town of Solomeo by helping restore the church, pave roads, open a tuition-free arts school, and build a park, a stadium, and a theater. He once underwrote the construction of a hospital in Malawi, after one of his daughters took a trip to the country. "I've always said that we should not just plan for the next three months or three years, but for the next three centuries," he says.
Re-read the classics: The book that changed Cucinelli's life is "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius. "I re-read it all the time—just the other day, in fact," he says. "When I was 25, I'd underline certain parts of it, in my 30s other parts, and now that I'm in my 50s, it's a completely different read." By re-reading books at different points in your life, you notice things you may have otherwise missed. Highly recommend trying this practice.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"To me, the simplest things can have the highest value."
"Order and tidiness is the first law of heaven."
"Let us eat what is right, so that enough is left for all of mankind.”
"The true way to nurture your soul is philosophy."
"My life's goal is to look after the soul."