Four years ago I had the privilege of meeting Brunello Cucinelli at his company’s home office in Solomeo. It sounds cliche to say, but it was a day that fundamentally changed how I see the world as a consumer, a businessman and as a human. More philosophical than anyone you will ever meet in the clothing business (possibly in life in general), Brunello is a catalyst for fundamental positive change. It’s just his nature. It sounds contrived when you read some blogger say it, but in reality, Brunello Cucinelli (the man and the company) is one of the most compelling people I have ever met. If character and integrity took the human form it would be Brunello Cucinelli. The fact that he sells some of the finest made and best looking clothing is almost just a happy coincidence.
My pal the esteemed writer Om Malik made the pilgrimage to Solomeo himself to meet Brunello and learn more about the man his billion-dollar enterprise operating quietly in Italy’s green heart. His interview is as important and compelling as any I have read. The conversation stands out because of both Om’s beautiful perspective and Brunello’s equally unique world view.
With a nod to the tech world (and John Gruber), below I pulled out my favorite bits and pieces from this great conversation between two men of considerable respect. Here’s the original interview which is a must-read.
Brunello on how to treat people:
Basically, what is human dignity made of? If we work together, say, and, even with one look, I make you understand that you are worth nothing and I look down on you, I have killed you. But if I give you regards and respect – out of esteem, responsibility is spawned. Then out of responsibility comes creativity, because every human being has an amount of genius in them. Man needs dignity even more than he needs bread.
In order to be credible, you must be authentic and true. Twenty years ago, something might be written about you in a newspaper. Then this newspaper would be scrapped, and that would be it. But now your statement stays [online] for the next 20 to 50 years – who knows how long for. To be credible, you must be consistent in the way you behave.
Brunello on work-life balance:
In this company, you cannot send emails after 5:30 PM, when the company closes for the evening.
I do not want to assign work to you where I feel responsible for ruining or altering your private life.
It’s not 24/7, because here in the company, you start at 8 AM, and at 5:30 PM you are forbidden to work any further. No emails can be sent to more than two addressees, just one or two. No group mailing. Why must a single email be read by 10 different people, unless it’s the 10 people who are interested in that specific issue? In order to disperse responsibility?
Here, no meetings with mobile phones. No one is allowed to bring them into the meeting room. You must look me in the eye. You must know things by heart. You must know all of your business with a 1 to 2 percent error rate. It is also training for your mind. It is also a question of respect, because I have never called someone on a Saturday or a Sunday. No one is allowed to do so. We must discover this, because if individuals rest properly, then it is better.
Om: You dropped out of engineering school to design cashmere sweaters. What was the attraction to cashmere?
Brunello: I had read Theodore Levitt, the American, who used to say that developed countries were supposed to manufacture special handcrafted goods, because one day, new people would arrive who would make the same things but at a better price. The idea of doing luxury, “made in Italy” has always been with me.
Why cashmere? Because I was using something that theoretically never goes to waste. You never throw away a cashmere pullover. The idea of manufacturing something that you never scrap, you never throw away – I liked it very much. Mind you, I had no money in my pocket at that time. Absolutely nothing.
Managing a craft-oriented luxury business in an increasingly connected world:
Brunello: What I have tried to do is manage the American market as if it were a domestic market together with Europe. I speak to the Dallas store as if it were the Venice store. Someone from San Francisco basically listens to the same music as someone from Milan. They wear roughly the same clothes. They have their iPad, their iPhone. Just think of how mankind has become more homogeneous.But true luxury lies in the fact that you are not too widely known.
On U.S. manufacturing:
Om: There’s a lot of talk of manufacturing revival in the United States. Do you think it is feasible? If it is, what are the lessons from Italy that the U.S. can take?
Brunello: I think that there is a trend toward going back to manufacturing there. People want to buy a “made in the U.S.” thing. You want to buy a French champagne, but you also want to buy something from your own country.
We have to rebuild the basis of all the skills. For example, the schools for arts and crafts. We have to start rebuilding. In order to do that, we need to give moral and economic dignity back to this kind of craft. Say you are a tailor. If you earn $1,200 a month, you are sort of ashamed to say that that’s your trade, because that’s the culture. We have to do the opposite. It should be that if someone sees you are a tailor, they say, “Oh, you are plying a very great trade, the tailor.” That’s the moral dignity I’m talking about.
Om: I want fewer interruptions in my day. I have eliminated a lot of things from my life. I’m on a declining scale of wanting things. Fewer and fewer things. I think that is one of the reasons I find your approach to life, a more philosophical approach to business, fascinating.
Brunello: A 58-year-old man committed suicide, a great Italian manager, I think last year, or a couple of years ago. He wrote, “I spent a whole life running, chasing work, without realizing, at all, of the great ideals, of great values of life.”
This is a question of balance. Those who come to me and say, â€œYou know, I work 15 hours a day,” I say, “I am not interested.” I am interested in the quality of working hours, not the quantity. The brain of the human being. Do you think that during the first five hours of the day you are the same as you are in the last five hours? No way. You’re tired, and if you’re tired, you stop listening, and the decisions you make are risky.