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Creating an Italian Cashmere Kingdom in Umbria

© Christian Kerber The village's Castello di Monte Frondoso.

Photo: Christian Kerber

If Brunello Cucinelli weren’t so likable and successful, and if the cashmere clothes he made weren’t so beautiful, you’d have to dismiss him as just another self-delusional fashion quack. Addressing his employees at a Christmas party one year, he did not shy from comparing himself to Che Guevara, “a small but important leader.” Dinner parties at his villa in the medieval hill town of Solomeo, outside Perugia in Umbria, might begin with a reading from Cicero. Plaques fixed to the façade of his headquarters there are chiseled with sound bites from Socrates and Kafka. In 1985 he began patiently buying up and restoring nearly the entire historic center of Solomeo as a home for his business, creating in the bargain a subtle, low-key destination for culturally driven travelers, connoisseurs of Italian village life, and consumers of cashmere who appreciate a deep discount and get an extra buzz from buying at the source.

Cucinelli believes that his humanistic philosophy, a cocktail of Benedictine morality and ethical capitalism, yields a navy blazer with coffee-colored suede elbow patches (to mention one vigorously copied signature men’s look) that is tangibly, quantifiably better. Designers consult Ouija boards to find out whether it was the 27th horse bit on a bag that caused it to be marked down before its time. So given the unknowableness of what moves a luxury product, Cucinelli’s conviction that benevolent ideology motors his company is as good as any. Last year he had gross profits of $9 million on sales of $165 million. Bocconi University, in Milan, teaches his business model, with its emphasis on social responsibility, and the padrone himself has lectured on it at Harvard, MIT, and Boston College.

“From the beginning I knew that to convince 25-year-old kids from the region to come and work for me—and to repopulate Solomeo, which had been practically abandoned—I had to offer them something special,” Cucinelli told me over a plate of farro risotto with tomato and Parmesan at his favorite restaurant, Malvarina, an agriturismo in neighboring Assisi. “If you’re a young guy at the discoteca and you’re trying to pick up a girl and you say, ‘I’m a patternmaker at Cucinelli, I work with my hands,’ it’s not very sexy. There had to be some added value.”

For the luckiest that means an arcadian view from their desks in Solomeo’s frescoed 14th-century defensive castle. A strategically vague hierarchy is designed to empower employees, suggesting that each is his own boss. Samplehands and bookkeepers have it drilled into them that Cucinelli’s success in building the firm and rehabilitating the village is also theirs. And while it’s a practical impossibility for everyone on the payroll to have a key to the factory, the company has wrung a public relations bonanza and a fortune in goodwill out of this romantic fiction.

The fashion for buying up all or most of a defunct Italian village and rescuing it was launched in 1988. That year the ready-to-wear designer Alberta Ferretti and a group of co-investors became the owners of Montegridolfo, just inland from the Adriatic in Le Marche. Six years later they opened Palazzo Viviani, an eight-room hotel, plus a specialty-foods shop and three restaurants. Ferretti likened the project to a crusade. In 2005, Daniele Kihlgren, the Swedish-Italian philanthropist and preservationist, raised Abruzzi’s Santo Stefano di Sessanio from the dead with the 28-room Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, where hand-sewn mattresses are filled with hand-carded wool and made up with vintage embroidered linen sheets. The six crumbling Italian bourgs Kihlgren acquired after Santo Stefano await similar treatment.

It can’t always be easy for old schoolmates of Cucinelli’s to watch the iron gates of his villa in Solomeo swing shut behind his Bentley. The town wears a happy face; if there are people nursing jealousies and asking, “Why him and not me?” they do it behind closed shutters. Born in 1953, Cucinelli grew up in the area in a family that lived off the land, cultivating sunflowers, corn, and wheat. Twenty-seven people slept under the same roof in a house that, for many years, lacked plumbing and electricity. After World War II, farmers began leaving Solomeo for jobs in manufacturing and houses on the plain, or closer to cities like Perugia and Assisi. By the 60’s the exodus was complete. When Cucinelli bought his first property in the village it was almost in ruins. Today it is thriving, with a population of 400 and an air of prosperity that a place can maybe only acquire by making $600 cashmere T-shirts (well, they do have long sleeves).

Solomeo has one of the finest provincial classical music festivals in Italy. (It’s also free and alfresco.) A new 240-seat theater bowed in September, inspired by the Baroque Teatro Farnese in Parma, the prototype of the modern playhouse, and Vincenzo Scamozzi’s 16th-century jewel box Teatro all’Antica, in Lombardy. The theater is part of an elaborate Cucinelli-funded Arts Forum, a complex that includes a Renaissance-style public garden and will have a school and accommodations for craftsmen, based on the ancient guild system, as well as weeklong classes in theology, literature, and philosophy for passing tourists. Forty apartments were scheduled to go up on the spot where the theater now stands, but the son of the man who owned the land works for Cucinelli, the son intervened, and the man sold to Cucinelli.

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