January 19, 2014 3:08 pm

King of cashmere Cucinelli finds trend for menswear is right fit

Brunello Cucinelli is among the smaller brands looking to retain their independence. Shares in the group, which makes €2,000 cardigans, have more than tripled since its stock market debut in 2012

Brunello Cucinelli is among the smaller brands looking to retain their independence. Shares in the group, which makes €2,000 cardigans, have more than tripled since its stock market debut in 2012

Brunello Cucinelli, Italy’s self-styled king of cashmere and creator of a luxury casual wear empire worth €1.6bn, is looking unusually formal in a trim-cut double-breasted suit.

At the height of the European menswear catwalk season, his sartorial choice at the Pitti Immagine show is a change of image for the Umbrian entrepreneur that reflects a shift in the winds of fashion. Suits have become a trend not only at the men’s shows in London, Milan and Paris this month but in the industry at large.

As sales in China and in womenswear slow, men are emerging as dedicated followers of fashion, and the suit – with its high cost and margins for the industry – is making a comeback. Analysts expect growth in menswear to outstrip that of womenswear over the next five years, and this change is translating into a surge of opening and new lines for male consumers.

Prada, the fastest growing among the larger luxury goods companies by sales, has opened several menswear-dedicated shops in the past year. Louis Vuitton is investing in its men’s luxury goods brand Berluti, as is Kering in its men’s tailor Brioni.

In another sign of the increasing power of the menswear industry, Ermenegildo Zegna, the world market leader by sales in men’s only luxury, kicked off the Milan’s menswear season with a spectacular catwalk show set against the image of a pulsating orb that rivalled any in the usually more high-profile women’s catwalk season.

Among the most anticipated events at this month’s Milan Fashion Week was the launch of a flagship showroom by Naples tailor Kiton, where the suits range in price from €5,000 to €30,000.

Mr Cucinelli has joined the trend, launching a range of off-the-peg suits as Europe’s luxury brands chase customers in men’s luxury goods, the fastest growing fashion sector by sales. “The trend in fashion is back towards the suit. We are returning to a vision of beautiful tailoring, a bit smarter, but still very chic and very youthful,” the entrepreneur, 60, says in an interview with the FT at the .

While the style may be more tailored than usual for Mr Cucinelli, the upmarket prices are familiar at the brand that sells cashmere jumpers for €1,000. A suit jacket will retail at about €3,000 and pair of trousers at about €2,000.

Analyst Mauro Baragiola at Citi says the designer’s move into suits could bring significant success in a “potentially rich market”, especially if Mr Cucinelli’s tailors make appearances at his more than 100 shops around the world and in department stores.

“The allure of the brand could incrementally benefit,” Mr Baragiola wrote in a recent note.

Nonetheless, expanding into men’s suits comes at a cost for luxury brands, especially those such as Cucinelli that did not have the manufacturing skills in-house. Mr Cucinelli bought a storied Italian suit manufacturer in nearby Tuscany for €3.5m last year, bringing in 56 employees to make his suits, a move that Mr Baragiola believes will squeeze profitability for the next couple of years.

Mr Cucinelli shrugs off concerns about the cost over the short term. “We are the spiritual fathers, with the English, of men’s fashion. But we must now return to invest in the manufacturing skills required of us,” he says pointing out that up-and-coming men’s luxury consumers are particularly attentive to the provenance of their purchases, a trend that echoes interest among men about the source of their luxury watches and sports cars.

That interest has made Italy’s men’s manufacturing industry a target. China’s Fosun Group recently bought a 35 per cent stake in Caruso, manufacturer of luxury suits created by luxury goods entrepreneur Umberto Angeloni. Fung Capital, the private equity arm of Hong Kong’s Fung family, just bought Britain’s Kilgour and plans to group it with its recent purchase of Hardy Amies.

For Mr Cucinelli, the trend dovetails with his long-held business philosophy that high-end consumers are prepared to pay high prices to know the craft behind and origin of what they buy.

I think there’s a return to the idea of the value of work and the value of remuneration. It’s about returning dignity to the idea of healthy profits

- Brunello Cucinelli

The brand started in the hills of Umbria when Mr Cucinelli, the son of a rural labourer, decided to drop out of engineering school 30 years ago. He got a loan from his local bank and set off dyeing cashmere sweaters a bright rainbow of colours.

Before its 2012 stock market listing, there was scepticism in the market that Mr Cucinelli could manage to sustain his business model, which includes using part of the profits to fund community ventures, including a craft school to train future knitters and textile cutters.

Instead, shares in the company have doubled in value. He has been helped because the brand has been less exposed to the broader slowdown in China, where he has just 10 stores.

His model has apparently also caught the eye of other major institutions. Mr Cucinelli says an executive from Apple recently came to see him to ask about his model of employing small communities of artisans around Umbria to make his costly casual wear.

“I think there’s a return to the idea of the value of work and the value of remuneration. It’s about returning dignity to the idea of healthy profits,” Mr Cucinelli says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE