In Umbria, central Italy, about two hours from Rome, there is a medieval town on a hill called Solomeo. This is the realm of Brunello Cucinelli, a designer known for his understated way with cashmere, his recent successful IPO and his theory of “humanistic capitalism”. And this is where I find myself, in the town square outside the 14th-century castle that is Cucinelli’s headquarters, a soft breeze blowing, views of the verdant countryside below.
I am here, you understand, to cook. Or so I thought.
I came to Solomeo at Cucinelli’s invitation, to make an Umbrian feast – visions of agnolotti, scaloppine and tiramisu dancing in my head. But that was my mistake. And had I thought about it, I should have realised. For whether or not I knew anything about regional Italian cuisine, I did know something about Cucinelli: that he has built his empire – 89 stores and 2012 sales of €279.3m – on the principle of elevating the mundane (simple textiles, earthy colours) to the level of the transcendent. I knew that his work is not about external decoration – no jet bead and pearl embroidery; no lace – but rather the “hand” of the product itself, the secret way it feels on the body. That if he adds anything to a piece, it’s just a sprinkle of invisible sequins to refract the light, like a toss of salt.
“I say to my industrialist friends, when you have guests from out of town, I don’t care how important they are, you should feed them the essence of Italian culture: spaghetti, bread and olive oil,” says the 59-year-old when he arrives in white shirt, grey tie and relaxed chinos.
Cucinelli and his wife Federica, with their daughters Camilla and Carolina, are the inspiration and models for his clothes. The family creates a fantasy picture of Italy, much as Ralph Lauren’s does for the US, in this case full of rolling vineyards and beautiful people strolling among the grapes. When people buy Cucinelli they are buying, besides a beautiful garment, this vision of themselves.
For Cucinelli himself (as for Lauren), that fantasy has turned into his life, which now surrounds me. “All my life I had the dream of giving dignity back to the earth,” he says. We are in the castle’s courtyard now, and he gestures at a table set with bread, a leg of prosciutto, hunks of pecorino cheese, vegetables. There’s not an oven in sight, just some tall bottles of olive oil, called Oleo Solomeo, which Cucinelli has been producing since 2008.
He picks up a tomato and smells it, his eyes practically rolling up into his head in ecstasy. “I come from a farming culture, where we valued raw materials above all.”
Cucinelli grew up not far from Solomeo in a house with no running water. His parents kept cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. His grandmother cooked. “I can still taste her pasta sauce, and smell it in my mind,” he says.
“When I come home, no matter where I have been, I always have two dishes: olive oil and bread, and spaghetti with tomatoes.”
When he was 15, his father moved the family to Perugia, the closest big town, to take a job in a factory, and it is clear Cucinelli divides his life into the period BT (before town) and AT. BT the family was happy; AT, his father experienced the misery of being a cog in a machine, and Brunello witnessed it. Cucinelli dates his ideas about how to run a business to that experience.
In 1978 he had the idea of taking cashmere and dying it bright colours, and his business was born. Seven years later he returned to Solomeo and began to reinvent the town, embarking on the castle restoration in 1985. All of his product is now made in Italy, most of it by 1,000 tiny family businesses within 40 miles of Solomeo. About half the town is employed by Cucinelli. Though this sounds feudal – and is, a bit – Cucinelli says he feels acutely that he is the “custodian”, not the “owner” of the town.
“I believe in a new form of capitalism that links the soul and work. As Saint Benedict said: ‘Try to be strict and sweet, a demanding master and loving father,’” he says. “I think if people feel others are profiting from exploitation, they won’t buy a product.”
Solomeo is where Cucinelli puts his theories into practice. He pays his workers on average 20 per cent above the national factory wage. He has built a library and a theatre, stocking them with busts of heroes such as Cicero and Seneca. The working day goes from 8am to 5.30pm, with an hour and a half break – inviolable – for lunch. Employees go home and eat with their families or dine (for free) in the company canteen.
“I want to safeguard the value of lunch,” Cucinelli says. “For me, it is sacred. My family and I always have lunch and dinner together. And we always sit down. Food does not taste the same if you are standing up! After lunch, I sleep 15 or 20 minutes. It is a form of renewal. If I am in our showroom in New York, I sit in a big armchair, put on my sunglasses and close my eyes. To me, the simplest things can have the highest value.”
And to prove it, Cucinelli guides me to the table to begin to cook – though cook is not the right word. Assemble is more like it. It begins with a shallow bowl.
“Take it,” he smiles. Then, delicately, he begins to spoon into it what I can only describe as bread crumbles: to make it, he takes a stale loaf of his favourite unsalted local bread, soaks it in some water, squeezes the water out with his hands and crumbles the bread between his fingers. This is followed by a few tablespoons of chopped tomato and chopped cucumber, and one tablespoon of chopped onions. On top he pours a slug of olive oil, and then a sprinkle of salt. And we are done.
“Panzanella!” he says with delight. “If I am home by myself, this is what I eat, always.” I’ve had it before but with hunks of bread as opposed to crumbles, and the tiny grain-like pieces make a big difference. It’s very good.
It is what Cucinelli serves to everyone who comes here; friends, investors and stockists alike. All those with whom he works make the pilgrimage to Solomeo, because he believes they must experience his vision to understand it. In the world according to Cucinelli, the stomach is not just the way to a man’s heart but to his mind too – and, potentially, his bank account.
Indeed, part of Cucinelli’s impetus to take his company public was not just to increase access to capital but to increase access to powerful people whom he could bring round to his way of thinking. “I do not think we are experiencing an economic crisis,” he says. “I think we are having a civilisation crisis.”
And one of the ways to fix it is through food. “Meals are not just for eating but for discussion,” he says. Then he swoops down on a large porcini mushroom, the dirt still clinging to its roots.
“Smell this!” he cries, waving it under my nose and then taking a deep, dramatic sniff himself, all the while emitting little chortles – “eh! eh! eh!” – of joy.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor