Brunello Cucinelli: Artisanship has nothing to fear from automation

Brunello Cucinelli is a man of many epithets: the insider’s designer; the philosopher-entrepreneur; the humanist-capitalist. But for all the complexity of ideas suggested by this array of roles, at the heart of his approach is a simple assertion that seems to offer a gentle challenge to luxury entrepreneurs: the centrality of civil values to capitalism.


Brunello Cucinelli, centre, with IBM Vice President Didier Barbe (left), and journalist Eric de Riedmatten, moderator of the debate (right)

Few things capture this ostensible paradox quite so coherently as Cucinelli’s vision of innovation, which the Italian creative director unspooled on Saturday before an audience at the Sorbonne, France’s most prestigious university, in a panel discussion entitled, “How to reconcile performance, humanism and innovation?”.

For Cucinelli, who has built a billion-dollar business empire on the back of such a combination, the questions of the digital age seem to leave him unruffled. His approach to innovation and commercial performance is as unchanged nowadays, he says, from the birth of the business in 1978, when he turned vibrantly-dyed local cashmere into a roaring ready-to-wear success, an innovation ahead of its time. Automation is only its latest – and most divisive – variation.  “Every day, every year we’re working towards innovation. And man is innovatory when he finds the right way of working,” Cucinelli told FashionNetwork.com. “To do that we need to live normally. We can’t work 14-15 hours a day. We need to rest our heads at the end of the day.”

This wholesome philosophy has been the guiding principle for the business since its establishment, and has seen the CEO transform the Umbrian hill town town of Salomeo surrounding his factory into a thriving fashion and arts complex, replete with a theatre and library. Workers receive 20% more than the average industry salary and adhere to a strictly imposed 8.30AM – 5.30PM workday.   “I wanted to work for moral dignity, human dignity. I needed to find a way to ensure a work-life balance. I wanted fair work, fair profits,” the creative director explained. “I want to find the balance between profits and tax, without forgetting poverty, obviously,” he repeated with conviction.  Indeed, his cashmere empire grossed $452 million in the nine months ended September 30, with sales in China surging nearly 40%.


Photo: Brunello Cucinelli

In the 39 years since the birth of the business, Cucinelli has become a cult designer in affluent centres such as Silicon Valley, where the label’s understated rural Italian elegance has attracted the attention of many a well-heeled tech billionaire. Earlier this month, he addressed an audience including Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Adidas’ Kasper Rorsted, and Michelle Obama on the pursuit of ‘Digital Humanism’ in San Francisco, where he extolled the virtues of the gracious use of technology needed to ‘humanise the web’.

Cucinelli’s reputation as an intellectual designer has amassed him a slew of awards including the Cavaliere del Lavoro (Knight of Industry), presented by the Italian President, and an honorary degree in Philosophy and Ethics of Human Relations from the University of Perugia, in Cucinelli’s home province of Umbria where the label’s products continue to be made.  All garments boast a Made-in-Italy appellation – which is no small feat, considering that the company operates in over 55 countries with 100 monobrand stores, supported by an international multibrand retail network of over 1,000 points of sale.

Still, the designer waves away questions of any pressure the company’s explosive growth might have put on his humane capitalist strategy.  “No, no. It’s just as normal.  Handmade products are special and unique. I am not worried. 30, 50 years ago you still had to be innovative. Robots might be innovative. But it is Man that is contemporary.”
 

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