Om Malik: I’ve been reading about you, and I have been fascinated by your progress and more importantly how you have conducted your business. Where did you find the inspiration to follow this path?
Brunello Cucinelli: From the teary eyes of my father. When we were living in the countryside, the atmosphere, the ambiance — life was good. We were just farmers, nothing special. Then he went to work in a factory. He was being humiliated and offended, and he was doing a hard job. He would not complain about the hardship or the tiny wages he received, but what he did say was, “What have I done evil to God to be subject to such humiliation?”
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 the past, people] didn’t know anything about their employer. My father or my brother didn’t know if their employer had a villa on the sea. Whereas with Google Maps, I can see where your house is. That’s where the world is becoming new. Mankind is becoming more ethical, but it is not happening because man has decided to become better than he was 100 years ago. It’s because we know we live in a glass house where everybody can see.
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. Someone can say to you, “Listen, two years ago, you said something different.” In a split second, they know. That’s where lies that wonderful future for mankind.
Om: So you are in favor of radical transparency?
Brunello: Yes, I am in favor of that, because that’s the way to become authentic and credible.
Om: Authentic and credible and open are wonderful ideas, but I wonder how you feel it all fits into today’s reality. Now every person edits the story they tell about themselves, carefully ensuring what the world looks at — whether it’s over Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Brunello: I’d like to focus on the positive. The positive side is that you must be credible. Because everybody knows the problem that I’m concerned about, the dangerous is what you’ve just said, Facebook and all that.
Like [Greek philosopher] Heraclitus used to say, Polemos is the father and master of mankind. Without Polemos, there is no discussion, right? It’s difficult to have a discussion, because nowadays human beings walk with a bowed head, looking down [at their phones]. Yesterday morning, a girl bumped her head in my face because she was not looking up.
I want to take a step backward. Who remembers the last email they sent yesterday? No one. Or the last text message. Emperor Hadrian used to say, “The daily business, the daily life, the daily chores, kills the human being.“ I’m not interested in daily chores. We have now swapped information for knowledge, which is not the same thing. I do not want to know. I’m not online. I don’t even have a computer.
I am a great supporter of memory. If I remember things, I do not need to go back and check and revise. In this company, you cannot send emails after 5:30 PM, when the company closes for the evening. The day after, when you turn up for work, what are you like? You are a still person. You are better.
I do not want to be liable for intruding into your private life. Saint Benedict said, “You should look after your mind to study every day, then your soul through praise,” which is basically speaking to yourself, praying. “Then work, through work.” But the abbot is the one who basically assigns all the work; he is responsible for you even after your death. I do not want to assign work to you where I feel responsible for ruining or altering your private life.
Om: How do you reconcile that with a world that is moving constantly and quickly, 24/7?
Brunello: Well, for example, we call our New York office and no one says, “Hi, how are you? How’s your day?” No one. If everything is so short and to the point, how much time is then left for your mind? [It should be the case that] if we need three hours to go deep into things, then we do it.
Om: So you run a business that is across the universe, across the planet, different time zones, different people. Isn’t that more of a 24/7 endeavor?
Brunello: No, 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?
The first time I was in New York, we had a tiny office, and they were emailing across it. I said, “No way. Just get up and go to your neighbor and ask them one thing, in one split second, in person.” First of all, you look me in the eye. You smell me, my presence. Maybe I take the opportunity to ask you about your family. Don’t you feel better than if you get an email? Maybe I smile and you feel even better.
The other day, I was writing some things that were important to me, and a message arrived. Who is able not to check the message? No one. Everybody is tempted. You go there for 30 seconds, then your mind is there, even though you were focused on what you were doing previously.
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.
Do you know the word otium in Latin, meaning, “doing nothing”? The Roman people were all laid back. In all the pictures, they were all laying around. They were doing nothing, just staring. In the winter on a Sunday afternoon, I can spend six hours in front of the fireplace, just looking at the flames and thinking. In the evening, I’m drunk with beautiful thoughts. My wife says to me, “What are you looking at?” I say, “The fire.” We have to take a step backward.
Many years ago, I witnessed something in America. I was there for Thanksgiving. When it was time for lunch, my friend would get a dish and bring it to the children, who were placed in front of the television. They were absorbed by the television. I said to my wife, it’s something I can’t cope with. I’ve always said we must be on the cutting edge with technology. But your life shouldn’t change as a consequence.
Slaves to technology?
Om: Is it fair to say that you believe in technology as a tool and not in us becoming slaves to it?
Brunello: Yes. I have a phone. I think I receive 10 calls a day, because they know that I only want to receive the important ones. In Hong Kong, I walked out of the subway and someone was saying on the loud speaker, “Be careful, there’s a wall.” It’s basically what happened to the lady yesterday morning. We must really manage this kind of reality. We must rule it somehow.
Om: What’s the correlation? All these people you are quoting are very interesting, but why mention them? Also how are they correlated to all these people whose photos you have on the wall here?
Brunello: Those are the ancient thinkers, philosophers: Socrates, Confucius, Constantine, Palladio. These people are the contemporary figures that left me with a different view on the world. Dostoyevsky, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Kafka, Kennedy and the Pope. At the end of the day, all these great people, what do they focus on? Human dignity. They all talk about being custodians in the world. Hadrian, the emperor said, “I feel responsible for the beauty in the world.”
Can I ask you, how old are you? I am 60 myself.
Brunello: You are not far away from my mindset.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a great enlightened man, but he was the first of the Romantic movement, too. I think that in the last 30 years, we have tried to govern mankind through enlightenment, through the use of reason, our mind. This is no good.
This century is where enlightenment and romanticism must blend. A great idea that is born out of the mind and then goes through the soul — there is no doubt that the outcome is marvelous. If this idea is true, fair, beautiful, there’s no doubt that it is also a good idea. I think this applies to everything.
Brunello: I spend a lot of time in the Italian café, and when we are in the café, what is that? That’s the Polemos I was telling you about. Discussions over time, debate about theology, economics, economy, religion. If we said, “When was Kant born? 1750?” and your mind was working in the meantime. Now, split second, Google it, and you know. There it is.
The mind no longer searches for things. For example, in what years was Marcus Aurelius emperor? When was that battle that we always talk about? What was there in that precise moment? What was going on?
In the past, say we were going to to meet up. I had seen you once before — your face, your body. But I didn’t know what it would be like to meet again. Whereas now I’ve seen you and you’re wearing your bikini. I’ve seen you everywhere. I do not want to deprive you of the surprise of the magic. Because then when you finally show up, you feel the smell of the burnt wood and everything else.
The other night at my place, there were 19 friends who have known one another since birth. We went through childhood, youth, everything together. The other night we were having this beautiful discussion about death. One of them got his phone out and said, “Look at this video.” It was one of those videos about jokes and stuff: funny, of course. Of course, the discussion was interrupted. I said, “Are we crazy? No, there’s no way.” In the end, we never resumed the talk about death.
Then you ask yourself, “How can I govern this? How can I manage it?” No one can actually be so strong that you are thinking, then a bleep comes and you’re not tempted to take a look. I don’t know anybody who can resist that temptation.
Om: Can we talk a little bit about you and your career as a businessman?
Brunello: Yes, with pleasure.
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.
I had this idea of building a company with one or two people and giving dignity to work.
Om: Now we have a world that is changing. The idea of “brand” is kind of amorphous, and you don’t really know who stands behind that brand. I wonder if you have any thoughts about it.
Brunello: I wanted the brand to have my face. I wanted the product to convey the culture, life, lifestyle, dignity of work. We are a listed company, and I wanted to manufacture a product with dignity. I wanted a profit with dignity. Because the press all talk about the moral ethics of profit. Why can’t we have a dignified profit then?
Would you buy something from someone if you knew that the person, by making this product, has harmed or damaged mankind? No, you would not buy it. You wouldn’t even buy it if you knew that the company had staggering profits. Our cashmere blazer costs $3,000 retail, but the profit must be dignified. It needs to respect the raw material producer, then the artisans, then those working for the company. The consumer also needs to be respected. Everything must be balanced.
We need a new form of capitalism, a contemporary form of capitalism. I would like to add “humanistic” to that equation.
Don’t you feel that over the last two or three years? Don’t you smell it? There is an awareness raising, a civil, ethical point of view. The idea of community, dignity. Yes, it’s a strong sensation.
Om: I refuse to buy anything made in China, unless I know who makes it, and also I don’t buy anything which comes from fashion conglomerates. I like to pay for quality. The only challenge I feel is that for our approach to work, there has to be a certain amount of money, a certain amount of comfort in life. Without it, some people still have to work with the industrial society we are now in.
Brunello: My daughter refused to buy a pair of trousers for €19. Beautiful trousers. I said, “Why didn’t you buy them?” She said, “How much money do they think the worker actually made or was paid for that?” I think that if you make a product, you have to sell in that specific market. In India, it has a price; in America, it has another price. I’m fine with that.
There are some companies that give a lot of their money to charity. I’m not interested in that. Because first of all I want to see how they make their profit in the process. It is meaningless that they make a huge profit and then do charity.
Rise of the Internet Brands
Om: There is a big boom in internet-based fashion brands. Do you think that trend has the ability to influence the world of fashion and clothing?
Brunello: Yes, absolutely.
There’s luxury, absolute luxury, aspirational luxury and accessible luxury. Luxury is a handcrafted good or a place that is beautiful, well-made, exclusive. It must be exclusive; otherwise it’s not luxury. It’s nearly always something beautiful, well-made, true, and also useful and fair.
But what is this thing, “accessible luxury”? The two words don’t go together. Absolute luxury must be exclusive too. Everything must be balanced. You made it. The raw material supplier, did they earn the fair amount? Good. Do the people who work for the company earn fair wages? Yes. Has the company made a fair profit or an excessive profit?
I think this jumper is three or four years old. Ten years old. Five years old. Three years. Even if you stop wearing it 10 years later, it should still be there. At the end of the day, most of all, there is quality, a high degree of workmanship.
We went public, and we have more than 50 percent American investors as shareholders. Before going public, I said to them, “Are you looking for a company that grows very fast, that makes profits that are too high, in our view, quick profits? Do not invest in our company. Do you want a company that grows in a gracious way? That allows suppliers to grow alongside it, so that your artisans can grow as well as the company’s staff?”
You buy this product and you feel better, you feel at peace, because you bought a product that, although very expensive, there is work and respect for the work that goes into the product. I do not buy a specific product if I know you have made preposterous amounts of profit out of it. That’s exactly where, in my view, the new capitalism lies.
The world has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. Man must adjust, must be contemporary. Capitalism and capitalistic people must be contemporary.
Om: What do you mean by “the world has changed”?
Brunello: It’s open. We were saying before that I can use Google Maps to locate your home. I can see which car you drive, what swimming pool you have. I think that the world is completely different as a consequence. It is new. In a split second, you can have 2,000 people convening or rallying to a square.
Om: Let me give you a little counterargument. My theory is that we live in a world that moves much, much faster than ever before. In the Industrial Revolution, we moved at a certain speed and compressed time and spaces. The internet makes everything even faster, mobile. From my pocket to Italy to America to India is essentially microseconds.
The world is much faster, and there is a big change as a result. Whether it is fashion or cultural movements or political movements, we forget about what’s happening so fast. We had Putin move into Crimea, and it’s old news and nobody talks about it in the American media already. We are talking about something else now. The world is very different like that. That’s a big challenge we face as a human race.
Brunello: In 1220, Genghis Khan was boasting that in two days, he could do what the Roman army would do in 10 days. He was boasting about his speed. Man’s feeling has not changed, but the pace has changed.
Om: From a business perspective, has this connected planet helped you grow your business and open new markets quickly? Or not really?
Brunello: No. As far as business is concerned, I do not like things to go too quickly. I like to be swift as a person, but I don’t like things to be rushed lightheartedly.
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.
I am fascinated by the time that we are living in, because enlightenment and romanticism are blending. We are rediscovering human dignity, plus the dignity of the territory, the community.
Om: You once said that running a company is simple. I wanted to know more about that. I want to learn the business principles that other people, other entrepreneurs, can learn from you.
Brunello: You must believe in the human being, because the creativity of a company — Let’s say you have a company with 1,000 people. Maybe we were told that there are only two or three genius people in the 1,000. But I think that if you have 1,000 people, you have 1,000 geniuses. They’re just different kinds of genius and a different degree of intensity.
We hold a meeting here with all the staff every two months. Everybody takes part in it. Even the person with the humblest tasks knows exactly what was the latest shop we opened. Everything is based on esteem, and esteem then generates creativity.
Everything is visible, when things go well and also when they go less well. When we are sad, when we are worried, when we are happy: If you show all these different moods, then you are credible. That’s why I say this is simple.
Om: Right now you’re a publicly traded company, but you yourself have a more a philosophical bent. How do you reconcile the need of the stock market with your outlook on the world?
Brunello: Finance is now going back to working along with industry while respecting each’s mutual role. In the last 20 years, finance dealt too much with industry, and industry dealt too much with finance. Whereas I myself, I’m an industrialist. I don’t know anything about finance. If you invest in me, you invest in an industry. I like it even better if you call it an artisanal industry.
As for my business plans, I have three-year business plans and 30-year business plans but also three-centuries business plans. I think that this is another good breakthrough in the world.
I haven’t come across one single investor who asked me to target a higher growth. Generally speaking, we pay our suppliers and staff 20 percent more than the average on the market. No investor ever asked, “Why don’t you reduce their wages? They’re too high.” I’m confident, because finance will become contemporary and modern too.
State of Modern Fashion
Om: I want your comments on the modern fashion industry. As an industry insider, how do you see all this internet-driven hype?
Brunello: I think that there are some finance people, the French ones, that are great at finance and have bought companies. This is one way. Then there’s a second way, the Italian way, where there are some industrialists with many enterprises.
They have a never-ending kind of outlook about their companies. Armani is just a witness to that. Basically, it testifies to this. They follow their own path, their own route. They can both be appreciated, but they’re two different routes. Then, of course, some of these companies might sell to the other side, maybe because the owners are old. Some of them go public. Some of them have private equity funds.
When you sell a company, you tend to say that everything is going downhill. Whereas I like to quote Heraclitus on this: While things rest, the world regenerates. Something is born, grows, dies, rests, regenerates and regenerates again. That’s why I’m not at all worried. These are just different routes.
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: We have a lot of good shoe brands: Alden, Allen Edmonds, and a bunch of others like Codie. They have done well in the U.S. One of the reasons you can have so many arts and crafts and artisanal stuff being made in Italy is that you have the whole ecosystem.
Brunello: Each of us specializes in something. Italy has strong industries. It’s ranked second only after Germany in Europe. There’s furniture, food and apparel. [The United States] will go down in history because of technology. Germany, cars. The French have champagne. Every country has its own identity.
Say I work for Apple. Maybe I have the humblest kind of job, but I’m not ashamed that I work for Apple. Because it is still Apple. Whereas here in Italy, you say, “I’m a tailor” or “I’m a waiter” and you still get that kind of respect.
That’s the nobility that we have to rediscover. That goes hand in hand with a comeback to the community, to the territory. In Italy, this is strong. The 35-year-olds, 40-year-olds, with their children, they’re starting to take a look at the community. They want to go back to living in the countryside. They want to buy good food, good fruit. There is something in the air.
Om: I’m fascinated that you have such deep passion for philosophy. I wonder how it has helped you as a businessperson.
Brunello: In everything, really. For example, take Marcus Aurelius, the emperor. In any possible mood that you might be in, you read a sentence by him and you feel better. Any philosopher helps you to raise your head and the world will look better. Respect the human being, and that will be better. Hadrian the emperor said, “I never met anyone who after being paid a compliment did not feel better.”
The true way to nurture your soul is philosophy. The true malaise of the human being — no matter whether Italian, American, Chinese — is the malaise of your soul, the uneasiness of your soul. This is stronger now than when my father was young or my grandfather.
I would like to try to somehow cure this malaise of the soul, even with the young people working for my company, because at the end of the day, you can be wealthy and still feel the same way. I know many people who own a fortune. The other day, a very loaded person said to me, “I’d love to be more serene.” This is true for rich people, poor people.
There are three things you cannot buy. Fitness: You have to keep fit, whether you’re rich or not. Diet: You cannot pay someone to be on a diet for you. I think that diet is the biggest sacrifice in my life. Then, looking after your soul. No one can possibly treat your soul but you yourself. This is something you can do through culture and philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius says, “You should go with the flow of mankind, you should live as if it was the last day of your life, plan as if you were to live forever,” and then he also adds, “You should be at rest, at peace, you should give yourself some peace.” Saint Benedict adds, “The sun should never set on our rage. Let’s go to sleep at peace with mankind.”
Let’s try looking after our soul while working. Do you know that we work 11 percent of our life? We can’t have everything revolve around work. Unfortunately, now in Italy, it is hip and chic to say, “I am so tired and exhausted by work.” My father was tired because he was farming the land. He would say, “I need some sleep, I need some rest,” but he did not have this kind of feeling.
This is the great kind of treatment that we have to follow on a daily basis. Philosophy prescribed this treatment to me. I don’t know if you know Boethius, who lived in 520 AD. He was King Theodoric’s right-hand man. Theodoric condemned Boethius to death. He resorts to philosophy for help. Philosophy turns up as a woman, not very young, but with alert eyes. She says to Boethius, “What are you complaining about in your life? You have had this, this, this and that.” This is part of man.
Alexander the Great conquered a country. The tyrant cut the noses off the people there. It’s just the way it is. It’s part of life. I do not feel anxiety. What am I supposed to say here? You see, I think that philosophy really is part of human life.
Meetings & Mail
Om: One of the challenges that I have as somebody who works in the world of technology — and a lot of us in technology, like founders and engineers, have — is that we tend to work hard all the time. That is just a human state. How does one get away from constantly working? What is your advice?
Brunello: Sometimes our meetings are done standing, without coffee, no buffet, everything quick. This does not mean that everything is treated quickly. If the meeting takes three days, then three days are devoted to it.
How can you work 12 hours a day? Where is your mind? Where does it end up if you work 12 hours a day? Maybe your mind only develops in a specific sector. Maybe if you focus on that, you lose out on family, you lose out on spirituality with yourself, time with yourself.
For example, the other day I was in Milan, and I met with two 55-year-old managers who work as investors. One said to me, “I work from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM.” Sitting there, in front of a screen, I wouldn’t entrust anything of mine to him for 12 hours. Then, if you live in the city, you go back home, it takes one hour to commute. What about the morning after?
That’s where we have to find a different kind of balance. You think that you have worked one hour less, but the morning after, your rate of creativity is sky-high.
What is Success
Om: This is a challenge in modern society. We measure success in terms of, “We’ve worked 12 hours.” The entire society is rooted around the idea of more, and longer has become the measure of success. How does a young founder or a young startup measure what you’re suggesting?
Brunello: So, I am 60. I have decided to work seven hours instead of eight, because I’m starting to be old. I have not reduced the rapidity, not by one split second. Since I am older, though, I get tired and I need rest.
We went public, then all the banks came here, all the people, and we were working until midnight the first days. There was one hour with just a sandwich, one hour coffee, one hour discussion. I said, “From tomorrow, everything changes.” So everybody turns up at 8 AM, and at 5:30 PM everybody leaves. That’s the only time we have available. I do not want to see any time wasted. I do not want during the day to see funny emails or joke emails. So we were able to go public without being overwhelmed.
During the road show, the banks said to me, “You are supposed to meet eight to nine people in one-to-one meetings a day.” I said, “You must be crazy!” Am I supposed to meet someone for 45 minutes, and then another 45 minutes with someone else, then at 2 PM, I don’t know what I said or didn’t say? I said, “No, that’s not my way. I’m meeting five, tops, very focused, that’s it.”
We have to rediscover the quality of work. If during the day, someone texts, “Why don’t we go for a pizza on a Sunday?” I don’t receive it until after 6 PM.
Om: I guess you’re not on Twitter. [Silence.]
Brunello: No, I understand. You see, we can make things concise, and we have time for our family. When I say family, I mean your time, your private time. So tonight, at half-past five, that’s it, I’m finished. I go for a jog, I have a booklet that I carry with me, and when I come across a good idea, I jot it down.
Om: This is fantastic. I have so many more questions.
Brunello: I think we will have the chance, because you are a very interesting person to me, too. I will come and see you when I am in San Francisco. You have a view and outlook that is extremely modern. You are fascinated, nevertheless, fascinated by philosophy. I am fascinated by philosophy and by the world. I have always kept technology at a distance. I was always scared of being dragged away. So I try to be a bit obnoxious because I am scared of it.
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, “You 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.