In a world where billionaire businessmen regularly undercut wages, mechanize labor, and offshore production to meet quarterly deadlines, Brunello Cucinelli has done something different. The Italian fashion designer has merged the philosophies of Stoicism, Christianity, and German idealism to create a billion-dollar company. His focuses include creating long-lasting, quality products, paying employees a living wage, and making profits ethically and morally.
At the age of 12, Cucinelli created the foundation for his philosophy. Desiring to be a monk, he read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and said it was one of the most profound events of his life, teaching him to look for inner peace and keep himself centered on the principle of “being a good man.” St. Benedict, Socrates, and Kant also played roles in the development of his ethical foundation.
After spending a brief time in engineering school during his mid-twenties, Cucinelli founded his luxury cashmere company in 1978 with just $550. He was attracted to quality fabric not because it would ensure huge markups for wealthy customers, but because valuable material wouldn’t be easily thrown away; it could be passed down through time like cultures, values, and thoughts.
“Two things I would give to everyone if I could: a book and a cashmere shahtoosh scarf like the one I mentioned. They can be passed from one generation to another,” Cucinelli said in a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I like that idea in general, of not being the only owner. It gives objects more meaning.”
As his company slowly grew to its current size of 1,600 employees, Cucinelli created a workplace environment that emphasized the dignity of his staff and demanded that they focus on growing as full people.
“The great dream of my life was to make work of mankind more human, knowing that work raises the dignity of mankind,” Cucinelli said in a video for Marissa Collections TV. “So I’ve always imagined a business that, yes, of course, makes a profit, but does it ethically, with dignity and morality.”
Cucinelli is a strong believer in revitalizing the honor of craftsmanship and pays his staff above the going rate. Employees are expected to show up at 8 a.m., but they don’t punch a clock. Everyone gets a 90-minute siesta, and all work must end by 5:30 p.m. He actively discourages anyone from emailing or calling about business after hours. Employees also earn annual bonuses of $550 to spend on books, theater, art exhibits, and anything else that enhances culture.
“Generally speaking, we as a society work too much, and we all need to find the right balance, the right breakdown of our day to have time to dedicate to ourselves,” Cucinelli said in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar in September 2016. “I always follow the rules of Saint Benedict, who said you should look out for your mindful studies, your soulful praying, and, then, lastly, work.”
His devotion to his employees and ensuring that they work in an environment that allows them to maintain their dignity comes from a painful upbringing. His father was a farmer who was forced to work in factories to provide for Brunello and his siblings; Italy had very few regulations on the treatment of employees back then. In an interview with Om Malik, Cucinelli said his father would regularly ask himself what he did to offend God and why he was being punished for a life without honor or dignity. “Man needs dignity even more than he needs bread,” Cucinelli said to Malik.
Cucinelli’s ambition to create beauty and preserve culture goes beyond cashmere. The billionaire donates 20 percent of his profits to his foundation, which focuses on three goals: enhancing and supporting culture, preserving art and historic sites, and conserving land. The foundation has funded the building of a library, a theater, and an artisan school, as well as the openings of three public parks.
Though he’s proud of his charitable work, Cucinelli said in his interview with Malik that donating to charity does not make a corporation honorable because that alone doesn’t mean it respects and values human dignity. In his clothes, his company, his philosophy, and his personal life, dignity is the measure of character, order is how he respects his body and soul, and culture is his greatest indulgence.
“I believe that there are three things in life that you must absolutely do yourself because nobody can do it in your place: keeping fit, following a diet, and accumulating culture,” Cucinelli said during the Harper’s Bazaar interview.
Cucinelli, in his life and in his work, is an example to American conservatives who spend countless hours donating to politicians, working at think tanks, and attending speeches and rallies in the name of preserving culture. All it really takes is one man and the dream of creating a business based on moral ethics and dignity.
Ryan James Girdusky is a contributing writer at Red Alert Politics.