Brunello Cucinelli, the Cashmere Philosopher-King

01_22_Cucinelli_01
Fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli learned to value education above almost all else from his father's deep unhappiness with factory life. Today, his designs are heavily inspired by the wisdom of ancient philosophers. Alessandro Albert/Getty

"The Nature of Theophrastus and of the Franciscan Monks is Nature naturans, Nature untouched by man, one that nurtures and heals without asking anything, as sung centuries later by Giordano Bruno and Baruch Spinoza."

There cannot be many autumn/winter 2016 fashion catalogs that invoke a Greek philosopher from the fourth century B.C., a medieval monastic order and philosophers from the 16th and 17th centuries—and that's just in the first paragraph.

But then Brunello Cucinelli is not just any fashion designer. To get the most out of his seasonal brochures, it helps to brush up on your Aristotle, have a rudimentary knowledge of Virgil's Eclogues and be prepared for a few intriguing allegorical twists and turns.

What all of the above means in fashion terms is that this winter is about "natural luxury" in neutral tones, with an accent on layering. But then pretty much every Cucinelli collection is about natural luxury in neutral tones, with an accent on layering.

What makes Cucinelli's clothes different is the man himself. Whereas standard fashion house procedure would be to corral the celebrity star of the moment and transform him or her into a brand ambassador, Cucinelli invokes the spirit of John Ruskin (spring/summer 2014)—and also manages to attract James Bond. Daniel Craig likes the brand so much that he wore a brown Cucinelli suit in one of the scenes in Spectre, even though the official 007 outfitter is Tom Ford.

The Wall Street Journal named Cucinelli the Cashmere King, but he is more like one of those philosopher princes of Renaissance Italy who, having won wealth as a condottiere on the field of battle (or, in his case, the pitiless world of international fashion), retires to his hilltop fastness to think, to read, to contemplate beauty and to ponder the place of man in the universe.

I first met Cucinelli some years ago, when he was busy restoring the abandoned medieval hilltop hamlet of Solomeo near Perugia, in which he had built a theater and a library, and breathed life into the old stones. I had difficulty taking it all in. I was expecting to meet a successful maker of cashmere pullovers, and instead I spent the day and most of the night talking in French (he spoke no English, I little Italian) to a man who gave the impression that he would happily give up fashion and devote himself to the study of the life and works of the likes of Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius or indeed anyone who has approached life with intelligence, humanity, compassion and humility.

He devours knowledge and the wisdom of the ancients with the voracity of the autodidact he is: the son of poor farmers. He grew up in rural Italy during the 1950s and did not encounter electric light until his mid-teens, when the family moved to town and his father worked in a cement factory. He remembers his father's deep unhappiness with factory life; there, he was humiliated by those who thought him an uneducated peasant. It was a situation that affected Cucinelli and one that also taught him to value education above almost anything.

Cucinelli is a good-looking man with a thatch of dirty blond hair, a trim figure and a porcelain smile. As a young man, he modeled for Ellesse and got involved in cashmere only because he was keen on a girl who worked in a knitwear store.

He started out making colorful cashmere for women before turning his attention to menswear, and in 1997 he opened his first store under his own name, in St.-Tropez, France. A couple of years later, he decided to branch out beyond knitwear to create the total look. "I basically took a look at my personal wardrobe, my coats, my blazers," he says, "and I tried to make them contemporary." Thus was born the look that he calls Sportive Chic Lusso: the "one-and-a-half-breasted blazer" (like a double-breasted but with a smaller wrap); the slightly too-short cargo pant rolled up at the ankle; the neutral natural palette; and, of course, the gilet.

This sleeveless garment is a medium that Cucinelli has mastered like no other, whether cashmere, quilted suede, flannel, shearling or down-filled, water-repellent nylon-and-wool. Sometimes it will be a two-tone mix of nylon and cotton. Sometimes it will be zip-fronted, sometimes button-fronted. Sometimes it will encase the throat, sometimes it will be V-necked like a traditional waistcoat, and sometimes it will be round-necked. The weight of the down will change depending on whether the gilet is intended as a layer underneath or above a form-fitting, super-soft cashmere sports jacket. And—this is the true extent of his genius—Cucinelli has convinced men that it is not just acceptable but aspirational to wear a short gilet over a longer suit jacket or blazer. It may sound strange, but he has made it work. Just as he has made a fashion brochure work as a philosophical treatise.

At the end of the current brochure, he writes, "Prince Myshkin, when he said that beauty would save the world, was laughed at. But like many other visionaries who were humiliated by their contemporaries, he was right. Beauty will save the world: our only task is to save beauty, and we can do this with simplicity and ethics, watching and learning, with courage and love, from Nature."

One lovely way to help save beauty: succumb to Cucinelli's designs as well as his prose, and treat yourself to a one-and-a-half-breasted, biker-style, stone-colored shearling gilet from his upcoming spring-summer collection.

Brunello Cucinelli, the Cashmere Philosopher-King