Seeing is believing. The best way to believe in shalom is to see it in Solomeo.
Solomeo is a small hilltop village in a mountainous region called Umbria, north of Rome. It is where Brunello Cucinelli and his family make their home. It is also where his company makes high-end cashmere sweaters and other luxury sportswear. And it’s also where he’s making shalom.
Rebecca Mead tells the story of “The Prince of Solomeo” in a March 2010 New Yorker article. It’s told over the past 30 years, as Cucinelli has grown his company from a one-man operation into a business employing 500 people with an annual turnover of more than two hundred million dollars. But that’s only scratching the surface.
Cucinelli has been busy renewing the village of Solomeo for the flourishing of his neighbors and employees. A Renaissance villa has been turned into a dining hall for employees, with a vaulted ceiling and views of the hills. Tourists often mistake it for an upscale restaurant. Cucinelli is contributing to the restoration of the village’s Church of St. Bartholomew, which was founded in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 17th.
Streets are being torn up and repaved, city squares restored as well as a new woodland park being developed. Cucinelli has also constructed a 250-seat theater crafted in the architectural vernacular of the 16th century. “All of this has been done by the millions generated by Cucinelli’s clothing,” writes Mead, “which is favored by the kind of wearers who typically choose Armani Black label or Chanel for a formal occasion.”1 His trademark cashmere sweaters began as novelties, in bright colors. But it turned out Cucinelli was ahead of the curve and his sweaters caught the imagination of high-end buyers. Now his clothing line is featured in ritzy department stores as well as his own boutiques in cities such as Paris, Tokyo, and New York. In his autobiography A Humanistic Enterprise in the World of Industry, Cucinelli writes that his business is founded upon ideas derived from the classics of ethics and theology. Mead writes:
Having dropped out of engineering school at twenty-four, Cucinelli has followed a self-imposed curriculum of study, which has resulted in assembling a personal pantheon of sages, ranging from Socrates to St. Francis of Assisi and Pascal, by whose pensées he seeks to abide. “St. John Chrysostom was well aware that riches may ‘belong to the devil’ ” he writes in his autobiography. “On the one hand the riches of plunder, those of the man who steals and hoards; on the other hand the good riches of the man who transforms and distributes, and by doing so, renews life… This is what Solomeo represents for me.”
This is also what shalom represents—loving neighbors by renewing their life and the institutions where they work and play. Cucinelli’s work reflects an orientation toward shalom that is consistent with the Early Church, including his wide net of resources. Origen said Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to idolize their gods. Cucinelli’s first philosophical inspiration came while reading Kant: “Kant said, ‘There are only two things that really move me: the starry sky above me, and the moral law within me.’ ” Creation and conscience. Cucinelli was moved. He is also drawn to Plato, who, in the Republic, noted that wise people “have to exercise, have a measured diet, and have to listen to music.” Cucinelli does all three, as well as practicing the spiritual disciplines laid out by St. Benedict. Yet Cucinelli is not a monk—he adheres to the theories of Theodore Levitt, a 20th century marketing scholar who argued that the purpose of companies is to serve customers. “I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals,” he told Mead. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I am trying. Of course, I believe in a form of capitalism. I would like it to be more human.”
In the Genesis account, work is human if it includes being playful. So Cucinelli built a new stadium in a neighboring village, Castel Rigone, where many of his soccer friends live. It has manicured turf and the teams run around in Nike tracksuits and cashmere neck warmers. It’s so much fun that Cucinelli’s wife Federica says Brunello’s Sunday afternoon reading habit languishes during the season. Fun however is not simply playing soccer. It is also paying people well and treating them well.
Cucinelli pays a higher wage than market rate. The whole company takes a 90-minute lunch break. Cucinelli has installed a small library near the theater where workers (and visitors) are encouraged to browse volumes of Dante, Kafka, Proust, Ruskin, Rawls, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Deleuze. If these names are somewhat unfamiliar, it tells you more about us than Cucinelli. He also does good works for those not on his payroll. Cucinelli earmarks 20 percent of the company’s profits, he says, “for humanity.” This includes a hospital he built in Malawi. “If I give you the right conditions to work, and I put you in a beautiful place, where you feel a little bit better about yourself because you know your work is being used for something greater than producing a profit, maybe you will get more creative, maybe you will want to work more.”
If you think this is pie-in-the-sky, think again. In the spring of 2009, Ron Frasch, the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, wrote to Cucinelli to say his company was lucky to have his company as a close partner. “We all got together and said, ‘Lets do something to elevate this business,’” Frasch told Rebecca Mead. Saks dedicated its windows to Cucinelli along with hosting events to elevate his unique take on business. At the end of 2009, Cucinelli turned a profit in a down economy.
This approach to business is felt all the way to the shop floor. Among the workers Mead interviewed was Rosella Cianetti, a seamstress. Cianetti has made clothes for 40 years, but only in a Cucinelli factory for the last seven. “It is better than any other experience I have had. We’re treated like humans, and in other places we are treated like machines. We get respect for what we do with our hands. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but we appreciate it.”
Cucinelli was reared as a Catholic but now describes himself as a “religious naturalist.” His next project is the construction of what he calls a “sacred park” in Solomeo. “Say you are a friend of mine and you believe in Islam—you can stay here, and study, and find your one little corner for prayer,” Cucinelli says. “And if you are Jewish, you can stay here.” This too is enacting shalom, the flourishing of all. Cucinelli is confident that reality acts like gravity, it wins in the long run. He’s learned some of this from his “spiritual father”—Father Cassian Folsom, a Benedictine monk and an American. Ten years ago, Folsom reestablished a monastery in Norcia, St. Benedictine’s birthplace. It was closed in Napoleon’s reign. Father Cassian mentors Cucinelli, urging him to rebuild the monastery and remember that shalom requires patience. “The monks take a long view of things,” Folsom confided, “so if it takes fifty years to do it we’ll manage.”
As Rebecca Mead and Brunello Cucinelli prepared to leave the monastery and return to Solomeo, he confided to Father Cassian “that he had spent some time reflecting on his life, and had been able to put order in his soul.” “That’s a considerable accomplishment,” Father Cassian said, respectfully. “The great monastic asceticism exists to put order into the soul.” So does shalom. It’s designed to put order in society.
We are hard wired for shalom. We sense it intuitively without argument for it corresponds to our design—what ought to be. It coheres with creation and conscience. It’s not “utopian,” rather it’s a sign of a better way and a deeper reality.
Cucinelli’s example is a call for conscientious capitalism.
1 Rebecca Mead, “The Prince of Solomeo: The cashmere utopia of Brunello Cucinelli,” The New Yorker, March 29, 2010.