Dec 24, 2007
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'King of Cashmere' lends human touch to 'Made in Italy'

Dec 24, 2007

SOLOMEO, Italy, Dec 24, 2007 (AFP) - Rescued from near oblivion 20 years ago by an idealist entrepreneur, the central Italian village of Solomeo is today churning out elegant cashmere sweaters proudly labelled "Made in Italy".

Dressmakers in Italian luxury designer Brunello Cucinelli's factory in the medieval hilltop village of Solomeo - Photo : Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Dubbed the King of Cashmere in the Italian press, Brunello Cucinelli has achieved a rare blend of capitalism and humanism, drawing inspiration from Socrates and Saint Augustine.

Cucinelli, the youthful owner of a small company producing cashmere wear, bought the tiny medieval Umbrian town's dilapidated castle in 1985, transferring his business there after two years of renovation work.

Since then the business has spilled over into the town, with workshops and offices set up in several disused homes.

The company now employs 440 people, uses 1,300 sub-contractors in the Umbria region and will boast a turnover of some 116 million euros (166 million dollars) this year.

The company, which pays above average salaries, has done away with hierarchical titles and timekeepers, and almost all personnel have keys to their workplaces, he noted.

"I wanted a kind of special workplace, to explore a new way, and to humanise the relationship between employer and personnel, restoring the dignity that work has lost," said Cucinelli, now 54, caressing a length of raw wool.

The workday ends at 6:00 pm because "they have to look after their souls" and their physical well being by doing exercise and enjoying cultural events "so that they don't lose the creativity that is part of everyone," he said.

A highlight of the workday is lunch at the company canteen in the village where staff, many wearing elegant cashmere sweaters, gather around long tables to enjoy dishes lovingly prepared by local cooks and costing just 2.50 euros (3.50 dollars).

"You could say we are privileged," said quality control specialist Patrizia shyly. "Our situation isn't comparable to what you see elsewhere. The salaries are higher, we have perks in the way of clothes ... and most of all, we get to work on wonderful products."

Cashmere wool taken from the throat area of the goat, where it is softest, is imported in raw form from China and Mongolia to be spun in Italy, helping to assure the quality of the some 755,000 cashmere garments Cucinelli produces each year.

Inside the 14th-century castle, huge photographs of long-haired goats look down on long racks loaded with spools of coloured wool.

Workers add finishing touches to sleek cardigans while others control the quality of items produced by the growing force of sub-contractors amid rising demand for the sweaters.

With his luxury collections -- the boutique in the village does not show the prices -- Cucinelli has found a top-quality niche that faces scant competition, mainly for lack of know-how, from Chinese producers.

"It's enough to be very quick and effective, to offer a product that is practically made to order, hand-crafted and of very good quality," he said, adding: "especially something redolent of Italy."

As for the work environment, Cucinelli said: "You only need a little more humanity to be able to make beautiful things together."

by Katia Dolmadjian

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