In the Argonautika, the Greek hero Jason goes on a quest with a ship full of heroes to the junction of the Black Sea and the Caucasus to find the Golden Fleece, the glittering pelt of a magic ram. That ram had once rescued a pair of royal twins, Phrixos and Helle, from the deadly designs of their stepmother Ino in the kingdom of Boiotia. The ram began to carry the twins to the kingdom of Colchis, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, but Helle swooned into the channel between Europe and Asia, thus naming the Hellespont. In Colchis, Phrixos sacrificed the ram to to the gods and gave its fleece to King Aietes. Aietes hung the fleece in a tree and set a dragon to guard over it as a guarantee of his wealth and power. Years later, Jason tries to retrieve the fleece in order to reclaim his own Thessalian throne from evil uncle Pelias.
Today the soft undercoat of capra aegagrus hircus, from the highlands of Central Asia (northern China and Mongolia), supplies cashmere for Brunello Cucinelli. Recently our friend Marzia and I got a tour behind the scenes of Cucinelli’s production facilities in Solomeo. Here is how hairs 14-15 microns thick (six times finer than a human hair) become fashion gold.
On a grey, windswept day, we met Laura, a young, neatly kept representative from Cucinelli’s communications department who spoke to us in both English and Italian. She was dressed in Cucinelli, as most employees are (they get a hefty company discount, though they are not required to wear Cucinelli to work). We were told that employee wages are 20% higher than at other comparable businesses, and in 2012 the employees received a one-off profit-sharing Christmas bonus of about €6000 each, after the company went public. Of the 1000 employees worldwide, 600 work in Solomeo, of which 200 are residents of the town (which itself has only a population of about 450). The average age of the workforce is young: 30-33 years.
The peals of the noontime church bells nearly drowned out our conversation, but they also signaled the start of our tour through the facilities, starting with the castle, which became the center of Cucinelli’s operations in 1984. The castle (really a heavily-built multilevel house around a courtyard) was unused, so Cucinelli bought it and restored it, using profits from his expansion into the American and German markets. The tones of the structure are browns, soft yellows and muted brick reds, in line with the principal company hues of light brown and grey. Down below the town, alongside the road that arrives from Corciano, are the main factory buildings for processing, storing, and shipping. That facility is currently undergoing a significant expansion.
As we entered the castle, Laura told us that more than 90% of the actual garment manufacturing was outsourced to about 300 small workshops around Italy, mostly family-run with no more than 10 employees. 85% of those workshops are located in Umbria. The other 15% are located in central and northern Italy, where they tend to produce the company’s leather goods (shoes, purses, jackets, etc.). Nothing is manufactured outside of Italy. Cashmere is the most important material, but cotton, silk, linen, and polyester appear as necessary, not to mention accessories such as buckles, snaps, buttons, chains, and zippers.
In the castle, the prototypes of each new garment are created. The design department creates the instructions for a garment, putting “knitter’s notes” on a paper schema (color, pattern, texture, material, etc.), and the initial model for that design is fashioned, piece-by-piece, on these looms:
Then, the individual parts of a prototype (front, back, sleeves, collars, etc.) are assembled and finished.
A circular machine with teeth appropriate to the gauge of the thread and the weave puts the pieces together:
When a piece has been completed, it moves to the fitting/modeling room, where it is tested by models for fit, wearability, and look. If something is unexpected or not quite right, the piece (and the pattern, perhaps) is adjusted until it is satisfactory. Then the knitting notes are converted to digital form (for use in the workshops’ machines) and are delivered to the workshop(s) where the particular item will be manufactured in bulk. Sample lines are also made from the prototypes; those sample lines are then shown in the fashion shows that publicly stake claim on new designs for each season (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter), which are begun 6-12 months ahead of time.
The outsourcing workshops produce the contracted number of pieces from the design instructions and raw material they have been given, and then ship the individual parts of the garments back to Solomeo. In the castle, each and every clothing part made by a workshop is checked for imperfections on light boxes. A plexiglass ‘iron’ stretches and flattens each piece against the background of the light, and gaps or inconsistencies are marked with colored circular stickers.
Then the pieces are sent upstairs to an adjacent room, where workers repair each imperfection by hand, which is a delicate and time-intensive process. The most skilled seamstresses (and they are all women) work in this room.
Craft traditions, even in Italy, are beginning to fade in the face of mass mechanized production by factories in the East. So in October of 2013, Cucinelli founded a ‘School of the Masters‘ in Solomeo, right next to the castle, to teach the next generation of workers the skills and tricks of fine garment manufacture and repair. Fifteen women enrolled in the first 9-month program, where they learn critical techniques of sewing, knitting, and mending from the most experienced craftswomen. It is rather like a paid apprentice program, with stipends of €700 per month for each student. The School has places for up to 8 women and 8 men, but no men have so far applied (despite the extremely high rate of unemployment for youth in Italy — 41.6% in December 2013), so all of the places (so far) are occupied by women. A related program in antique wall construction and restoration has also begun, and there are plans for gardening and horticultural training as well. Information about enrollment can be found here.
Once all of the imperfections have been fixed, the pieces are sent back to their workshops to be assembled into finished whole garments. Then they are returned to Solomeo so accessories can be added. When cashmere items from a particular workshop are received back at Solomeo, the quantity of material is weighed, to see if it matches the quantity of cashmere thread that was delivered to the workshop to make the items.
The weighing process reminded me of another ancient story about gold. The Roman architect Vitruvius, in the preface to his ninth book of De Architectura, describes how King Hiero II of Syracuse commissioned a craftsman to make a golden crown for the king to dedicate to the gods. The king agreed on a price for the work, and provided the gold. Sometime afterwards, suspicion arose about whether the craftsman had substituted cheaper silver for some of the gold, thereby building in more profit for himself and cheating the king. Hiero asked Archimedes, the 3rd-c. BC mathematical genius, to put his mind to the problem. As the story goes, while noticing the displacement of water by his body at the baths, Archimedes realized the solution (famously crying ‘εὕρηκα‘ as he ran home through the streets). Subsequent experimentation with quantities of silver and gold (as well as the crown in question) proved the fraud of the craftsman.
And so the golden fleece that goes out must come back. (We were told that there haven’t been any discrepancies in cashmere weights because relationships with the workshops are solid. But they check anyway.)
After the garments are finished, they are taken to the larger factory at the base of the hill to be washed. They are then outsourced again to be ironed, labelled, and packed, before they return one more time to the Solomeo factory for shipping to Cucinelli’s boutiques.
An individual sweater takes about one week to make (knitting, checking for imperfections, fixing the imperfections, assembling, weighing, accessories, washing, ironing), including transport time to and from the manufacturing workshops. Along with the cost of the materials, these time-intensive steps contribute to the high cost of the items. About 60,000 women’s knitwear garments and 20,000 men’s knitwear items have been produced for the Spring/Summer 2014 collection, though the overall collection will include around 400,000 garments in all.
From Phrixos’ ram to Rumpelstiltskin to chequered Cucinelli jackets. The dream of spun gold lives on in Solomeo.