View from Rue Saint-Georges

Elegance in Action


It’s what you do, not what you have


By Thomas Chatterton Williams

June 21, 2017



Each year during Pitti Uomo, an influential menswear trade show held in Florence, Italian fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli hosts a dinner. The son of a farmer from Umbria, he dropped out of university to become a self-taught philosopher on the way to his current line of work. Today, his eponymous brand traffics in gorgeous, understated, bafflingly expensive pieces, but Cucinelli still dabbles in philosophy, even modeling his party on the ancient Athenian supper described in Plato’s Symposium. On the occasion of this year’s dinner, T Magazine, which covers style for The New York Times, published an oddly gratifying interview with Cucinelli. “How to Host a Relaxed Dinner Party Like an Italian,” by Laura Rysman, is the kind of article that, with certain interlocutors, could easily turn unbearable. Much of its advice is obvious—good food, high-quality (seasonal) ingredients, informal dress. But I found one thing particularly interesting: Cucinelli mentions at one point that although he is a prosperous man now, the kind of “slow” values he espouses today were just as much a part of his modest upbringing. “His childhood lunches were always spread across four plates,” Rysman writes, “leaving his mother to hand-wash 20 dishes at every family meal.” That is an enormous amount of work and, many of us might ask, for what?

Though I lack his mother’s discipline, I know intuitively that she was right. A few years ago, two of my friends did radio interviews at the offices of Monocle magazine, where the founder Tyler Brule maintains strict codes of conduct: always use silverware and glassware even for meals at your desk, never disposable forks and knives or plastic bottles with the labels showing; always hang coats and jackets in closets, never drape them across the backs of chairs. Both friends came back reporting at once how fascistic it was but also how, in that space, submission to that kind of discipline made them feel better. It somehow elevated, perhaps even dignified, their entire day.

More and more I find myself trying to find ways to incorporate small gestures like these into my own routine. I often fall short, but when it works, it is a reminder that genuine elegance revolves around what you do, not what you have.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

More Posts from View from Rue Saint-Georges:

Comments powered by Disqus