A scene from the fashion show-event at the Teatro Gerolamo in Milan
A scene from the fashion showevent at the Teatro Gerolamo in Milan
Drawing by Brunetta for the 1958 S/S collection
One of the first samples with Missoni’s label-1958
Grazia’s cover1968-photograph: Patrick Rouchon
Italian fashion and family melodrama seem to go hand in hand. Creative minds and colourful personalities make for colossal clashes in the boardroom, with each dynasty (from Armani to Zegna) boasting a past worthy of its own afternoon serial. Throughout its 50 plus year history, Missoni has remained the exception to this observation. Producing before-their-time knits, frocks and textiles in a kaleidoscope of rustic colours has made the family a force in apparel and accessories. With the third generation ready to take the reins, Priya Kumar notes the zigzag pattern Missoni is synonymous for appears to be here to stay.
The seventies were our best years,” Rosita Missoni, matriarch to the Missoni dynasty said back in 2003. We were lucky to live in that magical moment of change with the birth of ready-to-wear.” The fashion house’s legacy has been equally influenced by medieval tapestry techniques as it has Art Deco minimalism. Perhaps best known for its signature zigzag pattern, today Missoni is so much more than just apparel. They boast a home line, a chain of
boutique hotels, luxury children’s toys and capsule collections aimed at every level of consumer.
The birth of the Missoni dynasty is what fairytales are made of. Ottavio Missoni, the son of a Dalmatian (present-day Croatian) countess and an Italian sea captain, was a World War II veteran. After being held and released as a Prisoner of War by the British in Egypt, he went on to found a small knitwear company based in Trieste, Italy. His workshop first produced the tracksuits worn by the Italian Olympic team in 1948. Incidentally, Ottavio—fondly known as Tai— too competed at the games; he made it to the final 400m hurdles race. Although he did not have a medal finish, he met Rosita Jelmini who was in London for an English language program hosted by the Swiss Sisters of the Holy Cross. “We met at Piccadilly, under the statue of Eros, and I fell in love with Tai and London at the same time,” Rosita fondly recalls.
Ottavio and Rosita soon married and settled in the Lombardy region of Italy. Rosita, having also come from a garment producing family, set up a knitwear workshop with Ottavio, aptly called Maglificio Jolly. “We were doing everything ourselves at the time…mostly active sportswear. It took at least ten years to find our way. We were kind of fortunate. We started without knitting machines and found the fabric of the fifties—knitwear. It really was a field where there was the most to be discovered.” Each played up their strengths in the business; Rosita designed and Ottavio was the technical colourist, resulting in their eponymous fashion house. “I loved using knitting machines. I thought it was a very modern way to make clothes,” adds Rosita.
The couple’s first son Vittorio was born in 1954 and a year later Missoni began producing clothes for Milan’s high-brow luxury department store La Rinascente. By the time their third child Angela was born in 1958, the Missoni brand was retailed under its own name.
Four years later they invented a textile that would prove a game-changer for the brand and the entire industry: the zigzag motif. “We could only do stripes and then we started doing horizontal and vertical and little by little added more complicated stitches, plaids and jacquards,” Rosita says looking back. “Then we found the Raschel machines that do the zigzag, and that was that. My grandparents had used them to make multicoloured embroidered shawls with big rose patterns and long fringes, all hand knotted. The kind you throw over lampshades.” The fashion house experimented with rayonviscose blends to much success—it’s now their signature textile.
Fêted fashion editor Anna Piaggi took the then burgeoning label under her wing and began writing their press releases in the mid-sixties: “They really started a knitwear revolution,” Piaggi says in retrospect. Missoni’s first Milanese runway show followed a year later in 1966 with their second taking place in Florence. Despite generating press for all the wrong reasons—the pieces appeared transparent under the unforgiving catwalk lights—the collection was picked up in Paris.
Missoni’s first international sales ushered in the Golden Age of the 1970s for the storied Italian label. They were featured to much acclaim by every international fashion glossy, in top fashion photography and acquired patrons that included movie stars like Lauren Bacall. The end of the decade saw New York City’s Witney Museum pay homage to Missoni with a 25-year retrospective. The momentum the fashion house garnered led to the launch of its first menswear collection.
The 1980s was a decade of change and growth to the family-run business. By this time, the Missoni zigzag was an institution and the fashion house was looking to reinvent itself. Their first fragrance launched in 1982 with Missoni Home to follow a year later. The print could be found on anything and everything lifestyle related—bathing suits, candles, Fiats and the costumes at Milan’s famed opera house La Scala. The nineties and noughties saw much of the same unprecedented expansion in all sectors. By 2005 they yet again took the brand to the next level by signing a deal with a hospitality group to open 30 hotels across the world.
The once small mom-and-pop shop had become an empire, but their greatest challenge hadyet to come. On January 4th, 2013 while celebrating the holidays in South America, Vittorio Missoni—the then Director of Marketing of the Missoni brand— lost his life in a plane crash. He was travelling with his partner Maurizia Castiglioni, two friends and two crewmembers. The incident shook the house of Missoni to its core. The plane was not discovered for months and the family articulated hopes that the passengers had been kidnapped. The discovery of baggage alluded to a much graver scenario. The families affected by the tragedy put out a joint statement: “The families thank the Venezuelan government and the Italian government for the effort in having made this search possible. They are confident that the investigation will follow through to the ascertainment of the causes and the responsibility for the accident.”
At the age of 92, Ottavio Missoni passed away in the weeks that followed the loss of his eldest son. While 2013 was filled with heartache for the Missoni clan, it also brought much joy. Margherita Missoni, Angela’s first daughter and brand ambassador-cum-designer for the fashion house, gave birth to her son Otto Herman Amos. Margherita has also spearheaded a number of high-profile projects on behalf of the brand including a line of $50 zigzag-patterned teddy bears and elephants for Canadian department store Holt Renfew with all proceeds going to Orphan Aid Africa.
As a business Missoni is a family affair, with its signature zigzag forever imprinted on the fashion consciousness. With yet another generation stepping up to the helm of Missoni, colour continues to be the common denominator in its collections. In his autobiography, Ottavio Missoni said it best: “Colour?” he posed. “What can I say? I like comparing colour to music: only seven notes and yet innumerable melodies have been composed.”