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MILAN — Ottavio Missoni, who founded the iconic Missoni fashion brand with his wife Rosita, died Thursday at his home in Sumirago, Italy. He was 92.
On May 1, Missoni, known by his nickname Tai, was hospitalized for a cardiac problem but was released later that evening.
This story first appeared in the May 10, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
A wake will be held for Tai Missoni on Sunday in the Missoni company courtyard in Sumirago, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The funeral will be held on Monday at 2:30 p.m. in the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Gallarate. The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Camphill Special School in Glenmoore, Pa.
Giorgio Armani said, “I have always felt for Ottavio Missoni the fondness and admiration that you have for genuine people, those who are naturally at ease — a trait that adds color to life. And, in fact, Ottavio was a master of color, an artist with an instinctual and refined sensibility, who has changed the concept of fashion itself by exalting knitwear.…He represents the best of Italy.”
Valentino Garavani described Missoni as “a gentleman, of a family of gentlemen, honest and hard workers.…[There was] never a mistake in his behavior, a great example for all of us.”
“I’ve known Tai since the late Seventies,” recalled Burt Tansky, the nonexecutive chairman of the board of Neiman Marcus Inc. “He was a wonderful man and brilliant at creating the materials and color range for the collections. He grew a fantastic business, which has continued. He was the leader of the family, the patriarch, and a genius with colors and yarns, and putting them together in a way that was so unique. He had this lab where he would test colors and fabrications.
“We used to go to the house to see the collection and enjoy a wonderful evening with the family. It was a tradition. There was always this big wheel of Parmesan cheese. Everybody dug into it.”
Missoni was born in 1921 in Ragusa, Italy, on the Dalmatian coast, to Teresa De Vidovich, countess of Capocesto and Ragosniza, and Vittorio Missoni, a sea captain. By 1942, he was already a track star, but he suffered in World War II, fighting at El Alamein and being held as a British prisoner of war in Egypt for four years.
Running was a natural gift, and his nickname was “Son of Apollus.” Missoni made the Italian national team when he was 16, and at the time of his death still held the national 400-meter record for a 16-year-old. Wool and sports were a recurring theme in his life, while schooling was not a priority. He celebrated his 90th birthday in 2011 with “a good glass of wine” and an autobiography, “Una vita sul filo di lana.” The title, which in English means “A life on the wool thread,” is a pun on the duality of Missoni’s successes, athletically and in fashion, since a thread was held across the finish line of a race before the arrival of photo finishes. And he remained active throughout his life. At the Italian track-and-field championship in Cosenza, Italy, in 2011, he won a gold medal in both the shot put and the javelin, and a silver medal in the discus, all in the over-90 age category.
Running also led to him meeting his lifelong partner, Rosita Jelmini, in 1948, when he was competing in the London Olympics. She was on an English language course chaperoned by the Swiss Sisters of the Holy Cross. “After visiting castles and museums, the nuns concurred that a trip to Wembley [where the Olympics were held] was a must,” she recalled. “That’s when I saw Tai; he passed right alongside me, and I couldn’t help noticing how good looking and athletic he was.”
Tai and Rosita married in 1953 in Golasecca and settled in Gallarate, both towns in Lombardy. In Gallarate that year, they set up a small knitwear workshop they called Maglificio Jolly. Tai Missoni had begun dabbling in fashion six years earlier when, along with his friend and teammate Giorgio Oberweger, he produced wool tracksuits to be worn by the Italian Olympic team in London. His trainer had a small knitting company in Trieste, a city in northeastern Italy, and together they made the first wool tracksuits, which, he marveled later, met with strong demand.
With his wife, Missoni introduced a groundbreaking brand and built an enduring family business. The Missonis were often described as “color geniuses” and were the first to make coordinating separates in different patterns, a zigzag top with a polka dot skirt, for example.
Tai was a natural at sketching and would sit down and translate theory into practice. His simple yet efficient system, a series of small colored lines drawn on checked paper with matching shreds of yarn to indicate the sequence for the looms, is still used. His studio overlooking the Alps in Sumirago, near the company headquarters, was filled with countless such papers, photos, sketches of patterns and samples of knits and gardening books.
Missoni liked to say that, when he and Rosita first set up shop in 1953, he was the president, but she would do all the work. “I’m lazy, my favorite pastimes are sleeping and reading, so work for me has always been an effort.” However, he remained a reference point for the whole family and continued to sketch even after his retirement. Thousands of designs of stripes, zigzags, tartans, patchworks and mélanges, in just as many fibers, silks, cottons, linens, wools, rayons, mohairs and metallic yarns like Lurex and lamé contribute to the brand’s archives. Books on topics ranging from ancient Egypt and contemporary architecture to Michelangelo and French Impressionists were stacked up in his studio.
In 1955, the Missonis started to work for the Biki boutique in Milan and, in collaboration with Louis Hildago, they made collections for the upscale La Rinascente department store. In 1958, when they produced their first striped shirtdress for La Rinascente, the couple changed the Maglificio Jolly label to Missoni. “We sold 500 pieces at $5,” Tai Missoni once recalled. He traveled around Italy with a suitcase to sell the collection.
In 1962, they launched 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,” explained Rosita. “Then we found the Raschel machines that do the zigzag, and that was that. My grandparents had used them to make multicolored embroidered shawls with big rose patterns and long fringes, all hand knotted. The kind you throw over lamp shades.”
In 1967, Missoni’s first boutique opened in Milan and the brand scored its first fashion magazine cover, on Elle.
Vogue wrote in March, “The seductively thin, silky sweaters of Missoni, no matter how many you own, you always want more.” That same year, the Missonis held a presentation at Palazzo Pitti in Florence that was scandalous, since Rosita sent braless models down the runway in lamé tops, which led Pitti to ban the house from showing until 1970.
The company also rapidly expanded outside Italy, selling in Paris for the first time in 1967 and, by the following year, in America. “We already sold to U.S. department stores through Italian buying offices, but it was Diana Vreeland who gave us a real helping hand,” said Rosita Missoni. In 1970, Bloomingdale’s opened the brand’s first in-store boutique and, in 1973, the Missonis received the Neiman Marcus Award.
Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, a longtime friend of Tai Missoni, described him as “a great innovator,” recalling how the Missonis were among the “founders of Italian fashion,” showing at Palazzo Pitti’s Sala Bianca in Florence.
Rosi Biffi, owner of the Biffi and Banner boutiques in Milan, saw the Missonis’ collections early on, and started selling the brand in 1968. “I loved their jersey dresses, the fun, joyful patterns, those large capri pants. There was humor throughout the items, and they were well-made, with magnificent fabrics.”
Giovanna Gentile Ferragamo, vice president of Salvatore Ferragamo SpA, remembered how their friendship was enlivened by Missoni’s “joyful presence, and he would always transmit his cheerfulness and his irony on every occasion.”
Mariuccia Mandelli said she was “pained,” since she and her husband, Aldo Pinto, were close to the Missoni family “not only as colleagues, but as friends.…More than once we spent our holidays together, and both Rosita and Ottavio never missed Krizia presentations or parties….A piece of Made in Italy has gone away.”
Ira Neimark, the former chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman, recalled that Missoni wasn’t an easy sell, and said that Tai developed strong relationships in the retail community. “Around 1979 or 1980, when we were building up our Italian designer collections, bringing in Fendi first then Krizia and Armani, I spent the whole evening with Ottavio and his wife trying to convince him to sell Bergdorf’s,” he said. “He was very personable and courteous, and we were getting close to a deal, but then he told me that Bloomingdale’s promised him a permanent window on Lexington Avenue. That killed our deal. And really, I was OK with it. It illustrated to me that he had a great deal of loyalty to Bloomingdale’s and Marvin Traub” — the late former Bloomingdale’s ceo. “I respected that.”
“Tai was always the most lovable and loving man and always so gentle, talented — and so handsome,” said Joan Burstein, who founded Browns in London with her late husband Sidney. She recalled first meeting Tai and Rosita Missoni in the early Seventies. “His talent was in getting all of the colors, textures and patterns together. I remember visiting them in Italy and he would go into the garden and pick up leaves and that would get a color palette going.”
Burstein said that Missoni knitwear needed no explanation when it first launched — Vogue had introduced Britain to the label — and it was a hit. “I remember getting a delivery and unloading it on the lower ground floor of the shop. Customers were coming in and actually pulling the clothing out of the packing boxes and buying it. It was so absolutely different and so wearable.”
“They were brilliant,” said Ellin Saltzman, former senior vice president and corporate fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, who recalled working with the Missonis in the early Eighties. “They were the first people who really did all the striated knits and things like that, and nobody’s ever done them as well as Missoni. At Sumirago, they made us part of the family.”
Brunello Cucinelli said he shared with the elder Missoni and his family a “cult” for knitwear and cited their closeness to the territory. Then he added, “Tai was a special person, and I’ve always held him and the family in great esteem….I bought my first Missoni knit as a young man, at 22 or 23.”
Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon, met Missoni in the Seventies and eventually took him to his tennis club. “He fancied himself a good tennis player, but I told him the club was strict, and you had to wear all whites. He said, ‘No, no, no, it will be OK.’ I didn’t know what to expect. I thought he would come in the Missoni herringbone colors. He was kind of a practical joker. But he came in all whites, except he wore colored socks with the Missoni pattern. ‘How could they throw me off the court just for my socks?’ he asked.
“To him and his wife, work was pleasure and their family life was terrific. There was such a unique creative partnership between him and his wife. They could speak the same languages in terms of design and business strategies. They created such a signature look and spread it across so many classifications. It has persevered through generations. It’s been updated and re-engineered, but you still know Missoni when you see it.”
In 1978, the Missonis showed their spring collection, accompanied by a 25-year retrospective, at New York’s Whitney Museum. Tai’s work was exhibited at Trieste’s Galleria Torbandena — one of many such exhibitions that would follow. For example, in 1994, the couple received the Pitti Immagine Prize and, in honor of the award, the “Missonologia” exhibit opened in Florence. The house was included in the “Italian Metamorphosis 1943–1968” show at the Guggenheim in New York in 1994.
In 1993, Tai was named a Cavaliere al merito del Lavoro by the Italian government. In 1999, the couple was awarded honorary doctorates from Central Saint Martins in London and San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and also picked up the Dallas Historical Society’s Stanley Award.
Beginning in 1996, Tai and Rosita gradually passed control of their fashion empire to their children Luca, Vittorio and Angela, when they handed their design responsibilities to their daughter. Tai and Rosita’s solid family values were passed on to their children and to the third generation, and theirs was a tightly knit clan, with its members all characterized by a remarkable lack of pretension. For a few seasons, the family ironically and happily posed for the brand’s ad campaigns lensed by Juergen Teller.
A blow to the family came earlier this year as Vittorio, who was in charge of the management of the company, his life companion and two friends aboard a small airplane went missing on Jan. 4 in Venezuela.