Sumirago, Italy — Ottavio Missoni likes to joke that when he and his wife, 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,” he said with a guttural laugh.
Maybe so, but in truth, Ottavio Missoni, known as Tai, never hesitated to roll up his sleeves when the couple was building their $123 million fashion empire, whose colorful knits have become a staple for several generations.
Fifty years ago, the newlyweds were taking their first steps in their journey through the fashion world’s highs and lows.
Today, with all three of their children — Angela, Vittorio and Luca — well planted in their respective managerial posts, the affable couple can sit back and rewind the tape of their professional lives as they get ready to celebrate a double anniversary: 50 years of marriage and of their business.
The Missonis’ professional milestones include their first cover on Elle in 1967; the scandalous presentation at the Palazzo Pitti show, when Rosita Missoni sent braless models down the runway in lamé tops, which led Pitti to ban the house from showing for several seasons; their first in-store boutique at Bloomingdale’s in 1970; receiving the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award in 1973, and opening their first directly owned boutique in Milan in 1976.
They’ve built their company on solid family values, a lack of pretension and a distinctive product that has weathered the vagaries of fashion and the financial markets, unlike most of their early competitors. “When in the late Sixties, we showed our collections at the ready-to-wear salon in Paris, our competing Italian brands were Basile, Cadette and Walter Albini. They’ve all gone,” said Rosita Missoni, 72.
Since colorful stripes are to Missoni what bouclé is to Chanel and what slouch chic is to Giorgio Armani, the challenge has been finding new ways to update their signature, especially in moments — think grunge or minimalism — when the fashion tide pushed in the opposite direction.
“People have always been attracted to our fashion because it’s easy and young,” contended Rosita Missoni, her gray buzz cut setting off her lively brown eyes. “We offered a rigorous and basic style in which we transmitted our joy for color. Also, we produced the garments from the yarn to the finished product so over the years, we gained plenty of know-how.”
The husband-and-wife team has worked the notion of variations on the theme to the bone, as is clear from the company’s archives, filled with some 7,000 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.
Judging from the books stacked on the shelves of their library in Sumirago, sources of inspiration range from ancient Egypt to contemporary architecture and from Michelangelo to French Impressionists.
Other ideas crop up randomly. Space-dyed rayon, a specialty of the house, is a technique that Rosita Missoni’s grandmother used and when, in the mid-Eighties, the Missonis wanted to show structured garments alongside their signature soft and languid shapes, they opted for boiled wools. “I regrouped all the family and headed north to the mountainous Sud Tyrol region. When we came back, our trunk was filled with boiled wools, lodens and felt hats,” said Rosita Missoni.
At first, the Missonis relied on a handful of complicated looms that allowed the couple to play with color in a blurry way like a painter’s palette.
When Rosita had an idea or inspiration, she would walk over to Tai’s office and ask, “Listen, I really like these color combinations. How can we obtain the same effect on our looms?”
The 82-year-old Tai, who is a natural at sketching, would sit down and translate the 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 today.
Even before they met, both Tai and Rosita Missoni were able to familiarize themselves with what was to become the focus of their lives.
At the end of the 1920s, Rosita Missoni’s grandmother, Peppina Torrani, had a small workshop that embroidered elaborate fabrics used to make kimonos and pajamas. When Mussolini’s government banned exports, Torrani turned to clothes. “She was full of goodwill but she was a disaster at cutting and sewing,” said Rosita Missoni.
So when the daughter of grandma’s best friend — a skilled seamstress — needed work, Torrani seized the moment and hired her. “She accepted only if we subscribed to all the top fashion magazines of the moment: L’Officielle, French Vogue, Jardin des Modes and Harper’s Bazaar,” smiles Rosita Missoni, who was 16 years old at the time.
Vestor, her grandparents’ line of high-quality nightgowns and robes, was a success and its workshop, filled with scraps of lace and sumptuous fabrics, became Missoni’s playground. “That was my fashion school and when I was bedridden because of bad bronchitis, I would sit and cut paper models,” recalls Rosita Missoni, adding that her favorite designers at the time were Jacques Fath, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga.
Hundreds of miles east, in Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian coast, Tai Missoni as a teenager and beyond was training to run the 400 meters. Joining the Italian Army during World War II, he fought at El Alamein and became a British prisoner-of-war. He returned home in 1946 and began racing again.
His trainer had a small knitting company in Trieste, a city in northeastern Italy, and together they made the first wool tracksuits. “Surprisingly, they were very requested,” said Tai Missoni.
In 1948, he flew to England to participate in the first postwar Olympics, and met Rosita, who was there traveling with the nuns that ran the language school she attended. “After visiting castles and museums, the nuns concurred that a trip to Wembley [where the Olympics were held] was a must. That’s when I saw Tai; he passed right alongside me and I couldn’t help noticing how good looking and athletic he was,” said Rosita Missoni.
She later found out he was 10 years her senior. Five years later, the two got married and started a knitwear business called Maglificio Jolly.
When, in 1958, they produced their first striped shirtdress for La Rinascente, Italy’s top department store, they changed the label to Missoni. “We sold 500 pieces at $5,” recalled Tai Missoni, who traveled around Italy with a suitcase to sell the collection.
At the time, Paris dictated the fashion trends but a new concept called ready-to-wear was making inroads on the fashion scene. To be au courant, Italian designers and couturiers would trace their models from the pages of French Vogue, while buyers from La Rinascente would call Rosita Missoni on the phone and describe the latest shapes. “They would tell me, ‘Imagine the shapes of the letter A and H. That’s the new silhouette,’” she said, imitating them.
“By then, we knew knitwear and found plenty of fertile turf to grow on,” said Tai Missoni.
Added Rosita Missoni, “We had the luck of living a magic moment in fashion, one that veered toward change.”
As a consequence of their growing success, in 1962, Pierre Cardin invited the Missonis to Paris to discuss business. The couple’s initial euphoria was tempered when they discovered that the French designer simply wanted a private label deal, which they turned down.
After the cold shower, the Missonis flew to New York, where they met designer Emmanuelle Khanh. Together they developed a collection with joint labels that lasted four seasons called Missoni Emmanuelle Khanh. When Khanh got pregnant, they discontinued the line after four seasons.
In 1968, Missoni was a Stars-and-Stripes success. “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.
Vreeland and an entourage of 17 Vogue editors arrived at the Hotel Plaza, where the Missonis were showing a small presentation. “She kept telling them, ‘These people are geniuses,’ and every time she saw a dress she liked, she exclaimed, ‘That’s a killer,” said Rosita Missoni.
Tai and Rosita gradually passed control of their fashion empire to their children beginning in 1996, when they handed designing responsibilities to their daughter, Angela. They remain available for advice and consultation, however. These days, Rosita Missoni is pouring most of her talents into the Missoni Home collection, while her husband is simply enjoying retirement.
The couple has never considered selling the firm, simply because all their three children joined in unprompted. “We never pushed them. It was a natural evolution and I’m extremely impressed with the way they’ve relaunched the company,” said Rosita Missoni.
“Fashion still fascinates me, especially when it offers something new, but after many years and a creative freedom hardly comparable to the one we had throughout the Seventies, we felt the need to step down,” said Rosita Missoni.