SUMIRAGO, Italy — Ottavio Missoni, widely known as Tai, will celebrate his 90th birthday today with “a good glass of wine” and an autobiography “Una vita sul filo di lana,” written with Paolo Scandaletti, published by Rizzoli and soon to be translated into English. 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, as a thread was used in the past to determine the winner of a race before the arrival of photo finishes. In his studio overlooking the Alps, filled with photos, sketches of patterns and samples of knits and gardening books, Missoni shared his thoughts with WWD on this remarkable milestone, reached with the help of undaunted irony and peace of mind — and an exceptional memory.

This story first appeared in the February 11, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

WWD: Birthdays are often a time for sizing up one’s life. Is this what you are doing now with your book?
Ottavio Missoni:
This is not a literary work. I make no such claims. It’s just a collection of stories, but I wrote them down, word by word, in about a month and a half. Scandaletti also penned a book on Galileo — can you believe it? And his life was easier to write about than mine [laughs]. In any case, I live day by day, I’ve never made projects for the future and I’ve never set goals, so I was never disappointed.

WWD: You’ve lived through a war; been exiled from Zara (today Zadar), where you grew up; fought at the Battle of El Alamein, and were held captive for years in Egypt, yet your stories are never bitter or sad. On the contrary, subtle humor permeates the book. What do you think influenced your personality the most?
I think we inherit most of our character. In the book, I dedicated a lot of space to my mother — she was a young bride in a city foreign to her and my father sailed around the world as a captain in the Navy. I now realize that she lived completely for her two children, she was very serene and I think she transmitted this. It’s almost as if she had some “divine” powers, she felt nothing could ever happen to her children. This is something you inherit, like bad teeth. In turn, I hope I passed this serenity to my own children.

WWD: Sports played a major role in your life, while schooling was not a priority. Any regrets?
None at all. Without specific school training, I was free to chose my path. I count experience, lots of reading, my friends — and the tavern — as my school. Running was a natural gift. They called me “son of Apollus.” I was in the National team when I was 16, and my record at the time remains the best performance by a 16-year-old in the 400-meter race — it has never been beat. Sports convey self-discipline, which is an asset for life.

WWD: How do you see fashion and the company you built, and how do you feel about your children continuing in your footsteps?
I see fashion on magazines and on women on the streets or at parties. This is a favorable period and there is room for everyone. If I think that we were only seven designers in 1975 in Milan! As for my children, if they ask for my opinion, I’ll gladly give it, but I don’t interfere. I never pushed for them to pursue this career, but I’m happy because they chose the company themselves. And we all agree it’s a family firm and it must remain as such. We are not capable of creating a huge company. I always say you can launch a boat that weighs 100,000 tons, but then you must sail it and have the right crew. I’m pleased with the company: It’s profitable, it gives us satisfaction and it hasn’t lost prestige.

WWD: What is your relationship with money? You say in the book that you created wool tracksuits at a loss for a while before things really took off, but you don’t seem to put a lot of weight on money.
Genetically, I have an anarchic frame of mind. I’ve never liked to be ordered around, and I’ve never wanted to boss people around. Money gives you independence. Rosita [his wife] says she feels rich when she has an egg from her hen house and vegetables from her garden, and I subscribe to that.

With fashion and painting it’s the same. I’ve never done what was fashionable. I didn’t want to work with preset schemes, and I paint my own way. I ended up in fashion by chance, I would never have imagined it. Our success came from word of mouth. We produced pieces that did not exist at the time, they were innovative and we were even called revolutionary because we broke schemes and rules. Going against the rules comes natural to me.

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