It’s not always a given that children of the founders will follow in their parents’ career paths. But the Missonis have gracefully slid into management roles at the family-run company.
SUMIRAGO, Italy — The fabric they made famous might be a lightning bolt pattern streaking across a knit, but the key to the Missonis’ expansion over the past 50 years has been uniform, constant growth.
According to Vittorio Missoni, marketing director and sales manager of the family company, “We’ve posted a 10 percent growth every single year, through thick and thin.” Vittorio is a son of founders Ottavio and Rosita Missoni and the most financially minded of the three Missoni siblings. He discussed the firm’s strategies during an interview in his discreetly furnished office facing the woods of Sumirago, in the hilly countryside north of Milan, where the company is based.
Other mantras the Missonis swear to include growth through ready-to-wear, which has always accounted for the bulk of the company’s sales, and a carefully monitored addition of only a few limited licenses. “Our ready-to-wear collections must remain exclusive and recognizable,” said Vittorio. “We are not looking for big numbers — to grow too quickly and too much would be the biggest mistake for us.”
And licenses shouldn’t “clash with the product,” he added. “We are aiming at raising the brand, not lowering its level.”
“Rosita and Tai [as Ottavio is known] have always believed in carefully building their company step by step, while remaining faithful to their roots,” said Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion and a friend of the family. “Their strong identity and their sense of continuity are a plus in a world where the offer [of fashion designs] is overwhelming.”
“A strong brand identity and a precise positioning are sure winning strategies,” luxury goods consultant Armando Branchini concurred. “Although the family is personally understated and informal, they are all very serious professionals and totally dedicated. This is one of the most successful examples of the Italian family-managed company.”
Missoni, which today counts 250 employees and whose signature rtw line registered sales of $58.4 million (converted from 54 million euros at current exchange) last year, has come a long way from the small knitwear workshop Tai and Rosita Missoni set up in a basement in Gallarate, outside Milan, a half-century ago. Their success has been almost continuous, with perhaps only a few glitches during the minimalist years.
“This didn’t mean a drop in sales, however, just a drop in attention from the media,” said Vittorio. “In the end, we were the only alternative, everything was so monotone, and our strength is to be different.”
Different is certainly an apt description of the first Missoni collections, which, through their abundance of color and innovative craftsmanship, caught the attention of press and buyers. One of the earliest Missoni fans was Diana Vreeland, who in 1969 said, “Look, who said that only colors exist? There are also tones.”
Missoni’s big break came in 1958, when Tai and Rosita presented a colorful striped dress in two versions at Milan’s main department store, La Rinascente. “We sold 500 of those dresses,” recalled Rosita in an interview here. “We couldn’t believe it — it was huge for us at the time and helped us garner media awareness.”
In 1963, the Missonis started to experiment with a rayon blend, which was to become one of their signature materials, and later reconfigured the Rachel machine, traditionally used to make shawls. Rosita’s family was in the shawl-making business. The Rachel allowed many mixed colors and hues to be blended into one another. “It’s a mixture, the same concept of mixing paint,” said Rosita. The Rachel also allowed them to experiment with variations of the characteristic Missoni zigzags on cotton, wool, Lurex, linen, mohair and rayon.
The role of fabric research and design was never strictly divided between husband and wife, according to Rosita, but she admits that Tai “has the artistic hand” and that she is the more fashion oriented of the two.
In 1965, Rosita sailed on the Michelangelo to New York, where her meeting with Emmanuelle Khanh, a young French stylist, turned into a successful professional collaboration. Khanh styled the first Missoni show in 1967 at Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Rosita, however, sent braless models down the runway, causing a major scandal. Organizers accused the Missonis of turning Pitti into the “Crazy Horse” and the invitation to Pitti was not renewed until 1970.
That year marked a second important step for the company with the expansion of the brand in the U.S. and Bloomingdale’s president Marvin Traub opening a Missoni boutique in the 59th Street flagship, the first in the U.S. The U.S. is currently one of the main markets for the company, accounting for 20 percent of sales. In the U.S., Missoni is available at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, Marshall Field’s, Dayton’s, Mitchell’s of Westport and Barneys New York, in addition to its own store in New York.
In 1971, Missoni launched the patchwork theme, which, reincarnated in countless versions, is still one of its most successful patterns. In 1973, Missoni signed an agreement for its first household linens with an American company, Fieldcrest. In 1982, T&J Vestor started producing Missoni’s home collection, the first official license for the company and still one of its most profitable.
“The Seventies were our best years,” said Rosita. “We were free to experiment and truly create, while in the following decade, we often felt we had to come out with the right product, more so than before.”
The Seventies also saw the opening of the first branded store in Milan, in 1976, two years after the Missonis decided to move their fashion shows to the Italian fashion capital. “We were lucky to live in that magical moment of change with the birth of ready-to- wear,” said Rosita.
Men’s wear was introduced in 1979, and in 1985, Missoni began its collaboration with Marzotto with the debut of the Example by Missoni men’s line. That collection was discontinued in 1994.
Marzotto also produced the rtw signature lines for women and men until 1997 and 1994, respectively. Marzotto currently produces the M Missoni line, which bowed in 1998.
“This is an extremely successful line, especially in the U.S. and the Far East,” said Michele Norsa, general manager of Marzotto’s apparel division and chief executive of Valentino, noting M Missoni registered a 50 percent increase in sales with the spring 2004 collection compared with the same time last year. Knits makes up the bulk of the collection, which is a younger, more accessible version of the signature line, retailing at about 50 percent less.
“No one else has such a strong style in the world of knitwear,” said Norsa, who praised the distribution strategy of the firm. “The Missonis maintained a coherent, stable presence in all markets.”
Vittorio said M Missoni and the Sport line last year accounted for sales of about $16.9 million. Production and distribution of the Sport line, formerly licensed to the Italian firm, Malerba, were brought in-house in 2001. Luca Missoni, the youngest of the siblings, is in charge of the Sport and Missoni men’s lines.
Vittorio declined to elaborate on the projects in the works, including a new Missoni scent being developed with an American group — Orlane was the former fragrance licensee from 1980 to 2001 — and a new tableware collection that will be presented this fall. “This is my mother’s pet project,” he said. “She has really taken the homewear line under her wing and expanded it — it’s a Renaissance moment for it.
“Our parents never forced us to continue the family business,” he continued. “Our ambition now is to continue to develop our products and expand our accessories and Sport lines, which have a great potential. We are convinced there’s still a lot to do.”
With the spring 1998 collection, Rosita officially handed the design reins to her daughter, Angela, who, as creative director, appeared on the runway for the first time. “I felt the need to step aside, but I was waiting for my children to decide about their future,” said Rosita. “You can’t design fashion just because you have to.”
— Luisa Zargani
MILAN — Unlike most of their peers, Tai and Rosita Missoni didn’t have to look very far when they decided to pass down the design reins of their company after decades at full gallop.
Their daughter Angela — who grew up with dolls, stripes and knitting needles — was more than eager at that point to bridge the generation gap and to inject some hip and racy insight into the iconic Missoni legacy.
Today, seven years after the official change of guard — the voluptuous 45-year-old took her first solo bow in the fall of 1996 — Missoni believes she is now in full control and has completed all the modifications she felt were needed to make the brand trendier.
Better still, this benchmark coincides with the company’s big 50th anniversary.
By her own admission, the transition wasn’t always smooth, but Missoni insists that she stuck to her guns to make sure that her design message resounded on all fronts: retail, accessories, ad campaigns and, last but not least, some red-carpet drama.
The latter is still an issue that fills Missoni with pride and surprise.
“I still can’t get over how many times I’ve seen the photo of Madonna wearing my striped coat,” smiles Missoni, puffing on a Marlboro.
Other A-list celebrities attracted by Missoni’s modern balance of tradition and innovation include Demi Moore, Calista Flockhart, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Kylie Minogue and Halle Berry.
Missoni’s task when she joined the company was to blow a breath of fresh air over her parents’ almost half a century of design work. “Fashion is about being dynamic and about proposing a strong product, projected into the future,” said Missoni, wearing a signature tank top, green work pants and rose stilettos.
“It’s unquestionable that I owe my fortune to what my parents invented, to their intuition. For me it’s a gold mine — and I’m not just talking about patch work and zigzag patterns,” she said, referring to the company archives replete with more than 7,000 designs between apparel and textiles. Overall, the company produces about 225,000 garments a year.
Certainly, the road had been paved, but that’s not to say it didn’t require some repair work. It was the mid-Nineties when fashion was moving out of minimalism and designers such as Tom Ford, Helmut Lang and John Galliano were the new media darlings, thanks to collections that blazed new trails. Inevitably, four decades and many fashion cycles later, those multicolored knits had lost some of their steam.
“Our style was codified and we [Tai and Rosita] were tired of doing the same things with less freedom,” said Rosita Missoni, referring to the pressure to continually grow sales.
Quips Angela Missoni, “Mom was tired and stressed and ready to step down. She was convinced it was time for a younger brain.”
At that time, Missoni was designing a knitwear line called Team Angela Missoni. Since she begged to differ, her first collection was, surprise, all solids and mostly black.
“My mother was my first client,” chuckles Missoni, a mother of three who’s very fond of both of her parents and still lives in Sumirago, a stone’s throw away from Tai and Rosita’s multicolored villa.
Gradually, she introduced jacquards, color and prints, until Mom diplomatically pointed out that she was doing exactly what she ought to be doing for the signature collection.
After five years knee-deep in Team Angela, Missoni was up for another challenge. “With the signature line, I wanted to return to softer and more feminine shapes, to edit the runway collections and to streamline the company’s image,” she noted.
Missoni now leaves an empty day before the show to sit back and analyze her work with a clear mind. “Being organized allows you to do things better, to have a clearer vision and to be more focused,” she explained.
Focus is imperative for Missoni, who considers herself a control freak. She goes out of her way to make sure that everything, from the ashtrays to the showroom wall colors and from the stitching of a seam to the way a garment sits on a hanger, befits the Missoni image.
“Especially in the past three seasons, I feel that I have accomplished my goals,” she said.
Her gut also told her it was time to tinker with that successful formula whose constant was color, more color and always color. “I knew it was OK to do a two-tone coat even though the notion sent a wave of shock through my co-workers, who claimed that if a garment didn’t have 18 colors, it wasn’t Missoni enough,” she said, smiling at the memory.
But by Missoni’s own admission, her collections have ebbed and flowed.
“The press wasn’t always that generous with me, but now I think the company is enjoying a great moment. We’ve catalyzed people’s attention,” said Missoni.
Missoni also masterminded the new cool edge of the ad campaigns. When, in the spring of 1997, she wanted to give the images a distinct seasonal mark, she tapped Mario Testino, who was shooting for Gucci at the time. The team, which included stylist Carinne Roitfeld and model Amy Wesson, flew to the white sandy dunes of Morocco. Then came Mario Sorrenti, who captured the angelic face of Angela Lindvall.
For the past five seasons, the Missoni image has been represented by the saturated colors and clean lines of Markus Piggot and Mert Alas. First, the duo immortalized a seductive Gisele Bündchen and, for the current fall-winter season, it’s a modern-day Brigitte Bardot interpreted by Kate Moss.
“Our budgets can’t compete with the ones of other fashion conglomerates, but Gisele accepted to pose for our campaigns because, unlike Victoria’s Secret, she knew we guaranteed a strong image,” said Missoni.
But Missoni’s vision and approach to fashion weren’t always this self-confident.
In her mid-20s, she opened a children’s toy store and then entered a partnership to breed organically fed chickens. At that stage, she was reluctant to become a clothing designer.
“I told my father that I would never work in the family business because I didn’t care about clothes and that I wanted to be a jewelry designer,” recalls Missoni.
When Tai Missoni diplomatically pointed out that the company was an umbrella, under which she could develop anything she wished, Missoni changed her mind.
“For a long time, I was confused and really concentrated on my three kids,” said Missoni. “Now I feel I have something to say and that I can dialog with all those people who understand my language.”
— Alessandra Ilari