The fashion guru whose real passion was sport

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Italian designer Angela Missoni acknowledges the audience together with her father Ottavio at the end of the Missoni Fall-Winter 2011-2012 ready-to-wear collection in 2011. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
15:40 CEST+02:00
He may have founded one of the most influential fashion empires of all time but Ottavio Missoni’s real passion – say his friends – was sport. The designer and former Olympic hurdler – who died this week, aged 92 – is our Italian Face of the Week.

Who is Ottavio Missoni?

Perhaps a better question would be: “Who hasn’t heard of Missoni?” Ottavio Missoni – known to his friends simply as Tai – was the co-founder of the Missoni Italian fashion dynasty, which he set up in 1953 with his wife Rosita. He died this week at the age of 92.

Even if you’re not personally familiar with the Missoni brand, famous for revolutionizing machine-knitting, you’ll definitely have come across its trademark zigzag and stripe patterns – which have been widely copied by other fashion labels.

Tell me more.

Born in Ragusa, Croatia, Missoni was the son of a Croatian Countess and an Italian sea captain. He later moved to Trieste and Milan to complete his studies. But, by his own confession, he cared far less for hard work at this point than sport, described as his “greatest passion”.

At the age of 16, in 1937, he’d joined the Italian National Track Team; two years later, he’d become Italian champion for the 400 metres.

When the second world war broke out, Missoni was sent to Africa where he was taken prisoner by the British until the war ended.  

Wait a minute...what about his fashion career?

It was partly his love of sport that led Missoni to get involved in the fashion industry. Together with team-mate Giorgio Oberweger, he launched a company that produced woollen tracksuits, which were worn by Italian athletes in the 1948 Olympics in London, in which he also participated.

It was also in London that he met his future wife, Rosita, who comes from Golasecca in northern Italy, where her parents had a shawl-making business. They married in 1953 and went on to have three children who later inherited the fashion brand.  

During their first year as man and wife, they set up Maglificio Jolly, a machine-knitwear factory in Gallarate. Together they experimented with machine-knitting – and it was Ottavio’s original patterns that created the basis for their designs, many of which he modestly claimed had happened by pure accident.

By 1958, Missoni was supplying a line of vertically striped shirt dresses to upmarket Italian department stores such as Biki and La Rinascente, and his designs were regularly featuring in Italian fashion magazines.   

By the 1970s, Missoni was receiving praise for his designs from all corners of the globe.  The company went on to produce bed linen and jewellery in the mid seventies, opening boutiques in Italy, Paris, Germany, Japan, the Middle East and New York.  

Tell me an interesting fact about Missoni.

In the sixties, Missoni courted controversy by presenting a catwalk show in Florence in which the models were braless. Although the Missonis were never invited back to Florence, the resulting fuss was just what they needed to help them break into the international fashion market.  


Wasn’t the Missoni family in the news recently?

The death of Ottavio is actually the second piece of bad news for the Missoni family this year. In January, Missoni’s son Vittorio and his wife were reported missing off the coast of Venezuela while on a flight between Roques and Caracas.  

Although the two are now presumed dead, the Missoni family clung to hope in the week after the plane’s mysterious disappearance.

"My father will come back; we are waiting for him," Vittorio’s grandson, also called Ottavio, told Corriere della Sera. "I am not speaking with my head but with my heart. A plane cannot vanish in this way, on a short route, without leaving any trace."   

What do people have to say about Missoni?

Story continues below…

In 1971, the New York Times famously said of him: “He’s what Chanel would be if she was still alive, young, and worked in Italy.”

When asked by Italian daily Corriere della Sera how he would remember Missoni, Milan’s Mayor Giuliano Pisapia quoted lyrics from a song by sixties pop legend Mina: “‘Colours, colours, colours’. The rainbow that he used in his designs gives us the image of a happy man who knew how to bring his fashions to the global stage. The knitwear and clothing that he designed have eternalized him.” 

Pisapia also recalled: “This very influential man had a wonderful smile and an ironic sense of humour - often directed at himself.”

But for those who knew him best it was his career as a sportsman that stood out. Lyana Calvesi, a family friend and president of an athletic association told La Stampa newspaper: “His love for athletics was uncontrollable – he was much happier when the papers spoke about him as an athlete and not as a fashion guru.”

What does he have to say for himself?

Perhaps surprisingly, Missoni was notoriously indifferent about fashion. When Missoni was called to the Quirinale to be knighted in June 1993 by the Italian President, he said: “Dinner jackets are alien to our lives, but this time it was necessary,” he said. “I bought it from Armani and I wore it once.”

Missoni is also famous for the quip: “To dress badly you don’t need to follow fashion - but it helps”.

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