The fashion guru whose real passion was sport

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.

The fashion guru whose real passion was sport
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

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?

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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PHOTOS: Italy’s most memorable medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

The Tokyo Olympics were Italy's best Games yet, with Italian athletes taking home more medals than ever before. Here are the highlights.

PHOTOS: Italy’s most memorable medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs and Gianmarco Tamberi celebrate after winning golds in the 100m sprint and high jump. Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

With ten golds, ten silvers and 20 bronzes, the Azzurri representing Italy in Tokyo were tenth on the medal table overall and top in Italian sporting history.

Previously the most medals Italy had ever won at a single Olympics was 36, which the country hadn’t equalled since the Rome Games in 1960.

READ ALSO: ‘Do Italy just win everything now?’: Celebrations after Italian athletes take Olympic gold

As well as a ceremony at the presidential palace in September, Italy’s Olympic champions will be welcomed back with prize money from the Italian National Olympic Committee: gold medalists are awarded €180,000 each, while silver medallists get €90,000 and bronze medallists get €60,000.

And then there’s the glory: after an exceptionally successful summer of Italian sport and music, Italy’s Olympic team dubbed their athletes “stupor mundi” – Latin for ‘the wonder of the world’. 

Italy’s gold medals at the 2020 Olympics

  • Men’s high jump: Gianmarco Tamberi

Italian high jumper Gianmarco Tamberi couldn’t have been happier to share the gold with his fellow competitor Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar, in what was hailed as one of the most touching moments of the Games. 

  • Men’s 100m: Lamont Marcell Jacobs

Relatively unknown long jumper-turned-sprinter Lamont Marcell Jacobs was in the form of his life when he outran the favourites and hurtled to first place in the biggest race in men’s athletics. He’s the first Italian ever to qualify for the Olympic final of the event, let alone win it.

Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP
  • Men’s 4 x 100m relay 

Lorenzo Patta, Lamont Marcell Jacobs, Eseosa Desalu and Filippo Tortu pulled off an astonishing victory by the smallest of margins, with Tortu flinging himself over the finish line to snatch gold from the favourites, Great Britain, by just a hundredth of a second. It was another historic first for Italy: the country has never before won the event, and the last time an Italian team got onto the podium was at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (silver). 

Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP
  • Men’s 20km race walk: Massimo Stano
  • Women’s 20km race walk: Antonella Palmisano

Antonella Palmisano cemented Italy’s domination of the walking competition when she followed up her teammate Massimo Stano’s gold with her own victory a day later. She actually performed slightly faster at the Rio Olympics in 2016, but that time only earned her fourth last time round.

Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP
  • Track cycling, men’s team pursuit

Italy’s four-man team set a new track cycling world record by completing 16 laps (4km) in just 3:42.032. While Great Britain had long dominated the event and Denmark were reigning World Champions, no Italian team had won it since the Rome Olympics of 1960.

Photo by Greg Baker / AFP
  • Karate, men’s kumite -75kg: Luigi Busa
  • Rowing, lightweight women’s double sculls 
Valentina Rodini (L) and Federica Cesarini (R) celebrate their win in the lightweight women’s double sculls final. Photo by Luis ACOSTA / AFP
  • Sailing, mixed multihull – Nacra 17 foiling
  • Taekwondo, Men’s -58kg: Vito Dell’Aquila

Vito Dell’Aquila won Italy its first gold of the Games, at the age of just 20. It was his first Olympics but at this rate, it won’t be his last.

Photo by Javier SORIANO / AFP

Italy’s silver medals at the 2020 Olympics

  • Artistic gymnastics, women’s floor exercise: Vanessa Ferrari

Arguably Italy’s greatest competing gymnast, 30-year-old Vanessa Ferrari proved the value of experience when she became the first Italian to win an individual Olympic medal for women’s artistic gymnastics.

Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP
  • Men’s individual archery: Mauro Nespoli
  • Men’s kayak single 200m: Manfredi Rizza
  • Fencing, men’s foil individual: Daniele Garrozo
  • Fencing, men’s sabre individual: Luigi Samele
  • Fencing, men’s sabre team

Fencing has long been one of Italy’s strongest sports, and these Games were no exception. Altogether Italian fencers took three silvers and two bronzes in both team and individual events. 

Italy’s Luca Curatoli (L) competes against South Korea’s Gu Bongil in the men’s sabre team gold medal bout. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
  • Women’s skeet shooting: Diana Bacosi
  • Swimming, men’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay
  • Swimming, men’s 800m freestyle: Gregorio Paltrinieri 
  • Weightlifting, women’s 64kg: Giorgia Bordignon
    Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

    Italy’s bronze medals at the 2020 Olympics

    • Women’s individual archery: Lucilla Boari
    • Women’s featherweight boxing: Irma Testa

    Irma “Butterfly” Testa made history as the first Italian woman to win an Olympic medal for boxing, a victory she dedicated to all of Italy’s female boxers.

    Photo by Luis ROBAYO / POOL / AFP
    • Women’s cycling road race: Elisa Longo Borghini 
    • Track cycling, men’s omnium: Elia Viviani 
    • Men’s 10km marathon swimming: Gregorio Paltrinieri 

    Gregorio Paltrinieri is one of the best long-distance swimmers there is, holding the men’s world record for the 1500m freestyle. He comes home from Tokyo with two medals: silver in the 800m freestyle, and bronze in the gruelling 10km swim.

    Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP
    • Swimming, men’s 100m breaststroke: Nicolo Martinenghi
    • Swimming, men’s 100m butterfly: Federico Burdisso
    • Swimming, men’s 4 x 100m medley relay
    • Swimming, women’s 800m freestyle: Simona Quadarella 
    • Judo, women’s -52kg: Odette Giuffrida
    Photo by Franck FIFE / AFP
    • Judo, women’s -63kg: Maria Centracchio
    • Fencing, women’s épée team
    • Fencing, women’s foil team 
    • Karate, women’s kata: Viviana Bottaro

    Accomplished karateka Viviana Bottaro won Italy its first Olympic medal in karate, which made its debut at the Tokyo Games. 

    Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP
    • Rowing, lightweight men’s double sculls
    • Rowing, men’s four
    • Rhythmic gymnastics, group all-around

    Nicknamed le Farfalle (‘the Butterflies’), Italy’s five-woman rhythmic gymnastic team provided one of Italy’s last medal-winning performances on the final day of the Games, and one of the most spectacular.

    Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP
    • Weightlifting, men’s 67kg: Mirko Zanni 
    • Weightlifting, men’s 81kg: Antonino Pizzolato
    • Wrestling, men’s freestyle 97kg: Abraham de Jesus Conyedo Ruano