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MILAN — Ottavio Missoni, who founded the iconic Missoni fashion brand with his wife Rosita, died Thursday at his home in Sumirago, Italy. He was 92.
On May 1, Missoni, known by his nickname Tai, was hospitalized for a cardiac problem but was released later that evening.
A wake will be held for Tai Missoni on Sunday in the Missoni company courtyard in Sumirago, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The funeral will be held on Monday at 2:30 p.m. in the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Gallarate. The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Camphill Special School in Glenmoore, Pa.
Giorgio Armani said, “I have always felt for Ottavio Missoni the fondness and admiration that you have for genuine people, those who are naturally at ease — a trait that adds color to life. And, in fact, Ottavio was a master of color, an artist with an instinctual and refined sensibility, who has changed the concept of fashion itself by exalting knitwear.…He represents the best of Italy.”
Valentino Garavani described Missoni as “a gentleman, of a family of gentlemen, honest and hard workers.…[There was] never a mistake in his behavior, a great example for all of us.”
“I’ve known Tai since the late Seventies,” recalled Burt Tansky, the nonexecutive chairman of the board of Neiman Marcus Inc. “He was a wonderful man and brilliant at creating the materials and color range for the collections. He grew a fantastic business, which has continued. He was the leader of the family, the patriarch, and a genius with colors and yarns, and putting them together in a way that was so unique. He had this lab where he would test colors and fabrications.
“We used to go to the house to see the collection and enjoy a wonderful evening with the family. It was a tradition. There was always this big wheel of Parmesan cheese. Everybody dug into it.”
Missoni was born in 1921 in Ragusa, Italy, on the Dalmatian coast, to Teresa De Vidovich, countess of Capocesto and Ragosniza, and Vittorio Missoni, a sea captain. By 1942, he was already a track star, but he suffered in World War II, fighting at El Alamein and being held as a British prisoner of war in Egypt for four years.
Running was a natural gift, and his nickname was “Son of Apollus.” Missoni made the Italian national team when he was 16, and at the time of his death still held the national 400-meter record for a 16-year-old. Wool and sports were a recurring theme in his life, while schooling was not a priority. He celebrated his 90th birthday in 2011 with “a good glass of wine” and an autobiography, “Una vita sul filo di lana.” 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, since a thread was held across the finish line of a race before the arrival of photo finishes. And he remained active throughout his life. At the Italian track-and-field championship in Cosenza, Italy, in 2011, he won a gold medal in both the shot put and the javelin, and a silver medal in the discus, all in the over-90 age category.
Running also led to him meeting his lifelong partner, Rosita Jelmini, in 1948, when he was competing in the London Olympics. She was on an English language course chaperoned by the Swiss Sisters of the Holy Cross. “After visiting castles and museums, the nuns concurred that a trip to Wembley [where the Olympics were held] was a must,” she recalled. “That’s when I saw Tai; he passed right alongside me, and I couldn’t help noticing how good looking and athletic he was.”
Tai and Rosita married in 1953 in Golasecca and settled in Gallarate, both towns in Lombardy. In Gallarate that year, they set up a small knitwear workshop they called Maglificio Jolly. Tai Missoni had begun dabbling in fashion six years earlier when, along with his friend and teammate Giorgio Oberweger, he produced wool tracksuits to be worn by the Italian Olympic team in London. His trainer had a small knitting company in Trieste, a city in northeastern Italy, and together they made the first wool tracksuits, which, he marveled later, met with strong demand.
With his wife, Missoni introduced a groundbreaking brand and built an enduring family business. The Missonis were often described as “color geniuses” and were the first to make coordinating separates in different patterns, a zigzag top with a polka dot skirt, for example.
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Tai was a natural at sketching and would sit down and translate 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. His studio overlooking the Alps in Sumirago, near the company headquarters, was filled with countless such papers, photos, sketches of patterns and samples of knits and gardening books.
Missoni liked to say that, when he and 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.” However, he remained a reference point for the whole family and continued to sketch even after his retirement. Thousands of 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 contribute to the brand’s archives. Books on topics ranging from ancient Egypt and contemporary architecture to Michelangelo and French Impressionists were stacked up in his studio.
In 1955, the Missonis started to work for the Biki boutique in Milan and, in collaboration with Louis Hildago, they made collections for the upscale La Rinascente department store. In 1958, when they produced their first striped shirtdress for La Rinascente, the couple changed the Maglificio Jolly label to Missoni. “We sold 500 pieces at $5,” Tai Missoni once recalled. He traveled around Italy with a suitcase to sell the collection.
In 1962, they launched the zigzag motif. “We could only do stripes, and then we started doing horizontal and vertical and little by little added more complicated stitches, plaids and jacquards,” explained Rosita. “Then we found the Raschel machines that do the zigzag, and that was that. My grandparents had used them to make multicolored embroidered shawls with big rose patterns and long fringes, all hand knotted. The kind you throw over lamp shades.”
In 1967, Missoni’s first boutique opened in Milan and the brand scored its first fashion magazine cover, on Elle.
Vogue wrote in March, “The seductively thin, silky sweaters of Missoni, no matter how many you own, you always want more.” That same year, the Missonis held a presentation at Palazzo Pitti in Florence that was scandalous, since Rosita sent braless models down the runway in lamé tops, which led Pitti to ban the house from showing until 1970.