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The company also rapidly expanded outside Italy, selling in Paris for the first time in 1967 and, by the following year, in America. “We already sold to U.S. department stores through Italian buying offices, but it was Diana Vreeland who gave us a real helping hand,” said Rosita Missoni. In 1970, Bloomingdale’s opened the brand’s first in-store boutique and, in 1973, the Missonis received the Neiman Marcus Award.
Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, a longtime friend of Tai Missoni, described him as “a great innovator,” recalling how the Missonis were among the “founders of Italian fashion,” showing at Palazzo Pitti’s Sala Bianca in Florence.
Rosi Biffi, owner of the Biffi and Banner boutiques in Milan, saw the Missonis’ collections early on, and started selling the brand in 1968. “I loved their jersey dresses, the fun, joyful patterns, those large capri pants. There was humor throughout the items, and they were well-made, with magnificent fabrics.”
Giovanna Gentile Ferragamo, vice president of Salvatore Ferragamo SpA, remembered how their friendship was enlivened by Missoni’s “joyful presence, and he would always transmit his cheerfulness and his irony on every occasion.”
Mariuccia Mandelli said she was “pained,” since she and her husband, Aldo Pinto, were close to the Missoni family “not only as colleagues, but as friends.…More than once we spent our holidays together, and both Rosita and Ottavio never missed Krizia presentations or parties....A piece of Made in Italy has gone away.”
Ira Neimark, the former chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman, recalled that Missoni wasn’t an easy sell, and said that Tai developed strong relationships in the retail community. “Around 1979 or 1980, when we were building up our Italian designer collections, bringing in Fendi first then Krizia and Armani, I spent the whole evening with Ottavio and his wife trying to convince him to sell Bergdorf’s,” he said. “He was very personable and courteous, and we were getting close to a deal, but then he told me that Bloomingdale’s promised him a permanent window on Lexington Avenue. That killed our deal. And really, I was OK with it. It illustrated to me that he had a great deal of loyalty to Bloomingdale’s and Marvin Traub” — the late former Bloomingdale’s ceo. “I respected that.”
“Tai was always the most lovable and loving man and always so gentle, talented — and so handsome,” said Joan Burstein, who founded Browns in London with her late husband Sidney. She recalled first meeting Tai and Rosita Missoni in the early Seventies. “His talent was in getting all of the colors, textures and patterns together. I remember visiting them in Italy and he would go into the garden and pick up leaves and that would get a color palette going.”
Burstein said that Missoni knitwear needed no explanation when it first launched — Vogue had introduced Britain to the label — and it was a hit. “I remember getting a delivery and unloading it on the lower ground floor of the shop. Customers were coming in and actually pulling the clothing out of the packing boxes and buying it. It was so absolutely different and so wearable.”
“They were brilliant,” said Ellin Saltzman, former senior vice president and corporate fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, who recalled working with the Missonis in the early Eighties. “They were the first people who really did all the striated knits and things like that, and nobody’s ever done them as well as Missoni. At Sumirago, they made us part of the family.”
Brunello Cucinelli said he shared with the elder Missoni and his family a “cult” for knitwear and cited their closeness to the territory. Then he added, “Tai was a special person, and I’ve always held him and the family in great esteem....I bought my first Missoni knit as a young man, at 22 or 23.”
Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon, met Missoni in the Seventies and eventually took him to his tennis club. “He fancied himself a good tennis player, but I told him the club was strict, and you had to wear all whites. He said, ‘No, no, no, it will be OK.’ I didn’t know what to expect. I thought he would come in the Missoni herringbone colors. He was kind of a practical joker. But he came in all whites, except he wore colored socks with the Missoni pattern. ‘How could they throw me off the court just for my socks?’ he asked.
“To him and his wife, work was pleasure and their family life was terrific. There was such a unique creative partnership between him and his wife. They could speak the same languages in terms of design and business strategies. They created such a signature look and spread it across so many classifications. It has persevered through generations. It’s been updated and re-engineered, but you still know Missoni when you see it.”
In 1978, the Missonis showed their spring collection, accompanied by a 25-year retrospective, at New York’s Whitney Museum. Tai’s work was exhibited at Trieste’s Galleria Torbandena — one of many such exhibitions that would follow. For example, in 1994, the couple received the Pitti Immagine Prize and, in honor of the award, the “Missonologia” exhibit opened in Florence. The house was included in the “Italian Metamorphosis 1943–1968” show at the Guggenheim in New York in 1994.
In 1993, Tai was named a Cavaliere al merito del Lavoro by the Italian government. In 1999, the couple was awarded honorary doctorates from Central Saint Martins in London and San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and also picked up the Dallas Historical Society’s Stanley Award.
Beginning in 1996, Tai and Rosita gradually passed control of their fashion empire to their children Luca, Vittorio and Angela, when they handed their design responsibilities to their daughter. Tai and Rosita’s solid family values were passed on to their children and to the third generation, and theirs was a tightly knit clan, with its members all characterized by a remarkable lack of pretension. For a few seasons, the family ironically and happily posed for the brand’s ad campaigns lensed by Juergen Teller.
A blow to the family came earlier this year as Vittorio, who was in charge of the management of the company, his life companion and two friends aboard a small airplane went missing on Jan. 4 in Venezuela.