Ottavio Missoni. The designer’s centenary in an exhibition at MA*GA Museum in Gallarate – the city where Missoni’s history and revolution began
Ottavio Missoni and the birth of the family company
It would have been the one hundredth anniversary of Ottavio Missoni’s birth this February. Missoni was born in Ragusa, Italy, on the Dalmatian cost, to Teresa de Vidovich, countess of Capocesto and Ragosniza and Vittorio Missoni, a sea captain. As a boy, Ottavio excelled in athletics and, aged sixteen, he became the youngest member of Italy’s national team. Tai, as he was called by his family and friends, was an established figure on the sports circuits when he had to put his sports career on hold; he served as an infantryman during World War II. In 1942 Missoni fought in the battle of El Alamein, where he was captured by the Desert Rats becoming a prisoner of war in Egypt for four years. On his release, Ottavio Missoni started producing sportswear in Trieste with his teammate Giorgio Oberweger. The partnership merged their knowledge of athletic attire and led them to design tracksuits for the Italian Olympic team in 1948. Running led him meeting his lifelong partner, Rosita Jelmini when he was competing in the London Olympics. Jelmini was a language student, and her family ran a shawl-making business. In 1953, following the marriage to Rosita, the couple set up in Gallarate, Lombardy where they opened a knitwear workshop initially called, Maglificio Jolly. The name came from Rosita’s superstitious nature – she was fond of the number seven. The business lost money at the beginning but success arrived with their emergence into the ready-to-wear market. The name was changed to Missoni only after the launch of their own capsule range and a series of striped shirt dresses were sold to the Italian department store La Rinascente. Through Rosita’s family of manufactures, knitting machines became available at a time when patterns were knitted only in horizontal and vertical stitches. The pair had the machines reconfigured for more modern alternatives. With Rosita developing the shape of the range and Ottavio, with his eye for color, taking the role of colorist arranging different color palettes, each played to their strengths and the Missoni brand was born. Ottavio’s experience as an activewear designer and manufacturer was applied to his and Rosita’s designs, which contributed to the development of Italian sportswear as a challenge to the American industry.
Lampoon reviews Missoni’s knitwear
Ottavio’s sportif expertise with Rosita’s help crossed over into the industry and began to be feature in the fashion press. Four years after the launch of the business, Missoni were becoming experimental with their multi colored signature zig zag motif. The company established its image by merging fractured plaids, stripes, patchworks, ethnic effects, mosaics, and flame stitch patterns in a vivid color combination. The label was discovered and promoted by Anna Piaggi, who would later sate that the Missoni’s had started a ‘knitwear revolution’. In 1965 Anna Piaggi covered Missoni in an article published on Arianna magazine. She continued to support Missoni throughout her career as a fashion journalist, including writing their press releases. This helped bring Missoni to the attention of a wider public, as did a joint collection with French stylist Emmanuelle Khanh in 1965, shown in a swimming pool in Milan. Emmanuelle’s husband was a designer, He designed and inflatable house that was in the middle of a swimming pool. All of a sudden all the girls were in the water, and it became a big party. The designer created a Missoni catwalk with models changing their knits from behind a transparency, which brought on a controversy the following year at a presentation at palazzo Pitti in Florence. The transparency of the model’s clothing under the bright catwalk lights, revealed a lack of underwear and led to comparisons to the Crazy Horse cabaret. Two years later Missoni met Diana Vreeland. On seeing their collection her reaction was conclusive: «Who said that only colors exist? There are also tones». In 1970 Missoni opened their first in-store boutique at Bloomingdale’s in New York, and their first owned boutique in Milan in 1976. Ottavio was still the colorist and pattern designer whose watercolor paintings formed the basis of Missoni textiles, whilst his wife developed the cuts and shapes of their garments. Ottavio’s design, which combined multicolored zigzag stripes, check and wave patterns was recognized as having artistic merit. In 1975, an exhibition of Missoni textiles and related paintings, curated by Renato Cardazzo was held in Venice, and Ferruccio Landi wrote an article titled Missoni, a Work of Art, Pullover Size.
The creation of the Archive and the collaboration with the Ma*Ga Museum
To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Missoni’s founding, a retrospective was held in 1978 at the Rotonda della Besana in Milan, and later hosted by the Whitney Musesum of American Art in New York. For the first time, the label became aware of its own heritage, synonymous of the artistic language and style the brand conceived. As a result, an Archive was created, collecting in a chronological and systematic way not only editorials, but also a selection of garments from the collections. Over the years the archive has evolved into a corporate research and communication tool reflecting the references for the brand’s heritage. The Missoni Archive at present consists of about 20,000 pieces from the Missoni men’s and women’s collections with thousands of accessories, fabric swatches, editorials, and photographs. It also conserves the artistic work of Ottavio Missoni consisting of patchwork tapestries, textile research and drawings. The archive was conceived as an element where images, dresses, color trials could dialogue with one another in a language akin to an artistic expression, a sign of the cultural and social revolution brought forth by Rosita and Ottavio Missoni. Its artistic director, Luca Missoni, Tai and Rosita’s second-born, grew up in the workshops of the factory. By the end of the 1970s, he began working for the family business developing knitwear design as well as discovering new potentials without compromising production, applying the art of Missoni craftsmanship to the outmost. Since 2007 Luca Missoni has dedicated his efforts to give structure to the archival material the family has been accumulating over more than sixty-five years of creative work in the industry. «This year marks the centenary of my father’s birth» he says, «a series of event will take place in collaboration with museums, fashion and design schools». The MA* GA Museum in Gallarate, the city they chose for their home and first knitwear atelier back in 1953, already celebrated the culture and artistic view of the two founders in 2016 with Missoni, l’Arte, il Colore, an exhibition curated by Luciano Caramel and Emma Zannella, organized according to different narrative registers to outline the characteristics of the Missoni’s revolution: color, material, and shape. It also revealed how creativity is linked to art. This year, to celebrate the centenary of the founder’s birth, the museum presents the new layout of the Ottavio Missoni Tapestry Room, in collaboration with the Ottavio and Rosita Missoni Foundation. «It seemed natural to us to validate the display of his tapestries in the museum room dedicated to him, with a thematic narration of his artistic work» explains Luca Missoni. This section, which has become a permanent part of the collection, preserves a series of large tapestries made in a patchwork of knitted fabric, in a space conceived by Luca Missoni and designed by Angelo Jelmini, so as to highlight the value of these textile creations by Ottavio Missoni, who chose them as a primary technique of artistic expression.
Angela Missoni to exit creative director position
Ottavio and Rosita’s children grew up in contact with their parents’ work. Angela Missoni’s first steps within the family company were on the Missoni kids’ line, followed by fragrances and jewelry. She took her first bow alone on the catwalk back in October 1997. In May 2021, after twenty-four years at the helm of the label, Angela Missoni announced she’d be leaving the creative direction of the brand. The role has been inherited by one of her collaborators, Alberto Caliri, who has worked alongside the designer for over fifteen years. She will remain the president of the brand. When Angela Missoni first became the creative director, her first step was to clean up the brand, give it an identity and lighten up the weight of the pieces – with a sophisticated technology that over the years has continued to help her archive. She reworked the graphic effects of patterns, going back to her mother’s original dresses and rearranged the prints, while reintroducing Lurex threads, 70’s inspiration and evening wear. it’s now time to move forward, approaching a more sustainable mindset.
2021 marks the centenary of Ottavio Missoni’s birth. The memory of a man, athlete and artist, who, with his wife Rosita consolidated the Made in Italy in the world. Documentaries and art exhibitions are dedicated to the designer, whose work connected transversal interests, both in fashion and in art, by matter and color. From a small workshop with only three knitted machines to boutiques Angela grew up into, her family changed the face of knitwear and helped boost the knowledge of loungewear, as we know it today, with colors at the core of their experimentation. As Ottavio Missoni once said: «Life is more with colors».