Ottavio Missoni was a handsome Olympic athlete. Rosita Jelmini was a shy 16 year old convent student. In 1948 they fell in love under the statue of Cupid in London’s Piccadilly Circus. They would spend the next 55 years together developing Missoni, one of the world’s leading fashion brands.
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Founded in 1953, by Rosita Jelmini and Ottavio Missoni, the Missoni brand is known for its iconic zig-zag and geometric patterns. Their fabulous patterns and colours paired with the simple cut of their garments make for a style that has always been classic. The company has branched out over the years with not just mens’ and womens’ clothing, but fragrances, home décor and even designer hotels.
Rosita Jelmini was born in 1931, a granddaughter of the owners of Torrani and Jelmini embroidered fabric factory in Northern Italy. They were primarily makers of shawls — the kind of shawls that in Rosita’s words “you would throw over a lampshade”.
From a very young age she observed the business of dyeing, embroidering and pattern cutting in the family factory. This early exposure definitely helped shape her interest in fashion.
Ottavio Missoni, also known as “Tai”, was as clever as he was good looking. He was born in 1921 to an Italian countess and a captain in the Italian Navy. Ottavio had been a model for photo novels, an elite athlete and a talented designer. He and a friend owned a small factory in Italy that produced knitwear —“Venjulia” tracksuits that become the uniform of the Italian Olympic team.
He met young Rosita Jelmini in 1948 when she was a convent student visiting London, and where he was competing as a hurdler for the Italian Olympic team. They noticed each other immediately and later agreed to meet under the Cupid statue in Piccadilly Circus. 5 years later they married and founded the Missoni label. Their first knitwear shop in Gallarate, Italy was called Malglificio Jolly.
Although they worked at the designs as a couple, Ottavio was always the technician, plotting patterns that were inspired by Guatemalan, Aztec and Incan textiles as well as modern art. Rosita was the one who shaped the clothing. Since those early days, Missoni has become famous for their unique and colourful knitwear and home decor which look as fresh today as they did in the 1950s.
It was in 1962 that the iconic Missoni zigzag was first used. With the discovery of the Raschel knitting machine, Missoni was able to expand their designs from stripes, plains and simple jacquards to the much more intricate zigzag pattern. It’s a pattern that is instantly recognizable as Missoni.
On a trip to New York in 1965, Rosita met the French stylist Emmanuelle Khanh, which led to a collaboration and a radical new collection.
In 1967 the brand was invited to a fashion show held at the Pitti Palace in Florence. At the last minute, Rosita asked her models to remove their brassieres because they were showing through the clothing and the colours didn’t match. Unfortunately, under bright catwalk lighting, the clothing became almost transparent and caused a scandal. The owners of the Pitti Palace accused the Missonis of trying to turn their event into a “Crazy Horse” type of cabaret (an infamous strip club of the era). Nipples on the runway are quite common today, but in 1967 it was outrageous. Not surprisingly, the Missonis were not invited back the following year.
Despite the scandal, Italian Vogue editor Arianna Piaggi, (then with Arianna magazine), took a liking to the bold, geometric patterns and helped garner press coverage for the brand. American Vogue’s Diana Vreeland was also a fan. In 1969, Missoni was featured in Woman’s Wear Daily, who dedicated the opening page to the brand.
“The seductively thin, silky sweaters of Missoni, no matter how many you own, you always want more.” —Vogue, 1967
With such great support from fashion editors, Missoni was able to open their first boutique in 1970 inside Bloomingdales in Yew York.
The 1970s were a golden era and saw a huge increase in Missoni’s popularity. The brand helped make Milan into the fashion centre it is to this day, and Rosita and Ottavio were instrumental in helping to create what we now know as Milan Fashion Week.
Rosita and Ottavio Missoni never designed for the sake of fashion, but always looked to art for their inspiration. This philosophy elevated their knitwear to “works of art” and their designs became status symbols in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Our philosophy since we went into business has been that a piece of clothing should be like a work of art. It should not be bought for a special occasion or because it’s in fashion, but because a woman likes it…and feels she could wear it forever.” —Rosita Missoni
The first Missoni Home collection was created in 1983 and launched with furnishing fabrics produced by Rosita’s family mill. The Missoni Home collections are increasingly popular today due to the resurgence in modern décor styles.
In 1992 Angela Missoni (Rosita and Ottavio’s daughter) designed her own signature collection with a decidedly sexier feel. Celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez and Julia Roberts began wearing her creations. In 1997 Angela took over the creative reins of the company and in the next few years she increased brand awareness through a wide range of licensing deals — everything from rugs to footwear to fragrance.
In June of 2009, Missoni launched one of the first luxury fashion hotels: the groundbreaking Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh, Scotland. The signature Missoni style was everywhere, even on the kilts of door staff — cleverly combining modern Italian with traditional Scottish style. A second Hotel Missoni followed in Kuwait in 2011, with several more opening in other countries around the world.
In 2011 Missoni partnered with Target, offering clothing and home products at a very inexpensive price point. There were record lineups at the stores and they sold out of everything in minutes. Online, the huge popularity of the Missoni brand caused Target’s ecomm site to crash. It was clear that many shoppers were snapping up the stock with the intention of reselling it online. Later the same day, record numbers of Missoni for Target items were being offered for sale on eBay at two to three times the original prices! It was a triumph for the brand, but unfortunately not for customers who craved the products. The PR and promotion for the launch was brilliant, but clearly the stores had not anticipated such huge demand. It’s a testament to the artistic vision of the Missoni brand that it’s been able to capture the imagination and loyalty of so many fans.
Today the Missoni label, with its timeless yet very edgy pieces, continues to delight fashion consumers everywhere. With so many diverse branded products spanning fashion, home décor, and fragrances, it’s possible for anyone to own a piece of this remarkable Italian brand.