The Triumph of Rosita Missoni

The woman behind one of Italy's most iconic fashion brands started with nothing but passion and persistence.

Rosita Missoni in the living room of her Paris apartment.

Around 60 years ago, Rosita Missoni was by chance asked to deliver a camera to the French stylist Emmanuelle Khanh at a suite in New York’s Plaza Hotel. For Rosita—who had begun her then-nascent-but-growing namesake brand with her husband, Ottavio (known as “Tai”), in the village of Gallarate, Italy, in 1953—the meeting with Khanh marked a major transformation. Rosita and Khanh instantly connected. The two went on to produce several collections together and remained friends for the rest of Khanh’s life. Over the next two decades, the Missoni label turned into a juggernaut and helped establish the now-respected “Made in Italy” catchphrase. By the 1970s, Missoni was known globally for its signature colors, forms, materials, and patterns. The fashion brand now has estimated annual sales of between $75 million and $100 million, according to CNN, and is one of the most recognizable in the world.

These days, the 83-year-old Rosita remains heavily involved in the business and runs the Missoni Home line, which she relaunched in 2004. Her daughter Angela leads the Missoni label as creative director—Angela’s debut line came out in 1994—and since 2010, Angela’s daughter Margherita has been its accessories director and designer of the Missoni Mare collection. Started as a tightly knit family business, Missoni remains so, even in the face of massive fashion-market pressures and transformations.

Though this year doesn’t mark a major brand anniversary, it could be considered one. The company’s 60th year, in 2013, turned out to be difficult: That January, Rosita and Tai’s son Vittorio, then Missoni’s CEO, died in a plane crash, and that summer, Tai passed away of natural causes at age 92. Business remained as usual, but it was a heart-wrenching time for the family. This year, two major Missoni projects look back at what the family has built and suggest a celebration of sorts: The exhibition “Missoni, Art, Color” at the Museo Maga in Gallarate, on view from April 19 to Nov. 8, and a yet-to-be-titled book published by Rizzoli, coming out this fall. Both give context to how and why Missoni is a powerhouse.

The exhibition and book showcase the company’s roots in different ways. “Missoni, Art, Color” will delve deep into Rosita and Tai’s early early inspirations and influences in creating Missoni’s vibrant mosaics of zigzags and stripes. Curated by Luciano Caramel, Emma Zanella, and Luca Missoni, the show will present works by artists including Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Lucio Fontana, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Bruno Munari. Also featured will be an installation of fashion looks, as well as various original patchworks and drawings by Tai. The Rizzoli book looks at many figures who helped inform and shape the brand, including former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland and fashion writer Anna Piaggi.

During the Maison & Objet design fair in Paris in January, Surface visited Rosita’s apartment in the city’s 7th arrondissement to discuss her family’s path to renown, why she left fashion to focus on the Missoni Home line, and how seemingly random encounters throughout her life have often yielded the biggest breaks.

Let’s start with your family. How do you view the relationship between the Missoni family and the Missoni business?

I grew up in a village with my whole family there. We used to live three to five minutes from each other. We were around the house of my grandparents. My grandfather taught us to appreciate everything in nature. Views, for instance. Our house had a beautiful view of the second-highest mountain in the Alps. We’d look at dawns and sunsets. We had houses on a lake, houses on a mountain. For us, the view was part of our education. So were the garden, the flowers, the orchards.

In the early ’60s, my husband and I knew what kind of job we were growing and continuing from my family, which was knitwear but fashion knitwear. We were so daring then. We had no money. But we had passion. I realize, looking back, we had a certain power.

We were in a small town, Gallarate, a few kilometers from my family’s houses and factory. We had a very nice apartment, but we were renting our factory. We were told that the factory’s owner wanted to sell the building, because it was in the center of the town and there was development going on all around it. We decided, well, if we have to go out from here, then we will build our own factory. It was ’64, ’65, and we heard from the bank that we had some opportunities. They asked us, what were we looking for? My husband would have chosen a factory by the sea, because he was born on the sea, in Dalmatia, where we still go every summer, and after the war, he lived in Trieste. But, as he used to say, “By the sea, it’s easier to build a ship than make a sweater.” We realized we had to make our factory near Gallarate.

So what were you looking for? 

A nice view. One day, my husband comes home and says, “Rosita, I have to take you to a place I think you will like.” He took me to a property in Sumirago overlooking the Alps. Monte Rosa was in the middle of it all. It was the same view I had from my bedroom in my parents’ home. When I saw it, I said, “Yes, this is the place we have to buy.” And we bought it. First, we built the factory. Living and working there was the wisest decision of our lives. We never regretted it. Our children loved it, grew up there, and once married remained around the area. Our grandchildren live there and love it. This location is what has kept the family together.

My husband had a cut-and-sew personality. He was an artist. We built a new kind of activity around our two personalities. It was something unique. Three or four years after building the factory, we built the house in which I still live.

Tell me more about the impact of Sumirago on your family. Had you been based in Milan, say, it would have been a totally different dynamic for your family—and the brand.

Absolutely. We realized we had a way of life in which nature and the place where we were living was important. We also had the luck to live in a very special moment: the 1960s, when prêt-à-porter was born. It was rather easy for us to enter the business. I was already married; we already had the three children. I was invited by my parents to go on the first trip of the Michelangelo, the big transatlantic ocean liner. I went with a friend—the owner of the house where we lived in Gallarate—and a cousin, along with my three brothers, their wives and kids, and my mother. We arrived in New York after one week on this big ship. In New York, I had the opportunity to meet Emmanuelle Khanh, who was invited there by Mademoiselle magazine to show her collection. By chance, because someone I had met in Paris wanted to send her a camera, Emmanuelle had invited me one evening to have a drink with her at the Plaza, where we were both staying.

So what, in your mind, marked the launch of Missoni as we know it today?

Our first success was these two shirt dresses made for La Rinascente in 1959. These were the first 500 dresses ordered with the label Missoni. Before that, we had a small label called Maglificio Jolly. We didn’t think to involve our name at the very beginning. But at this point, we knew what we were going to do. We changed the label to Missoni, and it became such a success.

How central has the Missoni name been to the brand’s staying power? Perhaps if you had kept it Maglificio Jolly, things would have turned out very differently. 

The fact that Missoni is a short, simple name—maybe. I’ve never thought about the fact that Missoni is easy to pronounce. [Laughs] Of course, my husband was a champion athlete, so he was popular in sports magazines back then. That was also important early on. [Editor’s note: Tai was a professional hurdler who competed in the 1948 London Olympics.]

You were mentioning Emmanuelle Khanh. Diana Vreeland was also important to the ascent of Missoni. And early on the brand had a look featured on the cover of French Elle

We came to Paris after the success of the dress. Pierre Cardin started opening his boutiques. We had met his right hand at La Rinascente, because we had common friends from Paris, and they asked us if we could do something together. My husband and I were staying at the Hôtel Lutetia, and we went to see the CEO of Pierre Cardin. He said, “We like what you do. Know what you should do? Make your collection, and when you’re ready, we’ll send a person to choose 10 pieces. We’ll give you the rights to put the Cardin label on it, and you give us 10 percent.” I was so disappointed. I thought we were going to have the possibility of working with the people at Cardin to get some ideas. As we went back to the Lutetia, I was nearly crying.

At the Lutetia, I called Emmanuelle Khanh, who had given me her card at that meeting at the Plaza. I told her we had met the previous spring in New York, and she invited me over for tea. She used to live nearby the Lutetia. We walked to her place, had tea with her and her husband, and two hours later, we decided we would do a collection together. This all happened in three hours in the afternoon. It was unbelievable.

We showed the first collection at the Gerolamo, a small theater in Milan that used to present marionettes. It was like a jewel box, only 500 seats. Showing in this little theater was funny: The sister of Giorgio Armani, Rosanna, was one of the models. Giorgio Armani was not yet Giorgio Armani—I’m talking about ’66. Back then he was working at La Rinascente for the men’s department on the window displays. It was such a small world.

It seems like some of the biggest names in fashion were so accessible for Tai and you.

There were high-fashion shows in Rome then, and Diana Vreeland used to come every year. Consuelo Crespi, who was the editor of Italian Vogue, called me one day and said, “Diana is in Rome, and I want to show her your clothes. Put a few of them in your bag.” I went to Rome with my house model—she was from the school of La Scala and moved very nicely. I wanted to have my house model to show the clothes for Diana. Instead, Consuelo wore them herself. The first dress we showed was a striped-cotton one from our summer collection. Consuelo was a beauty. Diana took this belt, which was a kind of scarf, and said, “Who said that there are only seven colors in the rainbow? There are tones!” She was pointing with her finger. [Laughs] When Diana went back to New York, she started sending me letters saying, “You must come!” We were working with department stores in the U.S., but it wasn’t very exciting for us.

On our next trip there, in a small sitting room at the Plaza, Diana came with 17 editors. She called the important ladies in New York. She even called up Neiman Marcus, and Stanley Marcus came over. It was all so easy. Our little suite was filled with flowers, all of them sent by Vogue. We were very naïve.

It seems that the media was in your favor from the start. In some sense, it’s really what put your then-burgeoning brand from Sumirago on the world stage.

We were never greedy. We loved what we were doing. We loved the life we had planned for ourselves. My children have learned the same philosophy.

In the ’90s, after running Missoni’s creative direction for four decades, you started to turn your attention toward furniture. Why?

While in New York one time, we were asked by Bloomingdale’s to design a home collection with Fieldcrest, which at the time was a big, important company for sheets and towels and those kinds of things. We made four collections with them. At that point, my brother said, “But why do you have to work with an American company? Why don’t you work with us?” Back then, my brother and my husband were designing our colors and patterns for home; I had enough to do with my clothes and collections.

In 1996, when my daughter Angela decided she wanted to take over and I was getting tired, my life didn’t correspond to the “fashion life” anymore. In fashion, you need to go out to meet young people, go to clubs. For me, it had become a duty. I was used to working with passion. At that time, I realized that the home was becoming fashion, too, and I could use the same passion I had once had for fashion for the home. I could again work on something and get up in the morning with the joy of going to my studio and having people working with me, transferring this passion for patterns and colors.

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