The missing Missonis: how tragedy befell the first family of fashion

They're the clan who built a style giant without losing the common touch. But now a missing plane has plunged the Missonis – and Italy – into despair

The last time news of the Missoni clan spilled beyond the fashion pages was in June, when Margherita, the 29-year-old heir to the Italian fashion empire, celebrated her marriage to the racing driver Eugenio Amos with a deliciously over-the-top, gypsy-style party on the family's estate near Varese, north-west of Milan.

Margherita's grandmother, Rosita, who co-founded the firm with her husband, Ottavio, universally known as Tai, with four hand-operated knitting machines in a basement in 1953, looked on proudly as Margherita, wearing the lacy, Gothic wedding dress she designed herself, sliced a 6ft-wide, heart-shaped wedding cake smothered in strawberries.

But today, the modernist villa near that party site was locked to the outside world as Rosita, 80, and 91-year-old Tai struggled to come to terms with the worst nightmare of parents, whatever their age: the loss of a child. Vittorio Missoni, 58, the couple's eldest son, who took over running the family firm in 1996, had set off on a 140km flight from an upmarket resort in Los Roques, an archipelago of 42 islands off the Venezuelan coast, to Simon Bolivar airport near Caracas on Friday morning. He was among six people in the twin-engined plane, including his wife, Maurizia Castiglioni, and two close friends with whom they had passed a new year fishing holiday. They were on their way back home to Italy via Venezuela; Rosita and Tai were at home in the small town of Sumirago and looking forward to welcoming them back.

But the light aircraft never reached Venezuela: it vanished from the radar about half an hour after take-off. When it failed to arrive, rescue teams were mobilised to scour the sea for traces of the aircraft.

Today, Vittorio's younger sister, Angela, the creative director at Missoni, told La Repubblica newspaper, "We still have hope – we are all gathered here at Sumirago."

However, with no clues of any sort, hopes that anyone on the plane might still be found alive are ebbing. If the deaths of its passengers and crew are confirmed, it marks a tragic departure from a family script which has seen two generations of Missonis negotiate the fickle seas of fashion with a dazzling touch.

The story began in London, at the 1948 Olympics, where Tai was competing for his country in the men's 400 metres. There he met Rosita, a teenager from the same area; they fell in love and in 1953 set up in business together making knitwear.

Slowly and fitfully, a Missoni look began to take shape. The crucial moment came in 1962 when they discovered zigzags. "[At first] we could only do stripes and then we started doing horizontal and vertical," Rosita said years later. "Then we found the Raschel [knitting] machines that do the zigzag, and that was that."

As Italy boomed through the 1950s and 1960s, so did the Missonis, establishing a uniquely inventive and stylish repertoire of knitwear, "all in a warm kaleidoscope of colour and pattern", as Vogue put it, and becoming stars of Italian mode. In 1973 the New York Times declared that Missoni's knitted clothes "have become international status symbols, like Vuitton bags and Gucci shoes".

Their children proved worthy heirs, with their daughter, Angela, becoming creative director in 1997, a year after Vittorio – who at the time of his disappearance was chief executive – became marketing director. Under Vittorio's energetic guidance, the firm found burgeoning new markets in Asia. But while this archetypal Italian family firm has shrugged off the sort of business challenges that brought much of the country's fashion trade to its knees, it is no more immune than any other family to grief. Yesterday, Tai and Rosita remained barricaded inside their villa with Angela, as their younger son, Luca, flew to Venezuela to monitor the rescue effort.

The fashion world reacted with shock. The Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman spoke of the "terribly worrying news" and Jane Bruton, of Grazia magazine, tweeted that her "thoughts are with the lovely, close Missoni family". Russell Simmons, the American style and music mogul, said the family was "in his prayers".

By dusk tonight, a sorrowing crowd of locals had gathered near the gates of the Missoni villa. In this small town of some 6,000 people, home to the Missoni factory which employs 200 people, residents shared their recollections of a family whose prosperity never went to their heads, despite their global renown.

Vittorio, famed in Sumirago for his passion for sport, personally underwrote the local football and volleyball teams, and a fortnight ago he put on a Santa Claus outfit to hand out presents to employees at a pre-Christmas drinks party. "The Missoni family keeps the whole town alive," Alessio Pasquale, the owner of a bar, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper, "but they live in the midst of the common people."

Zigzag style: family fortunes

The Missoni fashion house, founded in 1953 by Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, has grown over the past few decades into one of Italy's best-known brands thanks to its trademark zigzag designs and luxury knitwear. The couple's children – Vittorio, Angela and Luca – took over in the 1990s after the brand's image flagged during the 1980s. They were credited with restoring Missoni's profile through a series of high-profile licensing deals and advertising campaigns. The company has earned a collection of celebrity admirers – among them Kate Moss and Kate Middleton. The Duchess of Cambridge has worn her blue tweed Missoni M coat to a string of engagements including Royal Ascot and Diamond Jubilee visits.

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