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Stars in their stripes: Missoni a fashion powerhouse

For 50 years, it has dressed the stylish in its striped and zig-zag knits. Missoni is a fashion powerhouse, a family business and, a new exhibition argues, an Italian national treasure.

Harriet Walker
Monday 22 June 2009 00:00 BST

Passion, pasta and pullovers. Italians may be renowned for their fiery temperaments, but they’re also a nation of knitters, and one of their most recognisable fashion brands is celebrating 50 years in the business with a new exhibition.

Workshop Missoni: Daring to be Different explores the house of Missoni’s idiosyncratic stripes and patterns, and the aesthetic and technological impact that the brand’s innovations have had on both traditional knitwear and directional fashion.

“They’re artisans who understand how to connect and enhance one generation to the next,” says Maggie Norden, Director of Creative Media at the London College of Fashion and producer of a documentary about the Missoni family, which will be shown at the exhibition. “

They have a signature style that makes one feel empowered.” The trademark zigzag stripes of the brand transcend age and gender, adorning collections of menswear and womenswear, plus children’s clothes, home furnishings and, most recently, a concept hotel which has just opened in Edinburgh. Three generations of Missonis have built a veritable empire, presided over by founders Ottavio and Rosita, from their villa in Sumirago, in Lombardy.

The husband-and-wife team began their knitwear business in the late Fifties, and presented their first collection in Milan in 1958.

Flamboyant fashion editor Anna Piaggi has supported them since the early days: “They really started a knitwear revolution,” she says in the film, and they certainly did break some of the rules. Showing in Florence’s prestigious Palazzo Pitti in 1967, Rosita Missoni instructed her models to take off their underwear because it looked too bulky underneath the delicate, silken wool. When they emerged under the bright lights of the catwalk, the jersey pieces were almost completely transparent. The show’s organisers asked the Missonis not to come back.

“Knitwear tends to fit to the body,” says Luca Missoni, son of the founding couple and one of the brand’s creative directors. “My father was a sportsman, a man all the time in jersey suits, so they started experimenting to try and bring something more comfortable to fashion.” Sport is a particular Italian passion, and the label created outfits for the opening ceremony of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, with jewellery made from jersey and exotically-patterned turbans.

Missoni was one of the earliest brands to explore the link between sport and chic, and the label’s look is based around similar dualities: it’s an Italian heritage brand inspired by the avant-garde; it’s timeless (and effectively seasonless because it isn’t led by trends) but is constantly evolving; and the family themselves are cultured, well-travelled and sophisticated, but work as artisans in the countryside.

It’s also a seemingly haphazard sort of pattern and combination of colours, but is scientifically calculated and plotted on grids and graphs during production. “Who said there are only colours? There are shades too!” cried legendary US Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, after seeing the Missonis’ complex work in 1969.

The brand experienced some difficulties during the early- to mid-Nineties, when fashion was preoccupied with minimalism, black, white and ‘greige’, but remained loyal to its heritage, kept the colours and began experimenting with texture.

They, to some extent, re-invented and reinvigorated menswear, with their near-clashing combinations of patterned shirts, ties, scarves and jumpers. “It’s hard for young designers and this generation to imagine fashion without this crop of Italian giants, like Missoni and Armani,” says Suzy Menkes, fashion editor at the International Herald Tribune and respected industry commentator, in the documentary.

But it’s the quintessentially Italianate spirit of the brand that ensures its survival – pieces are vibrant and contemporary, whether a scarf, shawl, sweater or swimming costume, without ever losing a sense of their roots.

Daring to be Different focuses not only on the technical aspects of the Missoni label, but also on the family’s extensive sources of inspiration. “With my mother, we always went to a lot of primitive art,” says Luca Missoni. “Something that comes from the origin of culture, before it gets refined.”

The family are also keen collectors of early 20th-century art, however, that draws on the more primordial angles of modern culture; their villa is decorated with paintings by Gino Severini and boldly-coloured suits by Giacomo Balla, two main protagonists in the Futurist movement, whose studies in colour, movement and dynamism have been a constant source of inspiration to the brand.

The Missonis draw on everything from fine art to folk art and find colours all around them, from the priceless works on the walls to the kitschy ceramic mushrooms on the mantelpiece.

“It’s more than just the geometries of Futurism and simultaneity of colour,” says Maggie Norden of the brand’s trademark look. “It’s like observing how design works. If you look now in the windows of Zara, say, they’re paying homage to the Missoni designs of 30 years ago. Ottavio and Rosita understood modern taste then and their children do now. Anything that inspires like that is going to continue.”

‘Workshop Missoni: Daring to be Different’ opens at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London N1 on 1 July

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