An appreciation / Missoni: Master of zigzags, sultan of stripes

Ottavio Missoni and granddaughter Margherita last year in Milan.
Ottavio Missoni and granddaughter Margherita last year in Milan. (PIER MARCO TACCA / Getty Images)
Posted: May 11, 2013

If it wasn't for Ottavio Missoni, fashionistas wouldn't know how beautiful, flattering, and powerful a bunch of zigzags could be.

Thanks to unconventional color combinations with patterns that were sometimes curved, sometimes sharp, but always striped, the designer's dresses, accessories, and home products are iconic.

Missoni, affectionately known as Tai, died Thursday at his home in northern Italy. He was 92.

"He set the standard when it came to luxury and knitwear," said Paula Hian, a women's designer based in Manayunk, who manufactures some of her knitwear line, PH Paula Hian, in the same European factory as Missoni. "He was one of the pioneers who brought these styles to the market before people really understood what knitwear could do."

His fame was at its height in the 1970s, when society women would dress head to toe in the bold Missoni stripes. Considered the epitome of Italian fashion, the pieces were chic, vibrant, and expensive - often costing thousands of dollars for one ensemble. Today, his clothes are a favorite of celebrities from Lauren Bacall to Jennifer Lopez.

"I've always loved the Missoni swirl," said Sissy Harris, owner of Peter Kate, a Delaware boutique that carries the brand's scarves and headbands. "Even when he changes up the pattern a bit, you can always tell it's Missoni by the way it's done. He can't be knocked off."

In today's fashion world, in which luxury conglomerates like Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy gobble up trendsetting brands, Missoni's independence is noteworthy. It's probably why the company has been able to remain special. The patterns are predictable, yes, but each wrap dress, coat, even sheets, has its own vibrant electricity.

In 2011, shoppers went so crazy for Target's Missoni line that the retailer's website crashed. Converse has Missoni-inspired sneakers. It's a staple in specialty stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. And a classic Missoni won't last more than about 24 hours in any vintage and consignment shop.

"It's amazing people don't get tired of the print," said Sean General, a luxury-retail fashion consultant in Philadelphia. "Who can get away with basically the same pattern year after year?"

Missoni competed in the 1948 London Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles. While training, he met his wife, Rosita Jelmini, whose family had a textile business. Together, they launched an activewear line in the early '50s.

It makes sense that Missoni's roots started there: Nothing is as body-fitting as activewear except knits. In 1958, he began showing his clothing under the Missoni label, and in 1966, he started using machines intended to make shawls and bedspreads. That gave his work a squiggly look, sealing his signature mark in the industry.

Even after the brand's heyday, it remained successful, experiencing another bump in popularity in the 1990s with changes made under son Vittorio - whose plane went missing four months ago on a flight from Venezuela. Vittorio introduced the less-expensive M. Missoni line, tried new marketing, and formed new partnerships for the brand. Still, the stripe was the mainstay.

"A woman can pull out a piece of Missoni from the '70s, '80s, and '90s and wear it today, and it would still be current," said General, who sold the line to high-end Neiman's customers in the 1990s. "That's what is so amazing about it."


Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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