I need to be quick. The serious-looking British journalist is wrapping up his interview. To my left a hipster fashion blogger is after an Insta-worthy photo and to my right a Japanese woman is hovering, clutching her camera with intent… Signora Missoni is a wanted woman.
It’s the morning after Rosita Missoni’s talk at the 2015 Design Indaba and when I manage to get my promised time with the matriarch of the Missoni fashion label, which she founded with her husband Ottavio in 1953, she leans in and confides in strongly Italian-accented English that she doesn’t remember much from her presentation. ‘I went in without reading anything, so I want to know what I said!’ I tell her the two standing ovations she received indicate that what she said went down extremely well.
At 83 Rosita is impeccably stylish. She is wearing an elegant space-dyed kimono – all stripes, zigzags and geometric patterns in mint greens, purples, burnt orange and rust – classic Missoni. On her fingers are two bold, disc-shaped rings: one white, the other monochrome checks. In her ears are bold, black zigzags. Not your average grandmother’s getup.
‘I have always been sensitive to it,’ says Rosita when I ask her where her fascination with colour comes from. Her grandparents made shawls and kimonos from embroidered and coloured fabric in the province of Varese, Italy. ‘I grew up amongst all that,’ she says. In fact, the first sweater Rosita designed for Missoni was taken from hanks of material from her grandparents’ factory.
She met Ottavio in London. He was a hurdler competing in the 1948 London Olympics. Rosita was 16 at the time, studying English. She was smitten but when she discovered he was 27, thought he was out of her reach: ‘He had started having grey hair!’ she exclaims. Despite Rosita’s misgivings about their 11-year age gap, she invited him to her 17th birthday party (he brought her a painting as a gift), and they married five years later in 1953. ‘It was certainly a good encounter between my husband and me,’ Rosita says of their partnership. Ottavio would go on to develop the technical knitting system, which created the groundbreaking zigzags, stripes, waves and space-dyed threads for which the label became known. Italian fashion writer Anna Piaggi was a fan, as was then-editor of US Vogue Diana Vreeland who said of the creative duo: ‘These people are genius’. Both Anna and Diana would help propel the label to huge success in Europe and America. Theirs was a new kind of fashion vocabulary, or as Rosita says, a kind of music. ‘Ottavio used to say that with seven notes you can have the most fantastic symphony, the same thing is true with colour.’
Their partnership too has something of a musical arrangement about it. Despite working and living together for 60 years until Ottavio’s passing in 2013, their relationship never suffered. The Missoni factory is just a few steps from the family home in Sumirago, Varese but the couple maintained strong boundaries. ‘We had a policy not to talk business during lunches, we didn’t take it home – the home was a break,’ says Rosita. Of course arguments were inevitable. ‘The factory was our battleground,’ she says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their fights tended to centre on colour. ‘”This yellow is too green”, I would say,’ remembers Rosita. ‘He would yell: “What do you mean, dammit?!” – or even stronger words!’
Thankfully common passions overruled the odd tonal misunderstanding. The couple both drew inspiration from museums, art and books. Early in their career, while on a visit to New York, Rosita and Ottavio discovered a 24-hour bookstore. ‘For us it was a dream. We couldn’t invest so much in art at the time but we could buy books!’ And one, which had a profound influence on the couple, was a book on Afghan textiles and fabric. When working on a collection in 1970, Rosita realised how much of what they were doing – the patterns, the colours, the space-dying – could all be seen in this book. ‘My husband used to say that they copied us 2 000 years ago!’ she says with a twinkle in her eye.
This ‘who copied who?’ question remained a private joke between the pair. Once, on a trip to Egypt, Rosita visited the Valley of the Kings while her husband hit the beach. When he saw her back at the hotel, Ottavio’s first question was, ‘”How many years?” I said 3500 years ago they were copying us!’ laughs Rosita. ‘This [picture of an] Egyptian lady wearing a perfect little Missoni-striped dress. And the Nile always designed in a zigzag.’
It’s not entirely surprising then that in 1990, when Missoni was approached (along with other Italian designers) to create a collection inspired by a continent for the Football World Cup being hosted in Italy, they chose Africa. The collection – a match made in fashion heaven – debuted at the opening ceremony held in Milan where effortlessly elegant models sashayed through the stadium in black, blue, yellow, red and white striped tunics, tasseled skirts, turbans and other headgear offset by oversized monochrome accessories.
Rosita also drew her inspiration from strong, creative, independent women like Coco Chanel: ‘because of her modernity and her style – so different from the others that were in that world.’ And the twentieth century artist and textile designer Sonia Delaunay known for her bold use of colour and shapes: ‘She was always my muse,’ says Rosita.
But after 44 years at the creative helm, Rosita’s love for fashion began to wane and in 1997 she passed the Missoni mantle over to her daughter Angela. ‘I was tired,’ Rosita says. ‘And when you don’t feel inspired by what you do it becomes a heavy burden; I was used to working with enthusiasm.”
Keeping the label in the family was important: ‘to keep our spirit, our DNA, it has to come from us.’ And so when Angela expressed her interest, Rosita was more than happy to step back.
A period of downtime followed in which she ‘played the grandma’, taking the kids to school and listening to their jokes she says. But she wasn’t fulfilled: ‘I felt a kind of emptiness,’ she admits of that time.
Thankfully her passion for colour and pattern was as strong as ever which, together with her love for home decorating (‘I have always decorated my homes myself’), she channeled into designing her first collection for Missioni Home in 2004. The interior decorating division of the company was first launched in 1983. It wasn’t long, says Rosita, before they were being copied. Far from an insult, ‘it was a homage,’ she says. Today, Rosita remains the creative director of Missoni Home and recently launched her 2015 Lilium Multicolour collection. The traditional Missoni elements are all there: stripes, zigzags, waves and colours, combined this time with more abstract florals. As ever, it is vibrant and playful.
Our interview is coming to an end and Rosita is searching for a business card. Her handbag is of course Missoni, as is her business cardholder – and is that a checked monochrome wallet I see? ‘I made it very light,’ she tells me in hushed tones of her bag, ‘it’s not really very light, but lighter than it could have been.’ The conspiratorial tone in which she reveals this information makes me want to reach out and hug her. But that would be inappropriate, so instead I keep things semi-professional by asking Rosita where her shoes are from. They are chic, yet supremely comfy-looking and the woven leather allows her black socks with white polka dots to peek through. Unable to recall the designer’s name, without so much as blinking, she unties and removes one. It’s Clergerie. When visiting Paris, she tells me, she buys three pairs: two black (for practical purposes) and another, yes you guessed it, in a bright, bold colour.