Italy mourns athlete-turned-designer Ottavio Missoni

Zig-zag knitwear maestro dies at 92

Italy mourns athlete-turned-designer Ottavio Missoni

(By Elisa Cecchi). Milan, May 9 - Italian designer Ottavio Missoni, founder with wife Rosita of the Missoni fashion house known worldwide for its trademark colourful knitwear, has died aged 92, his family said on Thursday. His eldest son Vittorio, the 58-year-old CEO of the Italian fashion house, and his wife Maurizia Castiglioni were aboard a small plane that went missing off the Venezuelan coast in January. Ottavio Missoni, known as Tai, was born in 1921 in Dubrovnik, which is known as Ragusa by Italians. He started out as a promising international athlete but his sporting career was interrupted when he was made a prisoner of war in World War II. After the war, he resumed competing in 400 metres and 400m hurdles. He also started designing wool tracksuits which were worn by the Italian team at the 1948 Olympics in London. He came in sixth at the 1948 Olympics and fourth at the European Championships in 1950 before marrying in 1953 his lifetime business partner Rosita Jelmini, the daughter of textile entrepreneurs from Lombardy. The same year they founded their eponymous brand, Missoni, which has evolved through the decades while remaining immediately recognizable for its famous zig-zag patterns. At first the couple worked from a small atelier in Gallarate, Milan. The big break came in 1958 when the Rinascente department store ordered the Missonis 500 striped dresses. "We were trying to work with colours, but with the machinery we had back then it was hard", Ottavio Missoni once told ANSA in an interview. So Tai, described by Polish-French artist Balthus as "a master of colour" and his wife researched new techniques to develop their unique patterns. The duo in 1969 built their factory and home in Sumirago, near Varese, where the family still lives and works. By the 1970s the Missonis were among the most prominent Italian fashion designers - their bold patterns, rich patchworks and unique colour combinations a major success with unprecedented staying power. During that era Tai would use his famous expression "put together" to describe to buyers from the booming US market the label's singular and innovative combinations of different patterns and colours which is so in-vogue in today's fashion industry. A number of international museums have honoured with exhibits Missoni's original and unique creations throughout the years including New York's Metropolitan. The label has also made costumes for Milan's La Scala opera house. The Missoni's three children - Vittorio, Angela and Luca - took over in the 1990s and they are credited with giving new life to the label, which had lost some of its appeal. The company is today led by Angela, the label's creative designer, and Luca, the creative director, as well as by a number of grandchildren including Margherita Maccapani Missoni, who has starred in company ads. Though smaller than leading Italian competitors - the company posted revenues of over 150 million euros in 2011 - the label has remained an icon throughout the decades thanks to its unique style, which has always eschewed trends, and the dashing personality of the Missonis, notably Tai. "He was sunny like the colours in his designs", said Milan Mayor Giuliano Pisapia. Many in Sumirago also remembered him on Thursday as "the town's symbol". "He was an open and attentive person", said a local whose mother had worked for the Missonis for three decades. "His company was like a family, so much so that my mother cried on the day she retired". "I've never done what was fashionable", Ottavio Missoni told WWD in one of his last interviews. "I didn't want to work with preset schemes and I paint my own way". He once wrote, when he became an honorary citizen of Trieste in 2008, that his iconic zig-zag pattern was a symbol of life. "You see, that's how life goes - with a zig-zag route".

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