words Marcus Fairs
“I had enough with fashion,” sighs Rosita Missoni, as she fetches more tea from the kitchen in her tiny apartment in Maida Vale, west London.
“With fashion you have to be passionate, you have to have a feeling for what’s going on, you have to be curious – and I had no more curiosity. But I still have curiosity for the home, for style of living. And now I have time to work on it.”
Missoni, 73, recently retired as head of the fashion house that bears her name, half a century after she founded it with her husband Ottavio “Tai” Missoni. She has handed over the reins to her daughter Angela, but rather than retire gracefully she launched Missoni Home: a range of tableware, vases, fabrics and soft furnishings decorated with Missoni’s trademark ethnicolour florals and stripes.
The range premiered last year but her 2004 collection, presented in April at the label’s flagship in Via Solferino, Milan, was one of the surprise highlights of this year’s furniture fair. Most couturier’s attempts at designing for the home have resulted in upholstered versions of their blandest casual-wear but Missoni’s kaleidoscope patterns bring something genuinely fresh to the realm of cups and saucers.
“Now it is a moment when the winds are blowing in our favour,” she says, referring to the current vogue for surface decoration, although she says she was following her instincts, rather than fashion, when she launched the range. “We cannot work without colour and patterns.”
While much of the Missoni Home range features back-catalogue fabric designs printed on tableware, towels and so on, it was the collaboration with Japanese cushion maker Mogu and the art direction of New York designer Stephen Burks that most interested the cognoscenti. The show, called Missoni Mogu Fun Fun!, included vases, objects and Mogu’s styrofoam bead-filled sausages and blobs covered in scraps of Missoni fabric.
“Stephen came down to our factory and he loved it – it’s so crafty the way we work there, from dying the yarns to knitting up fabrics. And he was fascinated by all the off-cuts that we throw away. He said it’s a pity to throw away such treasures, so he proposed a series of objects covered with patchworks of yarns. He’s now designing all the packaging and bottles for our fragrance, which will come out next year.”
Rosita is in London for the opening of a dedicated Missoni Home concession in Selfridges, and she clearly enjoys the old-fashioned rituals associated with the city. The interview takes place at four o’clock so she has laid out tea and cake. (“No I didn’t make the cake myself! I would love to have time to bake cakes.”)
Alert and spritely, she has a warm grandmotherly quality and pops up repeatedly to refill the teapot. Her hair is cropped but with an incongruous Roberto Baggio-style tail at the back.
The flat is like a mini-museum, dotted with vintage Missoni tapestries and throws and a muddle of antiques and early 20th-century furniture. It serves as her base when she visits London – a city close to her heart.
The Missoni story started in London in 1948 when the young Rosita – who was studying in the city – attended the Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium with a group of friends and watched a dashing young Italian man win his heat in the 400m hurdles.
“He was the only Italian on the track that day and we were screaming at him!” she recalls. “He was gorgeous and I dreamt of meeting him.” Two weeks later, a mutual friend engineered a meeting outside Piccadilly underground station.
It turned out they both had a background in textiles. Rosita’s family ran an embroidery factory and she had been interested in fashion from an early age. “We had a very good pattern cutter who came to work for us on the condition that she could have all the world’s fashion magazines. So I grew up cutting out little silhouettes from her magazines. During the Thirties and Forties fashion magazines were my school.”
Meanwhile her future husband – the son of a countess and a sea captain – had recently set up a knitwear business. Tai had been captured by the British at the battle of El Alamein in 1942 and held as a prisoner of war until 1946 (“He says he was a guest of the King of England,” Rosita jokes). On his release he needed to find a career and, fascinated by a new-fangled knitting machine his aunt had bought, acquired one for himself and built a business around it.
By 1948, the enterprising young Missoni had managed to land the contract to design and manufacture knitted outfits for the Italian Olympic team. “He said to his coach, ‘Let’s make nice tank tops and jogging suits for the team!’ They were all fully fashioned and looked fantastic.”
They married five years later and set up a garment business together a few miles outside Milan, producing their own patterned fabrics and knits inspired by folk art and ethnic tapestries. Their big break came in 1967, with an infamous catwalk show in Florence.
“We had a collection in lamé that was rather transparent,” Missoni recalls, giggling. “At that time, there was no rehearsal for fashion shows and there was little organisation. When the models put on the clothes you could see they were all wearing white bras underneath and I said, ‘Oh my god, take off your bras!’ So they did, and when they went out on the runway, under the strong spotlights … it was very revealing. It was a scandal! I didn’t realise it would be so transparent. They sent us away; they screamed at us. But six months later Saint Laurent introduced the nude look; I don’t know if he saw what we’d done or whether it was something in the air. But suddenly it was right.”
A couple of years later, the Missonis’ international reputation was sealed when Rosita was introduced to Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor-in-chief of American Vogue and the most influential stylebroker of the 20th century, at the Grand Hotel in Rome.
Vreeland took one look at Missoni’s clothes and announced that she would personally launch them on the New York fashion scene. “I was really nervous,” Missoni recalls. “She didn’t understand my name because she called me Luisa – but she said come to New York with your colours and we will introduce you.”
From that point on, Missoni became an influential brand and Tai’s colour compositions came to be regarded as contemporary artworks in their own right.
Over the years, Missoni has signed licensing deals with companies making rugs, tableware and household linen and has collaborated with Fiat on car interiors. But it was only recently that Missoni brought its domestic products together under a separate brand, with Rosita in full control (“The range had become very commercial and it was suffering,” she says).
She seems re-energised by her contact with the design world, and prefers the buzz of Milan’s furniture fair to the grind of fashion week. “Milan is never so alive as it is during the Fiera,” she exclaims. “In fashion week, people go to the shows and then go back to their hotels because they’re tired. But during the Fiera, the city is full of young people, all the doors are open; not very Milanese! It’s the best period for Milan. It should be like that all year round.”
She spends most of her time at Missoni headquarters outside Milan (where the family home and factory are “a few steps apart”) adding her personal touch to every aspect of the business. Besides her work for Missoni Home she runs the house, plans parties and sends out the invitations (her soirées during fashion week, the furniture fair and the Venice architecture biennale are legendary) and writes letters of condolence. “I have to do all the obituaries when somebody dies!” she exclaims. “Friends, business associates, the press, whoever – when they die, I send a letter.”
However, she insists she doesn’t interfere with her daughter’s work on the fashion lines. “I follow it of course; my daughter shows me what she does but I don’t say a word. It’s her decision.”
Rosita Missoni is considered a national treasure in Italy, and she and her husband have won every honour going for their services to national prestige. The company CV cites, among others, the Premio Italia (1986), the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (1988) and the Cavaliere al Merito del Lavoro (awarded to Tai in 1993).
But perhaps a more appropriate sign of the affection she generates is the fact that she has a flower named after her. “More than one!” she chuckles when I mention this. “Three in fact. I have a camelia named after me, a rose and a nerine!” And she dashes off to fetch yet another pot of tea.