Rosita and Angela Missoni Talk Family & Fashion History with Fern Mallis

by Kristen Heinzinger

Last night, Fern Mallis hosted the matriarchs of the Missoni empire, Rosita and her daughter Angela Missoni, for a 92Y Talk. Rosita, well into her 80s, is now less involved with the brand, but her mark is permanent. Here, the abridged Missoni story, as told to Mallis by the two strong-willed women behind one of the most enduring fashion brands alive today.

Where it all began…
Rosita grew up surrounded by fashion in Italy, where her family owned a textile factory. After the crash of ’29, the factory couldn’t export products, so a cousin who was a pattern cutter came on board. She joined with one stipulation: she wanted to receive every fashion magazine from around the world. Rosita remembers cutting pictures of clothes from the magazines, and learned how to cut shapes by heart.

Rosita meets Tai Missoni (Ottavio), her late husband…
In 1948, at 16, Rosita visited London during the summer of the Olympic Games. She went to see the Italian track and field team, and spotted the handsome Tai—11 years her senior—wearing bib number 331. The numbers added to 7, her family’s lucky number, she said. (On Sundays her grandfather would give the kids 7 Lira, and their factory windows were 7 by 7.) Tai won, and through friends, they met at Piccadilly Square, where a statue of Cupid hung (another good sign, she said). They married in 1953.

Missoni’s first big order…
Rosita and Tai snuck a small “Missoni” label onto one of their fist big orders, of 500 dresses, in 1958. The store was furious, but the dresses sold out—the shifts dresses opened in the front and could be tried on outside of the dressing rooms. They continued to work together, and were able to keep their label. It was difficult to have a pattern designed by Tai that didn’t have purple in it, Rosita remembers, and actors in Italy hated purple because it was bad luck.

Angela’s early memories of Missoni…
One of her first memories is of Missoni’s fashion show in a theater in Milan in the ’60s, which took place on a swimming pool. It was one of the collections designed with famous French stylist, Emmanuelle Khanh. There were inflatable chairs and an inflatable house on the pool, designed by Khanh’s husband, where the models stood. The house collapsed, and the girls ended up in the water. “It became a big party!” Angela said.

Angela’s take on growing up with designer parents…
Fashion wasn’t what it is today, Angela noted, but she knew her parents were different from her friends’. She might not have realized her parents were special, she said, but she knew the people who visited their house were special—actors, editors, athletes, politicians.

Meeting Emmanuelle Khanh
Rosita visited New York in the ’60s, and Khanh asked to meet for a glass of wine. Rosita was excited, thinking this was a big break for Missoni. It turned out Khahn heard that Rosita was heading to Philadelphia to meet with a store, and she needed to return a camera to someone in the city.

Collaborating with Khanh…
Rosita and Tai went to Paris to meet with Pierre Cardin, who was interested in working with Missoni. But they found out the store wanted to sell Missoni designs with the store’s label, it would pick the items, and it would get a chunk of profits. Rosita and Tai left disappointed. She called Khanh, who invited them to her home, and they got to talking about collaborating—no paperwork, no contract. From there, they did four collections together.

MILAN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 25: (L-R) Italian designers Angela Missoni, Ottavio Missoni, Rosita Missoni, Vittorio Missoni and Luca Missoni attend the Missoni Spring/Summer 2012 fashion show as part Milan Womenswear Fashion Week on September 25, 2011 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

Angela Missoni, Ottavio Missoni, Rosita Missoni, Vittorio Missoni and Luca Missoni, September 25, 2011 (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

Missoni’s brushes with fame…
In 1966, Giorgio Armani’s sister modeled for a Missoni show—at the time, Mr. Armani was a window dresser at a department store in Milan. Paco Rabanne designed the accessories for one show—Angela remembers wearing them as a kid to Carnival.

The scandalous, bra-less show…
In 1967, Missoni was invited to show at the Pitti Palace in Florence. The models’ white underwear didn’t match the pieces, Rosita remembers, so she told them to lose the bra. But when they were onstage, even with pockets on the chest, the clothes were transparent. Missoni was then banned from showing in Florence—reviews called it “Missoni’s crazy whore collection,” Rosita said. Shortly after, in 1969, Yves Saint Laurent did his famous sheer collection.

Meeting Diana Vreeland…
In the late ’60s, Consuelo Crespi, then the Italian Vogue editor, called Rosita to tell her that Diana Vreeland was coming to Italy. At the time, the collections were shown in Rome, so she told Rosita to pack some pieces and visit. She did, and took along her model, but Crespi insisted on modeling the pieces for Vreeland. The pieces were well-received, to say the least—“Who says a rainbow has only seven colors? There are tones!” Rosita remembers Vreeland saying.

Vreeland invites the Missonis to New York…
Vreeland brought her editors to view Missoni’s collection at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Rosita remembers that the room was filled with flowers, sent by Vogue, which—mid laugh—she said she took to be the American way of greeting everybody. The front desk called her room, saying that someone from Neiman Marcus had arrived
. It was Stanley Marcus, who Vreeland told to stop by, because there were Italians visiting that he couldn’t miss.

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 27: L-R Angela Missoni and Ottavio Missoni aknowledge the applause of the public after the Missoni fashion show as part of Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Autumn/Winter 2011 on February 27, 2011 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Angela Missoni and Ottavio Missoni at the Missoni Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Autumn/Winter 2011 show on February 27, 2011 (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Angela gets involved in the family business…
At 15, Angela decided she didn’t want to work—she wanted to get married and have kids. After her third child, she decided she wanted to design jewelry. Tai told her she could do a project under the umbrella of the company, and that she doesn’t need to work with her mother every single day.

Angela’s mark on Missoni…
She first created children’s for Missoni, then years later took on womenswear. “I realized I knew how to translate Missoni into anything,” she said. She began her own line, Angela Missoni, and broke away from the traditional Missoni prints, introducing solids. “I was a late bloomer, I was an observer—[my parents] didn’t have very big expectations of me,” she said. But she could handle designing the collection, from start to finish. By her fifth collection, she began doing the main line, after Rosita grew tired of fashion. “I realized she was trapped in a zig zag cage,” Angela said. She was “cleaning” she said, but really fine-tuned the brand’s image. In 1995, Angela hired Mario Testino and Carine Roitfeld to do Missoni’s campaign—shortly after, they began working with Gucci.

Margherita Missoni gets involved…
Angela’s daughter, Margherita, became the brand ambassador because of her “natural talent,” Angela said. She was living in New York, but returned to Italy at 25. She wanted to try her hand at the company, beginning with accessories, and then spearheaded the collaborations with Converse and Target.

The sell-out Target collaboration…
When Target first approached Missoni about a collection, Angela didn’t trust them. But she saw how they were marketing the labels, and agreed a few years later. It was the first time Missoni was doing a full lifestyle collection. Angela saw how much people in the U.S. loved Missoni, but they didn’t realize it was Missoni. “It was a good moment to let them know it was us,” she said.

Rosita and Angela’s favorite pasta…
After bickering over how Angela’s dining room came to be the family gathering place—“I bought the table because I liked it! It didn’t fit in my house,” Rosita said—they agreed on one thing: There’s no pasta like spaghetti!

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