Athlete first, then ran a fashion empire




11-2-1921 - 9-5-2013

Ottavio "Tai" Missoni, who has died aged 92, was the founder of his eponymous family fashion house, which became famous for its colourful geometric knitwear; he was also a track star who represented Italy in the 400-metre hurdles at the 1948 "austerity" Olympics in London.

The two strands of his career are connected. For it was in London that the 27-year-old "Tai" Missoni met Rosita Jelmini, a 16-year-old Italian girl who happened to be in the crowd at Wembley on the day he was running in the finals (he came sixth); she was being chaperoned by nuns who ran the language school she attended.

She and Missoni married in 1953 and set up a small business called Maglificio Jolly, making woollen tracksuits, in Gallarate, near Bergamo, not far from Rosita's home village. Later they moved on to knitwear, presenting their first collection in Milan in 1958, when they changed their label to Missoni.

To begin with the business lost money, but as demand for "ready-to-wear" took off in the early 1960s the Missonis were inundated with requests from Italian department stores to produce ready-to-wear variations on designs featured in the Paris collections.

Their work was spotted by Anna Piaggi, the influential Italian fashion editor, and another big break came in 1965 when they made a knitwear collection with the French designer Emmanuelle Khanh. However, the event that really put them on the map was a show in Florence that proved to be a huge (if unintended) success arising from scandal.

In 1967 the Missonis were invited to show at the city's Pitti Palace, but before the models went out on the catwalk, Rosita noticed that their bras were showing through their lamé tops, ruining the intended effect, so she told them to remove the offending items of underwear. Under the catwalk lighting, however, the tops became totally transparent, sending the photographers into a snapping frenzy.

The show's organisers did not see the funny side, accusing the

Missonis of turning the Pitti Palace into a sort of "Crazy Horse" cabaret, and the couple were not invited to return the following year.

Soon afterwards, however, they found themselves featuring on the covers of magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Women's Wear Daily and Harper's Bazaar. After moving to a new factory in Sumirago in 1969, with their designs championed by Vogue's then editor Diana Vreeland, they opened their first in-store boutique, at Bloomingdale's, in 1970, and their first directly owned boutique, in Milan, in 1976.

In the early 1970s the Missonis reached the peak of their influence in the fashion world. Their bold use of intricate zigzags, waves,

multicolour stripes, checks and patchwork allowed women to mix, if not match, the most daring colours and patterns — for example, a

striped skirt and chequered jacket with a patchwork scarf. It was Tai who did the watercolours and

gouaches that settled the colour and patterns, while Rosita shaped them into the easy-to-wear clothes that have become design classics.

Today the company is a global brand run by the Missonis' children and grandchildren, encompassing ready-to-wear, haute couture, household furnishings, scent and even luxury hotels. The label had a turnover of $A93 million in 2012 and has 40 stores around the world.

One of two children of a captain in the Italian navy and a Dalmatian noblewoman, Ottavio Missoni was born on February 11, 1921, in

Dubrovnik and brought up in Zadar, a city on the Dalmatian coast of what is now Croatia.

Zadar was occupied by the Italians during World War I and they remained in control until Italy capitulated in 1943, after which the city was taken over by the Germans and then heavily bombed by the Allies. At the end of World War II it became part of Yugoslavia.

As a boy, Ottavio excelled in athletics, and in 1937, aged 16, he became the youngest member of Italy's national team.

That year, in the 400 metres at an event in Milan, he beat the American Elroy Robinson, then the world record-holder for the 880 yards, putting in a performance that, he was proud to recall, remained the best by a 16-year-old in the 400 metres.

The following year he ran in the European championships, and in 1939 won the 400 metres at the Italian championships and at the World Student Games.

Missoni's athletics career had to be put on hold during World War II, when he served in the Italian army in North Africa. In 1942 he fought at El Alamein, but was captured by the British and spent the remainder of the war as a POW in Egypt.

Though not in top physical shape when he emerged, he was selected for the Italian team for the 1948 Olympics. His trainer had a small knitting company in Trieste, and together they made woollen tracksuits for the Italian team that Missoni would later develop into his family business empire.

The laid-back Missoni liked to joke that when he and Rosita first set up shop he was the president but she would do all the work: "I'm lazy. My favourite pastimes are sleeping and reading, so work for me has always been an effort."

Beginning in 1996, Tai and Rosita gradually passed control of their fashion empire to their children, and in 2011 Tai published his autobiography, Una vita sul filo di lana (A life on the woollen thread, written with Paolo Scandaletti), its title a pun referring to his twin successes as an athlete and fashion designer — before the arrival of photo-finishes, a thread was used to determine the winner of a race.

The final months of Missoni's life were overshadowed by the disappearance in January of his eldest child, Vittorio, marketing director of the family business, with his wife and four others, while flying in a small plane during a holiday trip to an island off the coast of Venezuela. While wreckage of the plane has washed up on shore, their bodies have not been found.

Ottavio Missoni is survived by his wife and by their surviving son and daughter.

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