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 Ottavio Missoni  (1921 - 2012)

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Lived/Active: Italy/Croatia      Known for: abstract, art deco fashion design

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

 Following is the obituary of Ottavio Missoni from The New York Times.

Ottavio Missoni, Who Made Zigzags a Symbol of High Fashion, Dies at 92
By ERIC WILSON
Published: May 9, 2013
   
Ottavio Missoni, the patriarch of an esteemed Italian fashion house whose outré, multicolored knits and zigzag stitches became an insider status symbol for the ultra-wealthy, died on Thursday at the family’s home in Sumirago, Italy. He was 92.

His death, which was announced by the Missoni company, came four months after a small plane carrying his oldest son, Vittorio, the fashion house’s top executive, disappeared over the Caribbean Sea after taking off from Venezuela with three other passengers onboard. There has been no word about the fate of the plane or its passengers since then.

Mr. Missoni, an Italian track star, and his young bride, Rosita, created the Missoni label in the 1950s, and for many decades it was considered the height of Italian sophistication, known for its rather jarring striated patterns. Missoni sweaters were collected by Lauren Bacall, Marcello Mastroianni and Rudolf Nureyev (who favored the house’s “crazy quilt” cardigans) and more recently by Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor, included a Missoni vest as part of her uniform.

Though they did not bear a familiar logo, the designs were so easily recognizable — and recognizably expensive — that they conveyed a peculiar social currency among the moneyed elite, like an updated varsity sweater for young preppies of the 1970s and ’80s.

In his 1989 novel about shopping, “I’ll Take It,” Paul Rudnick describes a character from a family of bargain hunters who tells of his obsession with a particular Missoni sweater, “which means it’s very well made,” he says, “and okay, I would rather die than be the kind of rich geek who buys $1,250 sweaters.” So he shoplifts it instead.

Although the Missonis designed as a couple, Mr. Missoni, known as Tai, was the technician, plotting patterns that were inspired by Guatemalan, Aztec and Incan textiles or Abstract, Impressionist and Art Deco paintings. He designed on graph paper, mapping out shapes with startling combinations: primary colors that did battle with earth tones, and polka dots that chased whirling stripes through kaleidoscopic prisms. Mr. Missoni once wrote that he created a chromatic harmony by adding a third color to two clashing ones.

“Color?” he wrote. “What can I say? I like comparing color to music: Only seven notes and yet innumerable melodies have been composed with those seven notes. How many basic colors are there? I don’t remember exactly, seven perhaps, like the notes of the scale, but how many tones or shades does each color have? An infinite number, just as always endless are the hues and nuances composing a work of art.”

Ottavio Missoni was born on Feb. 11, 1921, in Dubrovnik, in what is now Croatia. His father, Vittorio, was an Italian sea captain then stationed on the Dalmatian Coast; his mother, Teresa de Vidovich, was an Austrian countess.

Athletic, handsome and over six feet tall, the young Mr. Missoni was on his way to becoming an international track star — at 18 he was a student world champion in Vienna — when World War II took him to Egypt. As an infantryman in the Italian Army, he took part in the Axis forces’ desert campaign and was captured at El Alamein. After four years in a British prison camp, he was released in 1946 and returned to Italy, where he parlayed his love of track and field competitions into a business, joining a friend, Giorgio Oberweger, in making wool athletic suits.

In 1948, Mr. Missoni qualified to compete in the 400-meter hurdle race at the London Olympics and placed sixth in the event. He also designed his team’s uniforms. It was during that London sojourn that he was introduced to Rosita Jelmini, a 16-year-old convent student from Golasecca, Italy, who was there to study English. He agreed to meet her under the Cupid statue in Piccadilly Circus. They married five years later.
The Jelmini family had a business making shawls and embroidery, and their knowledge of knitting machines helped enable the young couple to start their own business, in 1953, in the basement of their home in Gallarate, about 40 miles northwest of Milan.

At first they made clothes for department stores to sell under the stores’ own labels, but in 1958 they began showing collections under the Missoni name. They were quickly recognized for their unusual presentations; one was an aquatic fashion show set at a pool featuring blowup plastic armchairs and floating furniture.

Their big break came in the early 1960s, when they began making sweaters and dresses using the same machines that had been intended to make shawls and bedspreads. The machines, which created a streaky, space-dyed effect, produced sumptuous, astonishingly lightweight knits. The knits became a Missoni hallmark.

“We try to find superior materials and new ways to use old materials,” Mr. Missoni said in 1971. “But I think our great asset is our simplicity of line. We make it possible for women to be dressed in fashion and still dress very simply.”

As the business expanded, acquiring licenses for fragrances and a home collection, the Missonis constructed a stunning factory about 15 miles from Gallarate in Sumirago, known for its spectacular views of the Alps at sunset. They built a house next door for their three children, Vittorio, Luca and Angela, all of whom have worked for the family business, along with many of their children. Angela Missoni became the company’s designer, and her daughter Margherita appears in its fragrance advertisements.

Besides Margherita, Mr. Missoni’s survivors include his wife, Luca and Angela Missoni and several other grandchildren.

Vittorio Missoni, who was 58 at the time, was in charge of the company’s business operations when his plane went down on Jan. 4 while he was vacationing. His companion, Maurizia Castiglioni, and two other Italians were also onboard.

Since the late 1990s, when Ottavio and Rosita Missoni handed over control of the business to their children, the company has expanded into a lifestyle brand with furniture, fragrances and hotels, as well a collaboration with Target in 2011 that broke many store records.

While they preferred to live and work in the countryside, the Missonis played an important — though somewhat accidental — role in the development of the industrial city of Milan as an international fashion capital.

In 1967, they had been invited to present their collection at a prestigious trade fair at the Pitti Palace in Florence, where, minutes before the show, Mrs. Missoni asked all the models to remove their bras because they were visible beneath the thin layers of knits. On the runway, however, the harsh spotlights made the knits nearly transparent, causing both a scandal (the Missonis were banned from the venue) and a sensation (the fashion cognoscenti eagerly followed them back to Milan, which was just then beginning to stage its own semiannual fashion weeks).

“ ‘What do they think, that Pitti is the Crazy Horse?’ wrote one disgusted journalist at the time,” Vittorio Missoni said during a 2004 retrospective. “Of course, then everyone wanted to see the brand.”

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