Italian fashion house Missoni was part of the group of designers who launched Italian ready-to-wear in the 1950s. The company become known for its aesthetic and technical innovations in knitwear–including its signature zig-zag pattern and textured, unconventional knits in wool, silk, cotton, and rayon–for years to come. The brand founded by Ottavio “Tai” Missoni and his wife Rosita saw its golden era in the early 1970s, where it reached the peak of popularity. The brand has continued to hold relevance among the fashion set, most notably in a sell-out collection for Target in fall 2011.
Last year, the family suffered multiple blows when CEO Vittorio Missoni, Ottavio’s son, disappeared with his wife and four others while flying a small plane in January during a trip to a Venezuelan island; only four months later, the founder and patriarch himself died at the age of 92. Despite the tragedies, the company has held strong, with various members of the family stepping forward to maintain the company’s business and honor its founder’s vision.
Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ottavio Missoni, Jr., the grandson and namesake of Italian fashion house Missoni’s founder, Ottavio Missoni, and the brand’s U.S. sales director and sometime model for the brand; he was in town as part of a series of promotional Missoni events at Nordstrom stores throughout the country. It also so happened he was in town at the same time as Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ current Italian Style fashion exhibition, a stunning retrospective on the country’s fashion history dating from the 1950s to today that features archival Missoni pieces. (Nordstrom is also a presenting partner of the show.)
During his time, he shared stories of his grandfather’s process, style, and vision, the company’s heritage, and his hopes for its future.
Ottavio Missoni, Jr., speaking at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on Friday afternoon. Photo: courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Have you seen the Italian Style exhibit yet? What did you think?
Yes, I saw it this morning. I loved it. It was also very emotional to see, especially the first rooms, depicting Italy’s first fashion show. Together with my uncle (Vittorio’s brother Luca, who oversees the archives), I was involved with the exhibition in London. (Ed. note: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London curated the exhibition.)
Missoni was represented in the room about textiles. Would you say the textiles is what sets Missoni apart?
Of course, in this kind of exhibition it’s really unique, it’s really what we do. The way Missoni does knits, you can easily recognize it’s Missoni.
Altogether having seen the exhibit, what would you say sets Italian style apart from the rest of the world?
I don’t think it’s that different from the French. They are two movements that grew up together in one way or the other. But I think that as Italians, we do luxury but in the more, let’s say, down-to-earth way.
And Italy’s known for high-quality manufacturing.
The way we take care of it, it’s something more—it’s more than just business. It comes from the depths of the heart.
Going to the idea of heritage, the fact that it’s been passed through the generations, I’ve read you work with two brothers, six cousins, an uncle, an aunt, which I think is very unique. There seems to be a greater movement toward people wanting to embrace heritage again.
We’re lucky; this change of generations in our company was natural, it was a natural process of the growth of the company. From my grandparents, when my father and his brothers and sisters took the company, it was a first step but we were lucky because we never lost the heritage and the DNA of Missoni. And now with me and my family, we still keep doing what we do, what we always did in 60 years, but innovating to the new generation. What we can bring to the company, to the brand, is that we know our generation, so we can be helpful with my uncle’s generation, we can be helpful in giving them advice.
Missoni offered a brightly colored take on tartan in this woman’s ensemble with coat and hat from the Autumn/Winter 1972/3 collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ “Italian Style” exhibit. Image: Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts
What does your position as U.S. sales director entail?
I’m following just the U.S. market, wholesale and retail, traveling the country, meeting with buyers and meeting the customers. I’ve been in the position for two years, and working for Missoni eight years now—I spent six years in production, which was helpful for this position. You know how to explain to the customer the product. It helps you in selling. You can better explain the more technical part of the product.
What do you love about your job?
I love that you meet so many people in fashion, and many many times, they’re not really what you’d think. From the outside, they seem as if they’re not approachable, but then you meet them and they are. I also love styling people and interacting with the customer.
The company is now in its 60th year. How do you balance the need to keep the label modern and relevant while respecting its heritage?
For sure in the fabric. More than in the shapes of the collection, it’s the fabric. The weaving is still the same process, but the fabric is where we’re really pushing the direction of the collection. Also tailoring it to our generation. For example, right now with the latest collection we added a capsule collection of evening dresses. Before we just had cocktail dresses, now we’ve moved into the red carpet.
What was it like growing up? Did you ever want to rebel and just wear all-black?
I do wear black. But actually what I find funny is that we don’t do classic fabric, so when I have an event that says black tie, I do have black tie, but I feel more comfortable wearing Missoni. I feel more comfortable in knitwear. It’s not just a matter of color—we’re still great with black.
What’s your take on Missoni’s menswear business? I’m sure menswear is something you’re personally very interested in.
Menswear is a business that’s really growing a lot. Men now love to buy luxury. It’s a business we’re really working on. Right now it’s just 10 percent of the global brand, but it’s growing.
Is there a certain era of Missoni you love most?
I love the end of the ‘70s the most, because it’s the period where the movement really started to change. In the beginning of the ‘70s, people became aware of what Missoni was becoming. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s it was the boom of the fashion industry in Italy. So the collection changed and became really modern. But I would also say that from the past, those pieces are timeless. So I can really see people wearing coats from the ‘70s, like the one at the MIA—you could wear it today, and people would be so jealous.
Italian Style is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through January 4, 2015; for hours, admission and details, visit artsmia.org. Shop Missoni at Nordstrom.com. Read more about the exhibit in my column in the October issue of Minnesota Monthly, viewable online at mnmo.com.