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Tight-knit: Family behind the kooks of fashion

Matriarchal, sunkissed, homespun, carefree… the Missoni brand (and the family with a backstory to match) seem the uplifting antithesis of the clinical, corporatised world of fashion, says SUNA ERDEM. But is that enough?

Fashion brands have been, let’s say, equivocal about Melania Trump. Shunning the exposure normally assured when chosen by the First Lady of the United States, some have even refused to supply her with outfits, so worried were they that any association with her controversial husband might tarnish their brand.

But when Melania wore a knitted green dress by Missoni at Camp David this summer, the Italian label, far from finding its own standing lowered because of The Donald, instead boosted the First Lady’s fashion kudos for selecting a classy number over her usual body-con sex-bomb look.

That Missoni lent cool even in such circumstances demonstrates how well creative director Angela Missoni has managed to position the colourful, quirky brand since she took over from her mother, Rosita.

That was two decades ago, and this autumn she has been celebrating her 20th anniversary with typical exuberance. Her ‘Party Collection’, which she unveiled at the September shows, is a kooky riot of designs that have been praised across the board.

Under Angela, Missoni has enjoyed a turn-of-the century renaissance. A fun, colourful label that came into its own in the flower-power 1970s, the brand had been suffering after falling out of favour in the brash 1980s and the monochrome grunge and minimalism of the 1990s.

But around the millennium, soon after Angela took the helm, the famous zig-zag and its chequered, stripy, multicolour derivatives were suddenly being papped on the publicity-boosting bodies of stars such as Madonna. The long list of fans now runs from Michelle Obama through Beyonce to the Duchess of Cambridge.

In 2011, a limited Missoni collection for the American department store Target crashed the website within minutes of going live and sold out so fast that items were snapped up at a premium on eBay the very next day. The brand has expanded into homeware, diffusion lines, hotels and even apartments.

Angela has done all this while refusing to retreat behind the rather bland, image-conscious persona of an aloof fashionista. When I interviewed her at her house some years ago, I was struck by how settled and cosy her life seemed. Tidying up as she went along, complaining that her house was really too ‘messy for pictures’, Angela turfed her son Francesco off the sofa and stopped every so often to chat to staff as if every one was a long lost friend. It was the complete opposite of the slick, choreographed experience I had come across at other Milanese fashion houses.

Neither does she shy away from sticking her neck out politically. Melania Trump’s choice of Missoni was even more intriguing when you think that just six months earlier, Angela sent models down the catwalk wearing Missoni-style pink ‘Pussy hats’, in support of the anti-Trump women’s marches. She said that she had been frustrated that the marches hadn’t spread as far as her neck of the woods, so she decided to do something about it. The Missoni fashion family tree

‘I had to do this for my mother and my daughters, to find the moment and the place to be united, and I felt very reassured that everyone in the fashion community felt the same,’ she told the guests at a recent show. ‘We have to fight together,’ Missoni said later, when asked about her feminist stand at a glittering gala in Milan, where fashion luminaries such as Anna Wintour looked on as she was honoured by AIDS charity amfAR for her contribution to the global fight against the disease. ‘Even if we come from privileged backgrounds, we have to give back; I think that’s my duty, and our duty as women is to fight for human rights with all our strength and to leave a positive legacy to our children.’ Angela has been involved in other charitable work, often focused on women’s rights.

‘If a product could embody the humanist impulse, it is surely an artisanal Missoni knit,’ wrote veteran fashion-watcher Tim Blanks, editor-at-large of The Business of Fashion.

But then, as a brand, Missoni is after all a poster girl for gorgeous, rebellious Mediterranean women. It is the archetypal non-conformist, who-cares-about-the money, matriarchal, family-and-food obsessed European in a world dominated by globalised, pragmatic Anglo-Saxon economies of scale and plans for conglomerate supremacy – that is its strength but also its weakness, meaning there is a limit to how much it can grow and create profits.

Missoni only has a handful of standalone stores. Its 2016 profit was a mere 8m euro on a turnover of 140m, with most of the revenue invested back into the company. Compare this with fellow Italian Gucci – owned by French luxury house Kering – whose revenue topped 4bn euros last year.

Rare for any fashion brand, Missoni dyes its own yarn, weaves the fabrics and creates its own distinctive patterns in a warm, friendly environment in a small factory a walking distance from Angela’s home in Sumirago, outside Milan.

The family still runs the company, and has not sought to sell out to one of the big luxury holdings such as LVMH, making it an outlier in the fashion world. Nor is it characterised by the workaholic mentality that has engulfed many labels, pushing designers into a tailspin about the number of extra collections they are expected to produce. Never mind selling the latest fashions via catwalk Tweets, they barely had an online presence until recently. And, bonus points, the family management has managed to avoid – in public, at least – descending into the sort of infighting that did for many other renowned family labels.

Then there is the backstory. Angela’s mother, Rosita, met her father, Ottavio, or Tai, when he represented Italy as a 400-metre hurdler in the 1948 London Olympics. One of the ‘lost generation’ of athletes who were denied their true moment because of the Second World War, he came 6th – by now the several times Italian champion was past his peak and his years as a prisoner of war after his capture by the British at El Alamein was hardly the best training – but he did win the heart of Rosita, who was a student in London at the time.

The pair married, and in 1953, they set up a small company selling tracksuits and leisurewear. They soon moved onto knitwear and, with the support of influential Italian fashion editor Anna Piaggi, they were at the vanguard of fashion’s revolutionary move from couture to ready-to-wear.

What really raised their profile was the 1967 Battle of the Bras, when Rosita asked models to remove their bras for a Florence catwalk show because they showed through and spoiled the effect of the intricate zigzag patterns. Rosita didn’t realize that the lighting would make the clothes transparent. The ensuing scandal meant they weren’t invited back but instead made it onto the covers of top fashion magazines. If for you the defining fashion image of the 1970s is a lithe model in slinky, vibrant maxi dress topped off by a magnificent shock of hair, that’s why.

After the fallow years in the 1980s and 1990s – during which Angela rebelled against the prevailing social changes by marrying early, having three children and keeping chickens, all the while refusing to join the family business – Missoni rose again.

Angela and her brothers, Vittorio and Luca, took on prominent roles, and now the next generation – notably Angela’s eldest daughter, Margherita, who now designs childrenswear – are coming through. Rosita is designing for the Missoni Home range, which has been a hit. With the drive of Angela and her brothers, Missoni became a global brand.

As Tai would say, everything at Missoni – the clothes painstakingly made and expensive to buy – comes with a story. Whenever I’ve covered the shows or written about Italian fashion, I’ve only ever heard Missoni spoken of with affection.

So, everybody loves Missoni. It’s all wonderful, sunkissed and gorgeous.

Then there was darkness. In January 2013 came the news that a plane carrying Vittorio, his wife and some friends, was missing. His body was not found until ten months later, in wreckage half a mile under the sea off the coast of Venezuela. In May the same year, Ottavio died.

As the family coped with heartbreak, rumours began to fly around – always denied by Angela – that some of the company was up for sale. These returned after chief executive Alberto Piantoni left the company at the start of 2015 and family members stepped in to cover the role.

Women’s Wear Daily reported in February 2015 that 66.6% of the company – Luca’s share plus the shares belonging to Vittorio’s children – was up for sale for a billion euros and that ‘things are unravelling’. Vittorio had been the global face of the brand, increasing Missoni’s reach in Asia, the United States and France, and speculation grew about how hard his loss would hit.

Then, after five months without a CEO at the helm, Missoni promoted chief operating officer Emilio Carbonera Giani to the job. Since then, Missoni has been looking at changes, improving the paltry online presence and expanding merchandise, particularly into accessories – the only sort of luxury fashion items that make money. Drawing a veil over past ‘bad’ license and hotel collaborations, they are finding better partners.

In an interview recently with the Italian financial paper, Il Sole 24 Ore, Angela said that 85% of their clients were overseas and that they had plans to expand further. ‘China is a difficult market, but which represents a great opportunity for us,’ she said.

‘We are coming to the end of an important reorganisation that began a few years ago and which was necessary to keep up with the times,’ she said. ‘I am not against a partner, but up until today we have never looked for one.’

With their business model and distinctive style, though, their options might be limited.

‘Missoni reminds me of Pucci. Wonderfully recognisable and unique. But not going places,’ leading luxury goods analyst Luca Solca, told me, bluntly.

But, rebels to the end, it’s never that clear how far they really want to move out of their niche. With her penchant to turn interviews into chats about her favourite food or the fun she has with her children, Angela really doesn’t seem like someone who would want to enter the nightmare world of round the clock designing that has led to many top designers quitting the higher powered Paris labels in the past decade.

And then there’s this telling quote from her father, which Angela sometimes recounts, when Rosita was tempted in the early 1970s by plans to expand the business: ‘Rosita, I don’t understand why you want to work more. Yes, you’ll get more money, but we’ll never have time to spend it.’

Suna Erdem is a freelance writer who has written about fashion for Sunday Times Style, Women’s Wear Daily, Reuters and other media from London, Milan and Istanbul

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