Obituary: Ottavio Missoni / Italian designer made colorful, zigzag patterns high fashion

Feb. 11, 1921 - May 9, 2013

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Ottavio Missoni, the patriarch of an esteemed Italian fashion house whose outre, multicolored knits and zigzag stitches became an insider status symbol for the ultra-wealthy, died 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.

Ottavio 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.

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.

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 more than 6 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.

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