Angela Missoni – a designer on a mission

As Angela Missoni celebrates 20 years at the helm of her family’s fabled fashion house, she talks to Jo Ellison about her parents’ revolutionary legacy and where she plans to take the label next. Portrait by Danilo Scarpati

Missoni creative director Angela Missoni at her home in Sumirago, near Milan
Missoni creative director Angela Missoni at her home in Sumirago, near Milan | Image: Danilo Scarpati

Angela Missoni is describing her early life in fashion (how she sat as a child alongside her mother and father, Rosita and Ottavio, as they staged some of their first shows in Florence) when her eye begins to twitch with distraction. An army of helping hands is readying her home for a party, and something has caught her attention.

“Why are they putting this wheel on the lawn?” she asks, of a large cartwheel that has been manhandled across the garden. Her eyes flash with sudden irritation, as she makes a mental note to resolve the decorative anomaly. She’s also bothered by something in the window opposite her. “Can you see?” she asks. “There’s a glow.” She shifts slightly in her seat to avoid the reflection from a neon Tracey Emin light sculpture on the wall.

The creative director of the Italian fashion house that bears her family’s name is sitting in the 1965 villa she renovated and moved into four years ago with her partner Bruno Ragazzi. The house, in Sumirago, near Milan, is immaculately curated, with paintings, ceramics, illustrations and scores of porcelain Bambis (which she collects), but it retains the friendly domesticity of a space that has been lived in for decades – and all in the same fearless colour combinations as her family’s fabled knits.

From left: Missoni wool gilet, £1,065, and wool dress, £910. Wool, mohair and lamé jacquard dress, £1,025. Mink coat, £29,000, and viscose and mohair poloneck, £655
From left: Missoni wool gilet, £1,065, and wool dress, £910. Wool, mohair and lamé jacquard dress, £1,025. Mink coat, £29,000, and viscose and mohair poloneck, £655

The decorative scheme is pretty and unprecious, but Angela, barefoot, in a black jumpsuit and Missoni blouse, her long hair loose around her shoulders, pays attention to the particulars. “Even though I worked with my architect on every single detail, there are things that were not done as they should have been,” she says, scrutinising a window frame. “They still get on my nerves.”

Angela has learnt through looking – and hers is a keen eye. “I remember the collaboration my mother did with [French new-wave designer] Emmanuelle Khanh, in 1964 or ’65,” she says, returning to her earliest fashion memories. “Anna Piaggi was there, wearing Missoni. I remember every single detail of those clothes: the silver plissé miniskirts with a special metal closure, stockings in Lurex lamé, the zips, the little pockets, the stripes… I was always looking at details.”

One has the sense that very little gets past Angela, who radiates maternal warmth and leonine ferocity in equal measure. “You have to be like this,” she says. “Thank God I’ve done this job, because otherwise I would have been a compulsive housewife, fixing the cushions all the time.”

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This month marks 20 years since Angela assumed the role of head designer at the company founded by her parents. Today, she guards a rare jewel – a 64-year-old brand that has retained its independence in an industry dominated by luxury conglomerates. Missoni’s factory headquarters are a five-minute commute from Angela’s home, and the majority of the label’s pieces are still woven on its looms.

The business is modest; the company had revenues of €140m in 2016, but its influence is deep. Speak of its careful, controlled growth over the decades, and chief executives will tell you this is one of the brands they most admire. Speak of its fashion legacy, and the house’s characteristic vibrant loungewear, ribby dresses and separates spring instantly to mind.

“Missoni is a huge favourite of ours for its distinctive, colourful, patterned knits and textures – and during Angela’s tenure they’ve gone from strength to strength,” says Ruth Chapman, co-executive chairman of Matchesfashion.com, which stocks both the main line and its swimwear collection, Missoni Mare. “We love the heritage, the strong family ties, the deeply Italian luxury sensibility; I have pieces from 20 years ago and pieces from today, and my daughters steal both from my wardrobe.”

Angela with her father Ottavio in 1968
Angela with her father Ottavio in 1968 | Image: Mondadori via Getty Images

“I consider it a miracle that we still exist at all,” says Angela. “But I think my parents really did invent a style – which is very, very rare in fashion.” Certainly her parents were an extraordinary couple. Ottavio, better known as Tai, was a sporting hero who competed as a hurdler in the London Olympics in 1948. “Plus, he was talented, he was an artist, he was charming with women…” adds Angela, of the brand’s charismatic paterfamilias. Rosita – who “retired” to look after the brand’s home line when Angela took over in 1997 – was similarly creative, ambitious and socially attuned. But by the time Angela took the helm, the label had become a little jaded.

“Missoni needed a change,” she says of her early mission. “I wanted to make clothes that I wanted to wear – to bring in another point of view. Think about fashion in the 1990s: colour had almost disappeared – even at Missoni, we were selling a lot of black and white and a lot of neutrals with black tones. The mood was quite minimal, and I wanted to explore texture and knitting techniques and shapes.”

Angela jazzed up the palette again, pushed a new, more urgent fashion agenda and put an emphasis on certain products – like the swimwear collection that has made the brand’s signature bikini a bestseller ever since. She reintroduced the brand to a younger fashion clientele and hired Mario Testino to shoot glossily seductive campaign images that underlined its playful, transgenerational appeal.

From left: Missoni wool jumper, £1,110, and matching skirt, £1,010. Mohair and viscose jacket, £1,715, matching trousers, £775, and mohair and viscose poloneck, £655. Wool and mohair coat, £2,660, wool jumper, £510, and wool trousers, £875
From left: Missoni wool jumper, £1,110, and matching skirt, £1,010. Mohair and viscose jacket, £1,715, matching trousers, £775, and mohair and viscose poloneck, £655. Wool and mohair coat, £2,660, wool jumper, £510, and wool trousers, £875

Angela – who admires the “explosive design style” of fashion fantasists like Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano, but also nurses a real appreciation for the artisanal skill of the manufacturer – has always seen her role as steering the brand’s fashionability and relevance. Then, as now, she focused on the show collections, whittling the edits right down to create a strong visual message and allowing what she describes as “new germs” to take hold.

“It’s the commercial influence,” she says of the challenges of running a heritage house. “Asking you to repeat and repeat what you did yesterday – this is what you have to be very careful of. Basically, what I’ve done is to enhance, season after season, and focus on what Missoni is: to make a point, and to make a collection, every time, that will be recognised by that season.”

Twenty years later, her intention is the same – but recently she has been forced to do some reckoning of her own. “Many times I’ve had to stop and say, ‘Where am I going? Things are changing.’ And a few times, ‘If I have something to say, I’d better say it.’ I have to move forward, bring Missoni ahead and take risks.”

Angela engages in a tug-of‑war with her parents and brothers, 1993
Angela engages in a tug-of‑war with her parents and brothers, 1993 | Image: Mondadori via Getty Images

Circumstances also forced her to reappraise. When her brother Vittorio, the brand’s chief executive, went missing in his plane when flying to Caracas in 2013, it was Angela who travelled back and forth to help with the six-month-long search, until the wreckage was finally found in the Caribbean Sea, and he, his wife Maurizia Castiglioni and the other passengers were confirmed dead. Ottavio died that same year, and the deepening family crisis forced her to step back from the design room. Today she is creative director of the brand, and has appointed a head of design to run the studio. “I was really distracted,” she says, “but I realised that I could direct. I started giving out more responsibilities, and I’m happy. I still love my job, but my title has changed, because if you have your eyes on everything and your mind on everything, you need other hands.”

A brand like Missoni, which rarely advertises, depends on the catwalk to make its biggest impact. “Every time, every collection, it’s a risk because our main focus is on clothing rather than accessories,” she says. “Missoni still lives on a good collection and a bad collection.”

The autumn/winter 2017 collection, staged in Milan in February and culminating in a riot of pink knitted hats to support the global Women’s March, was a very good one. It was also one of the first to reflect on Angela’s own contribution to Missoni. “I couldn’t really look at my own work,” she says of her archive. “But the design team said, ‘It’s about time we look back at your 20 years and 40 collections and revisit certain things.’ They pulled things out and reshowed them to me with a fresher eye.”

From left: Missoni mohair dress, £2,140. Fox hooded jacket, £13,570, mohair poloneck, £895, and mohair skirt, £1,230. Wool and lamé cardigan, £1,170, lamé poloneck, £600, and wool and lamé trousers, £1,120
From left: Missoni mohair dress, £2,140. Fox hooded jacket, £13,570, mohair poloneck, £895, and mohair skirt, £1,230. Wool and lamé cardigan, £1,170, lamé poloneck, £600, and wool and lamé trousers, £1,120

The show was a terrific synthesis of clothes that looked contemporary yet flavoured with a deliciously cosy kind of nostalgia. A chevron-knit skirt (£1,010) and sweater (£1,110) in black and 1980s brights seemed modern and wearable; an oversized plaid, worn on coats (£2,660) and suits (jacket, £1,915; trousers, £1,235), had a professional but punchy panache; and clashing Arts‑and-Craftsy sleeveless cardigans (from £1,065), worn over lamé trousers (£1,120) or over long, knit dresses (£910), had the granola-chic of a groovy 1970s mummy. None of the clothes were remakes of originals, but the designs recalled the tones, colours and materials that have been essential to Angela’s tenure, and lent the house a renewed vibrancy.

“I was surprised by what they returned to,” says Angela of the history trip. “I was touched by their enthusiasm and I could also see that, like my daughters Margherita and Teresa, they were pulling out stuff from those years.” She then adds, somewhat unexpectedly, “Plus, it was very interesting; in the past 20 years, I realised, nothing has really happened in fashion.” Really? “No trends have really happened,” she shrugs. “I don’t think you can define recent years with a sketch, like you could have done for the past century. You cannot really sketch the silhouette of 2015 compared to 2005.” The biggest change, as she sees it, has been in the growth of conglomerates. “Every brand has its own personality, so there’s a lot of freedom, but it means having a voice is vital. At Missoni, we have a lower voice. We don’t have that many shops, so when we say something we need to be very precise.”

For a woman who has been so emphatic about pushing fashion forward, she is also surprisingly dismissive about changes in our collective style. One trend she has been able to exploit, however, is the spectacular growth in luxury sportswear, and the new focus on easy comfort her father first identified all those decades ago. The Missonis might reasonably lay claim to having invented the aesthetic now known as athleisure.

Angela in 1997, the year she took over Missoni from her parents
Angela in 1997, the year she took over Missoni from her parents | Image: Mondadori via Getty Images

“My parents really were revolutionaries,” says Angela, who adds that they conceived their business in the same decade that the midcentury-modern movement flourished and rock ’n’ roll took possession of the charts. Their early decision to tread a path in tandem but not in line with other fashion businesses set them apart. “My father told me never to be a follower,” she explains. “They built the Missoni headquarters here [at Sumirago] when everybody else was building in Milan. When everybody told them, ‘You don’t build factories in the country, you spend the weekend in the country,’ my father said, ‘I want to work in a place where I would like to spend my weekend.’”

“My father was not a worker,” she adds. It’s a surprising admonition for the daughter of a textile dynast. “That’s why Missoni never industrialised,” she continues. “He was not an industrial guy; he was fine with the business he had. He didn’t have any material need. For him, it wasn’t worth it; life is too short to have burdens.”

No question, the burden of responsibility falls quite heavily on Angela today. While her brother Luca looks after Missoni’s archives and events, her children have yet to join the family business full time: Margherita is currently running a childrenswear company and Teresa has just had a baby, which keeps her close to the house but otherwise occupied. And son Francesco has so far steered away from the payroll. Their mother has put together a powerful team to lead the business, but it is a lean operation – she counts on her fingers the 10 members of the design studio – and the scale of the business means she has less time to innovate than she might like. “Being experimental is a big, big luxury,” she says when asked if having a factory at her disposal allows for more creative freedom. “Unless you have a huge team, and you can have a big group of people working on the experiment…” She tails off. “Of course, we experiment, but sometimes you would like to go further but don’t have the time.”

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Does she ever feel frustrated that her father didn’t industrialise in the 1970s? “No,” she answers emphatically. “I’m frustrated sometimes because I’m still looking for more organisation and we are tiny – but now that there are more possibilities through the digital era, through communication, through digital marketing, it’s going to be easier with less investment.”

Nor is she downcast about the future. “Missoni is a brand that has a strong tradition but has always been very open to the future.” She starts scrolling through her phone to find a letter, a scan of a telegram once sent from the fashion editor Diana Vreeland to her mother. “November 11 1974 – no, 1970,” she reads aloud. “Dear Madame Missoni, you gave us such a wonderful show on Monday evening… I can never, never tell you how much I admire your warm way of putting together the most modern and dashing and absolutely perfect fashion.”

Modern and dashing still seem perfectly apt words to describe Missoni. Brave would be another. In those terms, Angela has followed her father’s advice. “We’ve never had investment. There’s no plan to sell the company or get out. We might need help at some point – but first, we are making a good business plan to see where we go.”

Right now, however, her most urgent plan is to go outside. Guests are coming in less than 24 hours, and she needs to sort out that wretched wheel

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