By Philip Pullella
SUMIRAGO, Italy (Reuters) - Mention the name Missoni, and most think of a fashion empire that revolutionized textile patterns, spawned the no-bra look on the catwalks, and is now a global brand that designs everything from sweaters to sheets to hotels.
But none of it would have happened had it not been for the 1948 London Olympics, where one kind of flame sparked another between Rosita Jelmini and Ottavio Missoni.
She was 16, going on 17, a shy Italian girl in London to improve her English. He was 27, a tall, strappingly handsome member of the Italian 400 meters hurdles team at the Games where the world was trying to put the devastation of war behind it.
"Our student seats were right near the changing rooms at Wembley Stadium. I saw him. He looked like he was 21 but I later found out that he was 27. He had an extraordinary running style," Rosita, now 81, recalled in their home as Ottavio, now 91, sat next to her on an iconic Missoni zebra-patterned couch.
As a boy, Ottavio was a running wunderkind. In 1937, at the tender age of 16, he was the youngest member of Italy's national team. That year in the 400 meters at a Milan event, he beat American Elroy Robinson, then the world record holder for the 880 yards.
Missoni ran in the 1938 European Championships, and the 1939 Italian Championships and World Student Games.
Then the guns of war got in the way. Both the 1940 and 1944 games were cancelled. Ottavio, fighting on the Italian side in the Battle of El Alamein, was captured by the British and held as a prisoner of war for four years in Egypt.
"It wasn't exactly a Club Med type of environment ideal for training," he said, laughing as he leaned back on a Missoni pillow.
"I was ..." And, like most couples who have been together for a lifetime, Rosita finishes her husband's thought: "He likes to poke fun (at the English), saying that he was a guest of the Queen of Britain".
Indeed, if it were not for the luxurious surroundings, the covers of fashion magazines and signed photographs on the walls, and the hovering Sri Lankan butler in his crisp, white jacket, Ottavio and Rosita could be mistaken for any elderly couple sharing a park bench.
"I started running again with the little that was left in me because naturally, after four years as a prisoner of war I was not in top physical form, but I must have had something left in me and I won the Italian (4 X 400) title and was chosen to go to the Olympics," he said.
In 1948, much of Italy was still recovering from the war's devastation; the Marshall Plan to rebuild the country was in its teething phase and for many, the London Olympics offered a badly needed chance to cheer national athletes.
Few people had televisions in their homes. Most watched the Games in bars and shop windows or on newsreels in cinemas.
"Those were beautiful Olympic Games because everything was natural and spontaneous, not like now, when everything is inflated, blown out of proportion," said Ottavio, who is known by everyone by his diminutive "Tai".
After she first saw him run at Wembley, Rosita and her school mates were invited to lunch with the Italian athletes in Brighton.
"During the lunch I realized he was so funny. He was handsome but not only. He was clever and intelligent and with a great sense of humor, which has been very helpful in all our life," Rosita said.
They married in 1953 and set up a small workshop making track suits in Gallarate, near Rosita's home village, and later moved on to knitwear, presenting their first collection in Milan in 1958 at the dawn of what was to become known as Italy's economic miracle.
"We started making a profit after 10 years of activity and that day I felt like the richest man in the world," Ottavio said.
Their early work was spotted and supported by Anna Piaggi, an influential editor of the Italian fashion magazine Arianna; and another big break came in 1965 when they made a knitwear collection together with designer Emmanuelle Kahn.
"We tried to break the rules ... we lived in very favorable times because it was the beginning of what then came to be called Pret-a-Porter," Rosita said.
"High fashion was declining and there was this new thing, Ready-to-Wear, that was kicking off and we found ourselves in this situation in the early 1960s. With our 10 years of experience, we knew what we wanted to do and tried to find our own way," she said.
THE BATTLE OF THE BRAS
Then, in 1967, the battle of the bras really put them on the fashion map.
Missoni were invited to show at the Pitti Palace in Florence but before the models went out on the runways Rosita noticed that their bras were showing through their tops, ruining the intended color and pattern effect.
In the dressing room, she told the models to remove them but under the runway lighting their outfits became totally transparent and the incident caused a sensation.
"I didn't think we were doing anything scandalous but they accused us of turning the Pitti Palace into the Crazy Horse," she said, referring to the famous burlesque palace in Paris.
They were not invited to return the next year but the Florence bra incident became a cause célèbre and soon afterwards Missoni was on the covers of big name fashion magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Women's Wear Daily and Bazar.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
Today, the mamma and papa company Ottavio and Rosita founded on a shoestring has become a fashion dynasty run by their children Luca, Angela and Vittorio and some grandchildren.
Based in the northern Italian village of Sumirago and within sight of Monte Rosa, or pink mountain, Switzerland's highest peak, it employs about 250 people and in 2011 had revenues of more than 150 million euros.
Rosita, who sports a small pigtail flowing down the back of her neck, is still active in the company, running the Missoni Home collection and travelling around the world for Missoni Hotel, a lifestyle hotel chain in collaboration with the Rezidor Hotel Group.
Missoni hotels have already opened in Edinburgh and Kuwait, and new ones are planned for Oman and Brazil.
Ottavio is still active. He participated in competitions for "seasoned" athletes until he was 90 and last September he was due to be the oldest athlete at the European Masters Games in Italy, competing in the javelin, discus and shot put but he withdrew after he developed back pain.
He spends his time painting, swimming and exercising in his small private gym surrounded by his many athletic medals and fashion tributes.
"Sometimes they take me around as if I were a religious relic but I refrain from working miracles now," he wrote in his autobiography "A Life on the Wool Line," a play on words because in early races a strand of wool was used as finish tape.
Every year in July, the Missonis take their vacation on their boat along the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic, where Ottavio was born of Italian parents in what is now Dubrovnik. This year they will stay home so they can watch the Games on television.
Asked if he would like to go to London to watch the Games, he said: "The desire is there but I lack ....". And, once again, Rosita completed his thought, adding "the body".
They clasped their hands, their veins forming a pattern not unlike one of their classic geometric designs and laughed, in unison, like a couple on a park bench remembering old times.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Ossian Shine)