Sumirago, Italy: Mention the name Missoni, and most think of a fashion empire that revolutionised 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 metres 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 metres 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 realised he was so funny. He was handsome but not only. He was clever and intelligent and with a great sense of humour, 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.
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