Exhibition Archives: Missoni Art Colour

For Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, colour has always been at the very core of their design process and it has been the weave of their knits that has strongly defined both the form and function of their unique clothes. The Missoni’s approach to design is extremely tactile and their mixing of different colours, patterns and weaves creating timeless pieces is their own unique invention. While Ottavio created the watercolours and gouaches that decided the colours, it was Rosita who shaped the fabrics into the easy to wear clothes that have become design classics.

The first garments to display the official ‘Missoni’ label were a small collection of knitted shirtdresses christened the ‘Milano Sympathy’ collection shown at La Rinascente department store in Milan in 1958. They soon caught the attention of the press, the first journalist to realise the magic of Missoni being the influential magazine editor Anna Piaggi. Piaggi has been a fan ever since, describing Missoni clothes as true ‘designer pieces’ that fall outside the routine of fashion. It was Piaggi who writing about Missoni coined the ingenious expression, ‘identiknit’. ‘To wear a Missoni’, Piaggi explains, ‘is to carry about a one-of-a-kind work reflecting the infinite sensations of their intellectual world…’. According to Piaggi, Missoni pieces are full of references and homages, sometimes subliminal. For example the changing silhouette of the Missoni cardigan that at one point seems to recall the long, tapered line of Patou in the 1920s.

A chance meeting in 1965 with the young French designer, Emanuelle Kahn resulted in a successful joint knitwear collection that changed traditional perceptions of knitwear and its uses. But it was their show at the Pitti Palace in Florence (1967) that put the spotlight on them whilst causing a scandal of sorts. Just before the models took to the catwalk, Rosita noticed that their bras were showing through the lamé tops thereby ruining the look and so told the models to remove them. The tops became totally transparent under the catwalk lighting, revealing all to the flashing cameras. The Missonis were accused of turning the Pitti Palace into a ‘Crazy Horse’ cabaret and were not invited back. However soon afterwards they found themselves gracing the covers of magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Women’s Wear Daily.

In 1970, championed by American Vogue’s editor, Diana Vreeland, the first in-store Missoni boutique opened in Bloomingdales. Upon seeing their first collection, Vreeland had famously exclaimed: ‘Look!  Who says that there are only colours? There are also shades!”

 In the same year, Ottavio and Rosita presented a highly successful collection in Florence, offering women and men a completely new approach to dressing; the ‘put-together’ look allowed the wearer to create an individual style by mixing and matching as well as clashing patterns and prints. The Missoni’s bold use of zigzags, waves, rainbow stripes, checks and patchworks inspired a whole new style of dressing that remains influential to this day. By 1975, the Missonis were being included in American Vogue’s top ten most important designers. Meanwhile Ottavio’s work was the subject of a one-man show at the Naviglio Gallery in Venice, in which his fabric designs were exhibited as true works of art and reviewed in an article entitled, ‘Missoni: a work of art in pullover form’.  In 1978, the Missonis held a spectacular retrospective exhibition in Milan. It was a huge success, subsequently travelling to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This was the first time the Whitney had exhibited fashion in its prestigious galleries.

Today the company is a global brand run by the Missoni’s children and grandchildren.  From haute couture and ready-to-wear to home furnishings, perfumes and even luxury hotels, the Missoni brand has become a design icon. The company’s archives include more than 7,000 designs of stripes, zigzags, tartans and patchworks as well as luxurious and ingenious blends of silks, cottons, wools, rayons, mohairs and metallic yarns such as lurex. Throughout their history Missoni have remained inventive, continually exploring new ideas. In Rosita’s words:

“We have always tried to innovate, to revamp the concept of knitwear.  We have always remained artisans. We have never thrown anything out-even the unsuccessful models – as we knew they could lead us to some new idea.”


Multicoloured stripes are instantly recognisable as part of the Missoni signature. The use of stripes was originally partly inspired by the fact that the first machines Ottavio owned had been bought to make tracksuits and were only able to produce knitwear in solid colours and stripes. However Missoni’s predilection for stripes was also due to the association of stripes with fun, freedom and sport. Stripes, apart from their maritime connotations were a popular fashion motif in 1920s beachwear and rainbow stripes became a key Missoni motif. Missoni stripes were featured in the Guggenheim Museum exhibition entitled ”The Italian Miracle” (1994) which included sculpture, painting, architecture, design, cinema and television as well as fashion.  (A/W1974, A/W 1976, A/W 1977)


The bold multicoloured stripe shaped like a lightning bolt is a dominant and recurrent Missoni motif.  Italian Grazia in 1968 featured a Missoni playsuit and beach robe with zigzag stripes on its cover.  The three-piece beach outfit (S/S 1968) is from this same collection.  The zigzag motif was also partly inspired by African designs as reflected in the Missoni’s personal collection of African straw boxes which were featured in ‘Casa Vogue’ 1975.  The Missonis have always liked to collect art and craft objects that share an affinity with their own work and then surround themselves with them in their daily life.  The Zigzag motif also featured in ‘Missoni’s Africa for Italia ‘90’ collection. 

Greek Key

Another leitmotiv of Missoni style is the Greek Key Design, a variation of the zigzag that seems to mimic the skipping line of an electrocardiogram.


Ethnic/Folk influences constantly reappear in the patterns, decorations and geometries as well as in the shapes of the garments themselves such as the ‘kamis’ or ‘parasias’ of North Africa, the kimono and the dresses of the peasant women of Samarkand. Nordic knitwear, which became a status symbol in the 1920s and 1930s has also been a visible source of inspiration to Missoni throughout their history.


Tartans and checks in an array of colours recur time and time again in Missoni collections, as reflected by the coats featured here (A/W 1972 and A/W 1979). One of Rosita’s first fashion inspirations was a Chanel jacket with a floral lining that seemed to confirm her innate desire to combine patterns and colours.


Patchwork first featured in Missoni’s A/W 1971 collection and has been a recurrent motif ever since. Ottavio initially created the patchwork for the cover of ‘L’Uomo Vogue’  but then had a few copies made to give to friends as Christmas presents. The gifts were received with such enthusiasm that he decided to introduce patchwork into the Missoni collection. One of the gifts was given to the photographer Bill Cunningham who in turn donated it to the Metropolitan Museum, New York. American Vogue featured the 1971 patchwork collection in a magazine spread photographed by Barry Lategan. The patchwork technique also forms the basis for many Missoni rugs and tapestries. (A/W 1971)


The special effect of blurred stripes created by a space-dyeing technique is a universally recognisable Missoni motif. It is almost a secret code that many have sought in vain to replicate and illustrates perfectly the Missoni’s intuitive understanding of colour as well as their technical genius. As Suzy Menkes commented, Missoni style is ‘Italian fashion created from technology and art.’ The flame design recalls rich Venetian brocades, tapestries and paintings, reflecting the Missoni’s  knowledge and love of both art and  history.


In 1974, Harper’s and Queen featured two models wearing layers of matching/clashing Missoni prints – stripes, spots and patterns. This look was given the name ‘put-together’ by the American Press and was an international success, winning the Missoni the coveted ‘Neiman Marcus’ Award. From 1970 onwards, the ‘put-together’ look has continued to influence how women dress on a daily basis. (A/W 1973, A/W1999)


The ‘Fishnet’ stitch technique is an invention of the Missonis and a constant in their collections. Experimentation with the technical part of the process has always played a very important role in the Missoni’s approach to design. As Ottavio himself says: “We approached the matter of clothing design equally free of biaises, of external ‘fashion’ influences, essentially basing our work – as in all industrial design – on material research (and in our case an experimentation with colour too.)”


Flowers, especially stylized roses and tulips are a popular Missoni decorative motif. (S/S1971) In the late 1960s, inspired by ‘Jugendstil’, Missoni produced a jumpsuit decorated with large stylized flowers. (A/W1966) An Art Nouveau Missoni lame dress was modeled by Twiggy and photographed by Justin de Villeneuve for the Italian edition of Vogue, July/August 1969.


From small colour filled squares to larger checks and other shapes in an array of shades, geometric prints reminiscent of Bauhaus are another key Missoni motif. Anna Piaggi dedicated one of her famous ‘Double Pages’ for Vogue Italia to highlighting the extent of their pantone colour range geometric prints.  (S/S2011, A/W1972)


From postcard views of snowy ski resorts to monuments and locations from Venice to Manhattan, Landscapes and Architecture, rich in colour and texture appear frequently in Missoni collections. These landscapes are often inspired by artists including painters such as Duncan Grant of the Bloomsbury set or Chagall, reflecting the Missoni’s strong engagement with art movements past and present. (1995)

Black and White

The inclusion of black and white patterns and prints provides an indispensable counterpoint to the colourful Missoni world and lends a feel of movement and speed.  (A/W1971)


The Missoni are fascinated by Venice and its history and traditions including the glass of Murano. Murrhines, small kaleidoscopic pieces of coloured glass, are a popular motif of the Venetian tradition and have also inspired a Missoni pattern of multicoloured spots and circles.

We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum, as soon as we are able.

One thought on “Exhibition Archives: Missoni Art Colour

  1. i have always loved Missoni and was lucky enough to buy the brand back in the late 70s early 80s as fashion buyer for Galeries Lafayette. I still have several pieces from that era which encapsulate the brilliance of Rosita and Ottavio’s creativity with knitwear and colour. As a couple, they have never let success change their basic philosophy on life: keep grounded; make beautiful clothes; surround yourself with loved ones and talent.


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