An Olympics love story that sparked a fashion empire

Thu May 10, 2012 11:34am EDT
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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 won 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.   Continued...

Ottavio Missoni, 91, poses with his wife Rosita, 81, at their company headquarters in Sumirago, northern Italy April 24, 2012. Missoni ran in the 1948 Olympics in London, where he met Rosita, who was studying English there. The two fell in love and later returned to Italy to found what was to become the Missoni fashion empire. Picture taken April 24, 2012. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi