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The Secrets Behind the Missoni Brand and Family Empire

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The reigning Missoni royalty—creative director Angela, her daughter and brand ambassador Margherita, and founder and matriarch Rosita—visited San Francisco's Academy of Art last week to attend the graduation fashion show, and the school's fashion students were giddy in the presence these Italian style icons. But at a symposium and luncheon celebrating the women, and bestowing honorary doctorate degrees to Angela and Margherita (Rosita got hers in 1999), glitz and glam were not the focus. It seems that family, staying grounded, and not taking things too seriously have been key to keeping the Missoni fashion empire vital.
Suzy Menkes and AAU Executive Director of Fashion Gladys Perint Palmer moderated Wednesday's symposium, which covered everything from the brand's humble beginnings to that now-legendary Target collaboration—not to mention just how those iconic zigzagging stripes fit into the wardrobe of the San Francisco woman.

But the prevailing theme of the day was family, not only on the stage but in the audience: AAU's Morgan Auditorium was packed with eager fashion students, but the front row was all Missonis—siblings, cousins, and various other family members who came out in support.

There were, of course, touches of glamour: Missoni throw pillows decorated each of the panelists' white leather armchairs, and their outfits, naturally, were impeccable. The most striking thing, however, was the affection between the three women: Margherita repeatedly reminding her grandmother to use the microphone, Angela teasing her daughter about her (lack of) cooking skills, and the softness in their voices when they spoke of Ottavio, the brand's late patriarch.

Still, no one can deny that Margherita—who had her first child in September—is also a beloved it-girl and fashion icon (46k Instagram followers and growing). She looked effortlessly gorgeous in a ruffled blue Missoni top and white wide-legged Isa Arfen pants as she answered questions about her celebrity status with characteristic poise. When Menkes asked what it was like to attend the recent Met Ball, Margherita played down the prestige of the event, telling goofy anecdotes and emphasizing the attendees' penchant for over-the-top fashion.

"A few people couldn't sit at dinner," she laughed. "My friend's boyfriend was trying to help a girl with her chair, and because of her large skirt, the chair would not move. I think they eventually had to bring her a stool." When Menkes suggested that Margherita was implying that she was merely an observer at the Ball, Margherita simply shrugged.

Menkes then asked if Margherita's celebrity was orchestrated by the brand, and Angela was quick to jump in. No, she insisted, it was not a marketing technique: "That's just Margherita."

With a keen understanding of the youthful, trend-driven world of fashion, as well as a solid relationship with her family, the young Missoni is well-equipped to lead the company into 60 more years of sartorial relevance.

"Fashion is something you have to do when you're young and have the energy," Angela said, before looked pointedly at Margherita, clearly pleased that her daughter has found her way back home: Margherita studied philosophy and then acting before returning to her hometown, Sumirago, Italy, to work for Missoni and to start a family.

When speaking of Sumirago, where the Missoni family built a factory in 1969, Margherita became emotional. "What made us what we are now is the sense of belonging to a place," she said, tears in her eyes. "The difference between Missoni and many other brands is that we started as a factory. That bases us in a specific place."

Founded in 1953 by Rosita and her husband Ottavio (known to most as "Tai,"), Missoni began as a small knitwear workshop in the village of Gallarate. Rosita describes Tai as "a fantastic colorist," and says "he could have been a [visual] artist." They were inspired to create knitwear in a variety of bright colors, and their choices were bold and original. Coming up with new combinations was, according to Rosita, "like being in a garden and mixing flowers."

Missoni was on the cusp of a major moment in the industry: prêt-à-porter took off in the mid-50s, so in some ways it was the perfect time to open a factory. However, as Margherita hastened to add, it was also a risky time, as it was not yet clear how ready-to-wear garments would be received, particularly in the world of high fashion.

Rosita and Tai were also innovators in terms of production. According to Angela, her parents practically invented the technique of cutting knit as a fabric. However, Rosita stressed that although the Missoni aesthetic was in some ways the first of its kind, that is not to say that it sprang from nowhere. "Tai used to say, 'Up in the Andes, they've been copying us for 2000 years,'" she remembered, laughing.

Missoni took off quickly, and by the 1970s it was one of the hottest names in luxury fashion. The brand hit a rough patch in the 1980s, however, and the team struggled to keep the Missoni name fresh. It was Angela who had the idea to start running ads featuring the Missoni family.

"I wanted to communicate the values of our company," she said. She went on to say that when she asks herself how a company with history can stay current, can keep up with "the Facebook generation," the answer is the same now as it was then: "by tapping into that history."

It seems that family has always been paramount to the Missonis, a fact Palmer stressed by pointing out that Rosita frequently used to cook meals for the entire Missoni team. "Can you imagine Marc Jacobs cooking for his whole company, every day?" she asked. (We can't.)

The celebratory luncheon following the symposium was held in the AAU's Atelier, a beautiful gallery space that was hung with Gladys Perint Palmer's Missoni-inspired drawings. Guests enjoyed a light lunch followed by an exquisite Missoni-themed cake, designed and made by Pretty Please SF.

AAU President Elisa Stephens gave a touching tribute to the Missoni women before reading a proclamation from San Francisco mayor Ed Lee declaring May 7, 2014 "Missoni Day." When asked how the Missoni sensibility applies to the American, and specifically San Franciscan, woman, Margherita answered confidently: "We Missonis are very laid-back, chill… there's an appealing informality to American fashion, and I think particularly San Francisco fashion."—Darcy Boynton
· Missoni [Official Site]
· Fashion School at Academy of Art University [Official Site]
· Our Favorites From Academy of Art's Graduation Fashion Show [Racked SF]