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Spring/Summer Collection, 1968

Daring to be Arty: Workshop Missoni

Luca Missoni talks to Dazed Digital about the Missoni exhibition at the Estorick Collection and reveals why his family’s fashion house should join the celebrations for the London 2012 Olympics.

Italian journalist Maria Pezzi, an admirer of the Missoni fashion house since its early days, once stated that Missoni’s designs should be drawn rather than described with words since their true beauty stands in their amazing combinations of colours. The history of the Missoni fashion house officially started after 400-metre running champion Ottavio ‘Tai’ Missoni met student Rosita Jelmini in London in 1948 and together they started producing in the early 50s sportswear and classic tops on two looms in the basement of their home in Gallarate.

Little by little they developed new methods, working with different materials and multiple colours, coming up with a new concept of elegance based on individualism. American buyers dubbed their creations as “put together” designs since Missoni’s garments allowed customers to freely create their own style. People could indeed pick and mix jumpers and trousers, skirts and tops, and create perfectly coordinated or uncoordinated outfits in accordance with their personal taste. Wool, mohair, silk, cotton, elasticised and Lurex yarns were employed to create herringbone-like motifs, abstract designs, asymmetrical decorations or zigzagging stripes. Ottavio and Rosita’s vibrantly pictorial graphic effects reminded at times of the most extraordinarily dynamic and bright paintings such as those created by Giacomo Balla,
Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carrà, artists belonging to the Futurist movement. Modern man has got a natural predisposition to vibrant colours, Giacomo Balla claimed, and Missoni’s designs perfectly embodied this statement.

The connections between Missoni’s designs and art are explored in an exhibition at London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. Curated by Ottavio and Rosita’s son Luca, “Workshop Missoni: Daring to be Different” establishes a metaphorical dialogue between the fashion house’s vibrant designs and artworks from Ottavio and Rosita’s personal collections. Tancredi, Sonia Delaunay, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini’s dynamic and colourful works are compared to Missoni’s geometric patterns, while visitors are also able to admire Ottavio’s own chromatic collages and watch videos and documentaries connected with the fashion house.

Dazed Digital: What inspired the concept behind the “Workshop Missoni: Daring to be Different” exhibition?
Luca Missoni: The idea for the exhibition came while working on a thirty-minute documentary profile entitled “The Black and White of Colour”, produced by Maggie Norden of the London College of Fashion. She made a documentary on Missoni’s designs and on my parents Ottavio and Rosita’s passion for applied art. We wanted to present in an exhibition this aspect of their work and show how this influence inspired their use of colours and their textile patterns. Since there were a lot of references in the designs to Italian modernist painters and artists belonging to the Futurist movement, we focused on those ones and decided to feature in the exhibition also paintings from my parents’ personal collections so that the visitors can see where the inspirations come from and how those original inspirations were transformed into Ottavio and Rosita’s own form of applied arts, that was then transferred onto their textiles, tapestry-like designs and garments.

DD: The exhibition is not only a visual experience, but also a sort of auditory journey into Missoni’s sounds since visitors can hear in the background the clicks and noises of looms at work. Did you use this expedient to make the exhibition more real for the visitors?
Luca Missoni: Using the noises was an idea that came from my personal experiences of living for 20-30 years on the factory floor and designing textiles. This was the background sound of my own mind, of the mind of the Missoni designers thinking and creating a specific textile pattern. The noises recreate the environment in which the Missoni designers work and the sensations experienced in this same environment. The soundtrack became therefore essential in this exhibition. I put it together with a friend of mine who is a composer: at first we recorded all the noises from the machines, but then he told me “I’m going to turn it all into a symphony” and I just thought “Fine!” In the end this aspect of the exhibition became a much more complex work on sound and we spent a lot of time recording the sounds and recreating what I could define as another kind of texture, a musical pattern that complements the design patterns.  

DD: Did you enjoy working as curator, but also as historian and archivist, for this peculiar exhibition?
Luca Missoni: Curating an exhibition is a bit like working on a very personal design, directing a movie or a play or writing a book or a biography. I like getting involved with things I don’t usually know how they will look like until they are finished and an exhibition perfectly embodies this idea. It was interesting studying the archives, pulling out samples and objects and then playing around with all the material and references I had. The solutions on how to exhibit the material often came to me while I was going through the various pieces and I must admit I was surprised to see that some pieces allowed me to create little art installations. I guess this was the best part of my job together with walking around the place after mounting the material and realising the work had been done.   

DD: Is there a part of this exhibition you particularly like?
Luca Missoni: For the exhibition at the Estorick Collection we had brought in two dummies, a man and a woman wearing brightly coloured bodysuits. These pieces were particularly dear to me since I once did and exhibition in Madrid and wore one of these bodysuits myself and walked around dressed like that. I knew I had to put the dummies in this exhibition, but I didn’t know exactly where. Then I spent a few hours visiting the Estorick Collection and, after looking at some incredible paintings and artwork, I suddenly decided to put the dummies in the same position I had been while looking at the works, so I just left them holding hands in front of the paintings. The dummies look as if they were comparing themselves to these works of art and I liked this little installation a lot because you get the impression that these mysterious figures or entities are watching the artwork and getting inspired by it or maybe they are wondering “Is that where we come from?”

DD: Art has so far played a big part in your family’s history and in your life, since you have organised a few exhibitions and also designed costumes. What does art represent to you?
Luca Missoni: When you go and see an exhibition or maybe take part in a workshop you realise there are pieces that leave you very passive and pieces that have a great impact on your senses and mind. I think that true art is something that makes you feel very emotional and passionate and ultimately moves you. This is maybe a rather romantic kind of approach to art, but that’s what I like and that’s what I think true art should be about.

DD: Your father has been an athlete in his life and a finalist in the 400 metre hurdles at the 1948 Olympic Games: will the Missoni fashion house join the celebration for the London 2012 Olympic Games?
Luca Missoni: These things are usually difficult to decide and do on your own, but we are always keen on joining such celebrations. We really enjoyed taking part in the celebrations for the World Championship in Italy, so let’s hope it may happen again in London. The London 1948 Olympic Games were the beginning of everything, because it was then that my father Ottavio met my mother Rosita. I guess that without the London Olympic Games there would be no Missoni fashion house nowadays, so if a chance comes up to join the event, well, why not?

“Workshop Missoni” is at the Estorick Collection until 20th September 2009.