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An Olympics love story that sparked a fashion empire

posted 9 May 2012, 06:23 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 9 May 2012, 06:23 ]

The founders of Italian fashion dynasty Missoni met at the 1948 Olympics Games in London. With less than one hundred days to go before the 2012 London Games, Rosita and Ottavio Missoni's thoughts are returning to the event that changed their lives forever.

MILAN, ITALY (FILE - FEBRUARY 2002)  (REUTERS) - Think Missoni and you 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.

"I got to the 1948 Olympics after five years of absolute inactivity, and that is truly a record, " 91-year-old Ottavio said, explaining he had been fighting on the Italian side in the Battle of El Alemein before being captured by the British and held 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 finished her husband's thought: "He likes to make fun saying that he was a guest of the Queen of Britain".

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 need chance to cheer national athletes.

Few people had televisions in their homes. Most watched the Games in bars and store windows or on news reels 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.

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 and had a great sense of humour. He was handsome but not only, he was (also) clever and intelligent with a great sense of humour which has been very helpful in all our life, which now has been 59 years. The rest is history, of course" Rosita, now 81-years-old 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 sought to break the rules ... we lived in very favourable times because it was the beginning of what then came to be called Pret-a-Porter," Rosita said.

"High fashion was declining and there was this new thing, Ready-to-Wear, that was kicking off and we found ourselves in this situation in the early 1960s. With our ten years of experience, we knew what we wanted to do and tried to find our own way," she said.

Today, the company Ottavio and Rosita founded on a shoestring, has become a fashion dynasty run by their children Luca, Angela and Vittorio and some grandchildren. Based in the northern Italian village of Sumirago and within sight of Monte Rosa, or pink mountain, Switzerland's highest peak, it employs about 250 people.

Ottavio now spends his time painting, swimming and exercising in his small private gym surrounded by his many athletic medals and fashion tributes.

But asked if he would like to go to London to watch the games, he said: "The desire is there but I lack ....". And, once again, Rosita completed his thought, adding "the body".

Despite his humbleness, Ottavio is still active. He participated in competitions for "seasoned" athletes until he was 90 and last September he was due to be the oldest athlete at the European Masters Games in Italy, competing in the javelin, discus and shot put but he withdrew after he developed a back pain.