Rosita Missoni, the hardworking 85-year-old matriarch and co-founder of one of today’s great luxury fashion brands, is crouched in the mud of her vegetable garden, showing me her summer crops. “It’s a little support for our kitchen,” she says of the garden, surveying the growth of her vegetable supply. We are exploring the grounds of her home in Sumirago, in the forested hills north of Milan. The Missoni factory is just beyond a row of dogwood bushes and pine trees.
Inside the wooden gates of a small tract of vegetables, Missoni indicates rows of garlic shoots, underripe tomatoes, clusters of cucumbers, blooming heads of cabbage, and a queue of sharp-scented yellow marigolds keeping pests at bay. She leads on through a vast jade meadow lined with oak and ash trees, where two thoroughly inert dogs languish on the grass. “Our guardians,” Missoni says affectionately, her braided ducktail falling over one shoulder. Tied with a Missoni ribbon, the braid is an eccentric flourish to her pragmatic short hair — not altogether surprising from the woman who figured out how to turn knits into a kaleidoscopic whir of zigzags, stipples and stripes.
Rosita and Ottavio Missoni married in 1953, founding their knitwear company the same year; five years later the couple filled the windows of Milan’s La Rinascente department store with the first dresses to bear their last name. (At Milan’s Palazzo Reale, a current exhibition of the store’s 100th anniversary recreates that same installation.) In the ‘60s, Rosita invented the warped, woodgrain-like weave of their now signature fiammato pattern, using a cutting-edge knitting machine and old skeins of fringe from her grandparents’ shawl factory. “That opened up a world for us,” she says. “From there, my husband started his design experiments with patterns.” Those patterns became as singularly recognizable as any logo, establishing Missoni as a luxury powerhouse, and helping Italy (and Milan in particular) to dominate the emerging ready-to-wear market. The brand, still family-owned, has been led by their daughter Angela since 1997; Rosita, after a few months of “trying to live like a grandmother,” returned to work, this time as the creative director of Missoni Home.
Missoni has always been a fanatic for colors, and in the garden she disappears into a thicket of high-stemmed blue hydrangeas to pick a particularly purple bloom for her bouquet. Dropping it into her wicker basket, she heads to her second vegetable plot, this one full of chicory, mint, San Marzano tomatoes and long-fingered zucchini plants — their sunny blossoms in full glory after the earlier morning rain. Missoni squats in the wet earth and snips off a few for the day’s lunch, depositing the harvest in her wicker basket before cutting a handful of rosemary branches and waving their piney perfume under my nose. “For our little pizzas,” she says. “A house specialty.”
As a child, Missoni was scrawny and sickly. Her parents sent her to a school “with a marvelous garden” on the Ligurian coast where she grew robust on the sea air and a diet of fish. The experience seems to have worked — she is as energetic and spry as one could hope to be at any age. Missoni brags about scuba diving for shellfish (“It’s my passion,” she says. “That’s why I have such good lungs and can climb mountains at 85.”) and is tireless in our two-hour tour of the sprawling garden. But her delicate childhood also intimately acquainted her with fashion — kept inside in her youngest days, Missoni passed the time at her grandparents’ factory by making paper dolls from the atelier’s international style magazines. “There among the fabric and the patterns, I learned all about ‘30s fashion, cutting it out in silhouettes,” she says. It was the beginning of a lifelong calling.