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Interview: Rosita Missoni, fashionista and luxury hotel chain owner

ROSITA Missoni is doing a great impression of Goldilocks. The doyenne of the Italian knitwear dynasty and her husband Ottavio, whose designs have swathed A-listers from Kate Moss to Halle Berry for the past 50 years, are delighted with their hotel room. The bed is neither too hard nor too soft; it's just right. The moveable bedside lights are at the perfect height for reading. The décor is exactly to their taste and, best of all, there are absolutely no carpets.

It's hardly surprising that they're more than satisfied with the top-floor suite at Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh, since the pair designed or chose everything in it: the cushions on the sofa, the bedsheets, even the his'n'her's robes in the bathroom are all Missoni and their unmistakable eye-popping signature print is everywhere. Bold bursts of tutti frutti colours run riot up the walls: purple, pink, lime, aubergine, olive and turquoise on top of a monochrome scheme. It's a bright young thing bursting on to an otherwise lacklustre hotel world of beige minimalism and dreich chintz swags.

Now 77, with sparkling brown eyes and silver hair, Rosita Missoni is still as vibrant as the multi-coloured, zigzag-striped knitted dresses and jumpers that have made the couple's luxury knitwear brand world-famous. When we meet, Rosita and Ottavio, 88, are waiting for their three children and various grandchildren to arrive for the official launch party of the first of the chain of 30 boutique hotels she has up her elegantly tailored sleeve (although the Edinburgh branch actually opened its doors in June). As Rosita and I talk, Ottavio (known as Tai) reads the paper and dozes, woken by his wife when she deems his snoring to be getting too loud.

"Stop sleeping, Tai! There will be snoring on her tape."

"So. It will be like music in the background," he replies.

And the pair break out into uproarious laughter. Married for 56 years, their clashes are as playful as their knitwear.

Milan-based Missoni is the latest in a trend for fashion houses to move into the hotel business. Versace, Bulgari, Ralph Lauren and Christian Lacroix all have design hotels, with Armani to open one in Dubai and Moschino in Milan. But it's Missoni's vivid zigzags that have been chosen to dress the capital's newest kid on the hotel block, to be followed by more in Kuwait, Cape Town (in time for next year's World Cup) and Muscat, Oman, developing in collaboration with architect Matteo Thun, a total of 30 hotels by 2017.

Inspired by their own family residence outside Milan, the 136-room Edinburgh hotel, on the corner of George IV Bridge and the Royal Mile, is a home from home for Rosita and Ottavio and reflects their signature designs and choice of mid 20th century design classic and pop art furniture. There is even artwork by her son Luca in the bar. From the doormen in Missoni-print kilts to the sliding doors on the bathrooms, the atmosphere is one of innovation and fun, with the geometric prints splashed on purple, green and pink walls, floors and staff.

Rosita and Tai know what they like in a hotel and after 50 years at the helm of the family firm, designing hotels is a project close to Rosita's heart.

"I have travelled a lot and I knew very well what I was looking for in a hotel. It's the little things that make all the difference. So, no carpets! They are the dirtiest thing and it must be wooden floors in the bedrooms. The other thing is adjustable bedside lights. Tai likes to read in bed and if they're not right, he will unscrew them. Next, we didn't want bathtubs but a shower with a bench to sit on and wash the hair and feet. They're not such special things but they just make life easier. And you need a very good bar and restaurant because nowadays a hotel lives if it becomes a meeting place and part of the city for locals as well as residents."

Such has been the popularity of the curved ground floor bar since it opened in July, that the seating has had to be increased and the Cucina restaurant's no-nonsense Italian cooking, which includes many of Rosita's favourite dishes, is hitting the spot with reviewers.

Rosita's own favourite hotels include The Jamaica Inn on the Caribbean island, where the couple started going 25 years ago. "Everything is in the English style, verandas and chintz, cosy and comfortable with attentive staff. And they even have a suite where Winston Churchill stayed," she smiles.

Since it's a fashion hotel, the preparations for the launch on the day we meet are well under way and things have taken on an Austin Powers air. PR executives, waiters, assistants, all clad in Missoni, rush around making last-minute preparations. An unsuspecting photographer has been stripped of his jeans and trainers and made over in a Missoni suit. I'm hoping they'll take exception to me and replace my cardigan with a luxury knit, but I'm reassured by the PR: "No, they'll like you, you're dressed in bright colours."

I'm tempted to remove a layer.

But why has Missoni moved into hotels? "Because we were offered the challenge by Kurt Ritter, president and CEO of the Rezidor Hotel Group. And because it's a showcase for our Home collection," says Rosita, referring to the soft furnishings, artwork and interiors range she became responsible for after handing creative reins for

her fashion collections over to her daughter Angela in the 1990s.

Why choose Edinburgh for the first Missoni hotel? Aare the likes of Florence or Miami too last season?

"Edinburgh was the first city to respond with an offer of a site, and I liked the idea because it's a beautiful place that I have always admired. It's a severe city with the architecture and the black rock of the buildings but when the sun comes out, it's fun too. I've been here during the summer and we once did costumes for a concert in the festival," says Rosita.

The Missonis are also very familiar with tartan, having created plaid-inspired costumes for a 1983 La Scala performance of Lucia di Lammermuir starring Pavarotti, the design drawings for which hang in the hotel corridors. Sadly there isn't a picture of the great Italian tenor in what Rosita describes as "tight trousers, a big plaid scarf and beret. I had to stand on a ladder to fix his hat and he liked it so much he kept it".

"Because Edinburgh is severe, for the rooms we started from black and white and added colour on top: red coffee tables, a turquoise desk, red pop art swivel chairs, and for the wardrobes we decided to work with all the colours. In a hotel you are away from home but colour will keep you company. It builds up a story in the room. Colour is the story of our life. We can't resist playing with pattern and Missoni cannot live without colour. It's true. It's our life and our way."

Missoni clothes and homeware are full of fun and playful surprises, like Rosita herself. Sporting a classically cut, short silver haircut from the front, when she turns round she reveals a cheeky little ponytail sticking out over the collar of her black, red and white zigzag jacket, Roberto Baggio style. And when the photographer asks her to put her feet up on the coffee table, jazzy lime green and black striped socks pop out.

It's 50 years since Rosita and Ottavio set up Missoni in her hometown of Varese near Milan. He already had a business making sportswear and her family had a homewares and textiles firm so it's no surprise they focused on knitwear. Armed with just one machine that could only do stripes in the basement of their house, they had little choice over what was to become their signature look.

"We could only do stripes and then we started doing horizontal and vertical and little by little added more complicated stitches, plaids and jacquards.

"Then we found the Rochelle machines that do the zigzag and that was that. My grandparents had used them to make multi-coloured embroidered shawls with big rose patterns and long fringes, all hand knotted. The kind you throw over lampshades," she says, showing me a photograph of the family showroom, overflowing with shawls and kimonos. When Rosita found two hanks of fringes dyed in two different colours in the factory, she used them to make her first space-dyed garments in 1969 and showed them in Florence, one black and white, one red and black.

These space-dyed zigzags were to become the Missoni signature look. The fringing of the shawls was also the inspiration for the long drapes that hang from the lampshades in the foyer and at the hotel windows today.

Growing up in a textiles factory surrounded by a rainbow of embroidery yarns and international fashion magazines, there was never any question what young Rosita would grow up to do for a living.

"For a girl who loves getting dressed up, to have colour and prints all around was heaven. It was my playground. I was allowed to dig in the wastebaskets and go home with bits and pieces. They made me wonder and dream."

The stage was set for the arrival of the dashing Ottavio, Dalmatian son of a countess and a sea captain who had been captured by the British at the battle of El Alamein in 1942, the North African battle that tipped the balance of the Second World War in favour of the Allies. He then spent four years as what he laughingly refers to as "a guest of King George", a prisoner of war, before returning home to set up shop in Trieste in 1946 as a knitwear manufacturer specialising in sportswear.

The couple met at the 1948 Olympics in London, when he was a 400m finalist (and designer of the Italian team tracksuits) and she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl entrusted to the care of the Swiss Sisters of the Holy Cross, who had been charged with improving her English over the summer.

"They took us to castles, museums and to the first day of the Olympics," says Rosita. "We were next to the track exit and the Olympic torch, and when Tai came past after his race I could have shaken hands with him. He was fantastic. He ran like an angel. He had such a style! Yes, I thought he was good-looking, but after the competition my friends said, 'Oh My God, he's not very polite, spitting all over the floor!'

"Anyway, we started being his fans, then my friend's father, who was president of the athletics club, organised a lunch trip to Brighton. We stopped at Piccadilly to pick someone else up and it was him and a friend. It was fantastic. Later I realised that the statue at Piccadilly Circus is cupid."

So it was love at second sight?

"Yes. He wore an electric blue suit and grey flannel trousers, with a coat of arms on his jacket. He looked amazing. Although when I found out he was 27 I thought, 'Oh My God, he's so old.' I was only 16."

But it didn't put her off and 56 years of marriage and three children later, they are still together. How do they manage it?

"I don't know. It's a miracle to me. Someone asked him how we did it on our 36th anniversary, and he laughed and said, 'For the first 35 years it's all very hard but then it gets easier.'"

I ask her who is the boss.

"Oh, he's the boss, definitely," she says without hesitation and laughs. "But he lets me get on and do my job. He does not interfere," she says.

Having grown up in a family business, Rosita was happy when all three children, Vittorio, Luca and Angela, wanted to join the firm, although Ottavio wasn't so sure. At the time there were problems in Italy (the 'Hot Autumn' of 1969 saw massive strikes in the factories in the north] and having a factory was not easy, so Tai was pushing them to be independent. He encouraged Luca to become a plumber, but by the time he was 18 he had been knitting for four years on the machine, so it was too late. Now sometimes he says, "I told you that you should have chosen another profession. You didn't listen, it's your own fault."

Tai no doubt approves of the fact that Luca's daughter, Jennifer Missoni, has gone into acting, appearing in off Broadway theatre productions, and in episodes of Damages and Law & Order, while Angela's daughter, Margherita, unofficial muse of the Missoni collection and face of their two perfumes, is also studying acting in New York as well as being signed to IMG Models.

As Rosita has her pictures taken, Ottavio is telling me about El Alamein. Unfortunately, I don't speak Italian or he much English but when I tell him my father was there too, with the Black Watch, he hugs me. Then he tells me he was a prisoner in Egypt for four years. What did he do?

"Sleep. I was allowed to sleep," he laughs, peeping round the corner to where Rosita is having her photograph taken to see if she's listening. Presumably the Allies allowed him to snore.

Tall, striking, warm and funny, you can still see why Rosita was so attracted to him all those years ago. He holds your hands, pats your cheek, pulls your nose (fair enough, it's my most prominent feature). Even with the language barrier I'm completely charmed.

Family is all-important to the Missonis and they have always resisted any buy-out attempts from outsiders. When Rosita's love affair with fashion ended in the 1990s and she wanted to hand over that side of the business, she would only consider doing so to one of her children.

"I didn't enjoy fashion any more and it was no longer my passion. My life didn't correspond with it any more. I was mostly at home or my friends' homes and didn't go to parties. One can hire a stylist, but for me it had to be family because it's a special kind of thing and Angela wanted to try."

Having opted out, Rosita threw herself into the role of grandmother, meeting the children from school and allowing Angela to find her feet.

"For maybe two months I enjoyed being free, playing the grandmother. OK, maybe it was four, five weeks, then I started to think about the Home collection, which I did have a passion for. So we relaunched that and became trend-setters again," she says.

With the homewares successful once more, it was only a short step to branching out into hotels and another new beginning with the shiny new hotel in Edinburgh.

Leaving the launch party preparation madness behind, the photographer and I walk down the Royal Mile and there, sitting on a bench outside St Giles' Cathedral enjoying the late morning sunshine, is Ottavio, who has slipped out while Rosita was being photographed. His iconic Missoni zigzag cardigan chimes perfectly with the ambers and umbers of the autumn leaves blowing around him, the genial patriarch, former Olympic finalist, luxury knitwear designer and El Alamein survivor, beaming as he waits in Edinburgh for his close-knit clan to gather.

To echo the words of Churchill, whose taste in hotels the Missonis share, following the battle of El Alamein: "This is not the end, nor is it even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Next stop Kuwait.

Hotel Missoni (0131-220 6666, www.hotelmissoni.com) currently has doubles with breakfast from 250 and suites from 450, but rates can vary

This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 1, 2009

 
 
 

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