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Workshop Missoni: Daring to be Different

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION focusing on the iconic Italian fashion house Missoni, Workshop Missoni: Daring to be Different, will be on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from July 1 to September 20, 2009.

A pioneer of the aesthetic and technical innovations that forever changed the face of knitwear, Missoni is one of the world’s most recognisable modern fashion brands, with a distinctive style marked by the complex combination of different shades, textures and patterns.

The Missoni style has evolved out of a long-standing collaboration between the husband and wife team of Ottavio and Rosita Missoni. In the late 1940s, Ottavio Missoni established a workshop producing jersey tracksuits that were also sported by the Italian Athletic Team at the 1948 London Olympics, where Ottavio himself qualified for the final of the 400m hurdle race.

While in London, he met Rosita Jelmini, the granddaughter of a family of shawl and ladyswear manufacturers from Varese, in northern Italy. After marrying in 1953, they began making items of knitwear in a small workshop in the basement of their first home in Gallarate before moving, during the late 1960s, to the company’s present site in Sumirago with its magnificent views of the Monte Rosa mountains.

When Diana Vreeland, the celebrated Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue, met the Missonis for the first time in 1969 she found their concept of fashion ‘ingenious’, commenting: ‘Who said there are only colours, there are shades too!’ Following this encounter, Missoni collections, with their characteristically bold use of zigzags, stripes and kaleidoscopic colours, began travelling the globe, attracting ever greater attention and gaining an international audience.

Through the years, Ottavio and Rosita’s path has been followed by their children Angela, Vittorio and Luca, who today continue to keep alive the spirit of the Missoni style all over the world.

The exhibition Workshop Missoni: Daring to be Different, curated by Luca Missoni with the support of the Fondazione Ottavio e Rosita Missoni, is displayed in three galleries, each of which can be viewed independently. Rather than focusing on finished products, the exhibition will take the viewer ‘behind the scenes’ of Missoni, exploring the technical working processes involved in the production of their fabrics and clothing and revealing their underlying sources of inspiration – including the fine arts.

Drawing on the Missonis’ own collection of modern Italian art, the exhibition also explores less familiar aspects of their artistic activity, inspired both from the natural environment and from Europe’s Modernist era, epitomised by the work of Tancredi, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini whose dynamic images of dancers reveal close parallels with the geometric patterns of Missoni fabrics.

The Futurist movement’s assertion that all aspects of life could be elevated from serving a merely functional role to being a vehicle for the highest artistic aspirations led to their own increasing interest in clothing during the 1920s and ‘30s. It is a belief that has clear resonances with the aesthetic of Missoni which, in the words of fashion journalist Maria Pezzi (1979), has led to their creation of ‘museum pieces that can nevertheless be worn’.

The work of Sonia Delaunay – a particularly important source of inspiration for Rosita – will also be represented with a number of beautiful works in tempera. The exhibition will explore the couple’s own ‘extra-curricular’ creative activities, such as Ottavio’s works of collage and patchwork created for their own ends, rather than being destined for the catwalk, entitled Nuovi Arazzi (New Tapestries).

The Missoni working process will be explored in a collection of drawings and sketches on squared paper by Ottavio for the creation of knitted fabric. Many of these reveal the origins of the specific graphic elements and chromatic compositions stemming from the early ‘70s that formed the basis of the unmistakable Missoni style. A personal view of the evolution of this style will be included in the form of a collection of photographic images and documents chronicling the life work of Ottavio and Rosita over the last five decades.

Visitors will be able to enjoy The Black and White of Colour, a thirty-minute documentary profile produced by Maggie Norden, Director of Creative Media at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, which provides a concise overview of the history of the Missoni brand as well as interviews with Ottavio and Rosita at home amongst their own art collection, and other major figures from the world of fashion such as the Italian fashion writer and style icon Anna Piaggi, the artist and fabric designer Kaffe Fassett, and Suzy Menkes, Fashion Editor of the International Herald Tribune.

The exhibition will also contain Casa di Moda (Fashion House), two video-based works of Ali Kazma, a Turkish artist, concerned with different aspects of the Missoni working process, from conception to realisation. An installation, capturing the sounds and noises of the laboratory and Missoni knitting machines, recorded and written for the environmental installation Sinfonia Tessile (Textural Symphony) by composer Pietro Pirelli is also featured.

Conceived with a fixed, unmoving camera focusing upon a loom working a classic multicoloured stripe, and employees overseeing the process, the film was realized by Luca Missoni during a normal working day in the knitting department and provides a window on the methods of production used by the company. Alongside this, large photographs show the laboratory interior, and the cutting and sewing rooms, while other photographs document the landscape of the factory exterior, creating the illusion of being within the actual Missoni workshop.

The exhibition spaces will be designed in the elegant, striking manner typical of Missoni, divided by columns composed of knitted fringes in vertical white and black stripes, where the visitor will find an ample selection of men’s and women’s garments worn by mannequins, as if on a catwalk. Two monumental mosaic-covered vase sculptures bearing well-known iconographical Missoni elements (stripes and zig-zags) will dominate the garden of the Estorick Collection, set for the occasion with colourful Missoni Home outdoor furniture.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1 2AN.