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Olympics love story that sparked a fashion empire

Updated: 2012-05-11 16:59

Olympics love story that sparked a fashion empire

Ottavio Missoni, 91, points to the diploma he was given for his participation in the 1948 Olympics in London at his house in Sumirago, northern Italy, April 24, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

SUMIRAGO, Italy - Mention the name Missoni, and most think of a fashion empire that revolutionized 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 meters hurdles team at the Games where the world was trying to put the devastation of war behind it.

"Our student seats were right near the changing rooms at Wembley Stadium. I saw him. He looked like he was 21 but I later found out that he was 27. He had an extraordinary running style," Rosita, now 81, recalled in their home as Ottavio, now 91, sat next to her on an iconic Missoni zebra-patterned couch.

Olympics love story that sparked a fashion empire

A commemorative Italian stamp shows Ottavio Missoni, who ran in the 1948 Olympics, in this picture taken at Missoni's house in Sumirago, northern Italy, April 24, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

As a boy, Ottavio was a running wunderkind. In 1937, at the tender age of 16, he was the youngest member of Italy's national team. That year in the 400 meters at a Milan event, he beat American Elroy Robinson, then the world record holder for the 880 yards.

Missoni ran in the 1938 European Championships, and won the 1939 Italian Championships and World Student Games.

Then the guns of war got in the way. Both the 1940 and 1944 games were cancelled. Ottavio, fighting on the Italian side in the Battle of El Alamein, was captured by the British and held as a prisoner of war 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 finishes her husband's thought: "He likes to poke fun (at the English), saying that he was a guest of His Majesty the King of Britain".

Indeed, if it were not for the luxurious surroundings, the covers of fashion magazines and signed photographs on the walls, and the hovering Bangladeshi butler in his crisp, white jacket, Ottavio and Rosita could be mistaken for any elderly couple sharing a park bench.

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