A Moment in Missoni

You’d be to me, a peculiar sort of person, were you to turn down a free breakfast. Indeed, a free meal of any sort – I love a good spread. But not in museums, not at press mornings. No one seems to.

When exhibitions open, when shows launch, when notable people are speaking, the press are invited and we are usually fed. But in all my press mornings, I’ve never picked up a croissant. I see people dart at the coffee; but the apples and orange stay, stuck like a still life. People are focusing, frowning, opinion-forming.

The Fashion and Textile Museum in association with The Woolmark Company and MA*GA Art Museum has just opened their new show; ‘Missoni Art Colour’. The fashionable crowd, taking notes and talking gravely, examine the exhibition before the close-knit (pun intended) members of the Missoni Family sit for the press conference.

“Our father would be humbled to be hung beside his favourite artists,” the buoyant Angela Missoni says, “but we hope he would be flattered.” She seems to be saying; ‘we love our our brand, but we’re not trying to compete with fine art’. This admirable humility contradicts the underlying message, which nudges the viewer gently towards the conclusion: Fashion is Art. As I relax into the comfortable, kaleidoscope-effect in The Missoni Room – part of the exhibition completely collaged with colourful carpets and objects from Missoni Home – I think. Although it’s becoming almost boorish to ask “Is Fashion Art?” – almost as overdone a topic as “Death of the Novel” – I must have my say…but I promise to be concise!

As we know it; ‘picture art’ of the Western Civilisation was heavily focused on religious subjects, funded by Churches or patrons in the Middle Ages. Art was functional since icons were intended for prayer. The Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery is one of our most jealously guarded treasures for many reasons; but I remember it primarily for being one of the earliest known portraits. Before selfies, with no access to mirrors which were enormously difficult to manufacture and extraordinarily expensive and (particularly in Mediterranean climates), perhaps even a lack of puddles, people must have had a pretty hazy idea of what they looked like! Portraits were the first truly commercial art form, so costly only the wealthiest could indulge such vanities. Artists would be at the service of their customers for a long time yet and were considered craftsmen, lowly, men of trade. We quick forget that it was an uphill battle in recognition and establishing of schools, art critics, galleries, to the contemporary worship we see today; mostly manifesting itself questionably in the signatures of blue chip artists at Frieze Fairs worldwide. What I’m saying is, in many ways it took art itself a long time to be recognised as an Art in that ‘Fine Art’ noble way we see it now.

I believe fashion follows a similar trajectory. Yes, first and foremost, clothes are functional. But that is not to say that they haven’t evolved, that their ability to be useful is now often outweighed by their ability to be beautiful, if impractical (stilettos, anyone?). Designers have emerged from behind sewing-machines and sprung to dizzying heights with their daring and willingness to construct and deconstruct the way we wear things. Surely they are the Cubists, Futurists, Modernists of today? Can’t you see it in the Jean Paul Gaultier or Alexander McQueen? Some even lift art directly onto clothes like Yves Saint Laurent and his Mondrian Collection or Dolce & Gabanna and their frequent use of Renaissance patterns. I think many crafts, many skills, can transmute into fine art as they become more sophisticated, and if they are taken up by masters.

I would go so far as to consider clothes on mannequins a 3D installation in their own right. In a museum, a place of study and storage, and freed from the nuances of human bodies and the difficulties fabric encounters with human movement (creasing, stretching and so on) clothes become no different to art. Canvases are suspended on walls. Sculptures stand on pedestals. Garments should be shown too.

Ottavio & Rosita Missoni, 1984 (Left). Gino Severini, Ballerina, 1957 (Right).

There are mannequins in Missoni finery at the exhibition, as well as canvases painted by Ottavio Missoni, hung alongside the geometric works of artists such as Enrico Prampolini and Nino Di Salvatore and eminent abstract artist Sonia Delaunay. Colour is everywhere. In the multi-coloured fabrics of Missoni which are somehow never garish. In the psychedelic Missoni Room. In the peach-coloured ribbon tied into a neat bow at the end of Rosita Missoni’s ponytail. She’s wearing an assortment of Missoni classics in clashing patterns – and a big smile. Rosita is tiny, the octogenarian co-founder who stands up at the press conference and thanks London. She says it brought her to ‘Tai’, that is Ottavio her husband and co-founder, who sadly passed away in 2013 after over 60 years of marriage. They met for their first date under the statue of Eros in Piccadilly.

Looking at the Missoni’s, you cannot fail to like them, admire them, respect them. Angela (currently Creative Director) seems confident, no-nonsense. Luca (Director of the Missoni Archive) is quieter, smiles at his mother’s side. I found a wealth of brilliantly stirring stories about the Missoni’s when I sat down to write this. Who doesn’t know that the Missoni’s were pioneers of light-weight wool, but did you know that Ottavio Missoni designed wool tracksuits for the Italian Olympic team? I didn’t know that Rosita Missoni got in trouble for showing a catwalk in Florence where the models had no bras on! I didn’t know their first workshop was called ‘Maglificio Jolly’ in the Italian city of Gallarate, which Angela says they wish to pay homage to. Their lives have been rich, tropically coloured, woven in wool and of course not without personal tragedies.

Histories unravel in all sorts of directions and ideas drizzle into one another. The only linear thing about the exhibition, the museum, Missoni the family or Missoni the brand are Ottavio’s line paintings themselves. The colours jump off their museum walls where they are supposed to be pegged, and music, specially composed for the show by Pietro Pirelli, includes sounds from the actual Missoni factory. The more time I spend there, the more I begin to feel that the museum walls have fallen away and I am left standing in a landscape made up of vibrant shapes. If the Missoni family is fashion and fashion is art – then surely life is an art itself?

On the way out I even see people drifting towards the food, finally peeling fruit or chewing pain au chocolat with a pace that seems foreign in London. Something of Missoni’s effervescence seems to have lifted us. Perhaps I’ll leave the last word to Angela, who sagely sums up the entire exhibition for me saying; “None of it is curated since it is all still so alive.”

‘Missoni Art Colour’ runs from 6 May – 4 September 2016 at The Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF.

And, if you still can’t get enough of Missoni, check out Margherita Maccapani Missoni Residency for The House of Peroni at Proud East where she’s transformed the space with Italian style.

Missoni Senza Titolo, 1973

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