01.07.13

Missoni Brand’s Future Uncertain as Search Continues for Company’s Helmsman

The missing Vittorio Missoni, whose plane vanished over Venezuela, is the global face of the famous Milanese design house, and the brand would have to reconsider its strategy if fears of his death are confirmed.

UPDATE: The son of Guido Foresti, one of the four people in the plane with Missoni and his companion, received an eerie SMS message late Sunday night saying, in Italian: “Call now, we are reachable.” Italian telephone company Telecom Italia Mobile confirmed to a local television station that the message was sent, but they say they cannot verify exactly when it was written. Foresti's son had been in regular contact with his father and says that he had heard from him before the plane took off, making the message even more curious. Calls by the son to his father now indicate that the phone is off. Vittorio Missoni’s sister Angela confirms that they are now hoping that her brother and his companions and crew were actually kidnapped. “It’s better to be kidnapped than at the bottom of the sea,” she told Italian reporters outside her home Monday. “We hope all four are alive and well. We also hope that the searches go in all directions.” Investigators are now looking into whether any signs lead to a kidnapping and, if so, whether the pilots may have been involved.

In a country where family businesses often span hundreds of generations, the Missoni dynasty is relatively young, considering the power it wields among the “Made in Italy” set. Now the future of this important Italian fashion staple is mired in uncertainty.

On Jan. 4, a small tourist plane carrying the Missoni family’s heir apparent, Vittorio Missoni, 58, his companion Maurizia Castiglioni, two friends, and the plane’s pilot and copilot disappeared from radar 11 miles off the coast of the island of Los Roques, Venezuela. The group was on a Christmas fishing expedition in the archipelago. The foursome, who were traveling with another couple who flew back to the mainland in a separate plane, have not been heard from since their small plane disappeared over deep waters that were rough the morning of the disappearance, according to local news reports. An intensive air and sea search has been underway ever since, but as each day passes, hopes of finding Missoni and his travel companions alive fade.

“Our hope is that he is still alive,” Angela Missoni told the Repubblica newspaper Sunday. “We want to hope, because for us it is important.”

The Missoni line was established in Gallarate, Italy, in the 1950s. Ottavio “Tai” Missoni, an Olympic sprinter, and his wife, Rosito, whose family was in the shawl-making business, began a modest knitwear brand after designing Italy’s 1948 Olympic uniforms. The brand, known for its signature zigzag and geometric designs and subtle hues, was immediately recognized in the fashion world, and its success helped guide the city of Milan to its status as one of the world’s fashion capitals.

The Missoni family is credited for its role in creating, in the 1970s, Milan’s Fashion Week—now an anchor of the fashion industry. By the 1990s, Tai and Rosito left the running of the business to their three children, Vittorio, Angela, and Luca, who have expanded the empire to include a successful line of Missoni-themed boutique hotels and a fragrance line. “Vittorio was the helmsman of the company,” says Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani, who tweeted “Bring Vittorio home” in the hours after the plane disappeared.

The company will continue “business as usual” while awaiting definitive word on Vittorio’s fate, said a Missoni representative. But the siblings who have been running the company will have to reconsider their strategy if fears of Vittorio’s death are confirmed. Ottavio Missoni, now in his 90s, is still the company’s patriarch, but Vittorio, the company’s director-general, has been the global face of the successful brand, which relied on exports for more than 80 percent of its business. Luca Missoni is the company’s design director, and Angela is creative director, but it was Vittorio who sold the brand on the global market and was credited with turning the brand around in the last decade by expanding into the Asian markets and creating lucrative licensing agreements with major stores such as Target and Estée Lauder.

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Getty (3); AP (1)

“As tragic and unfortunate as this is, Missoni will find a way to appoint a new head, while operations should go on largely on a business-as-usual manner” Luca Solca, head of luxury-goods research at Exane BNP Paribas, told Bloomberg. “Missoni’s brand image is huge, but its size is small, which should make it feasible to manage a transition.”

Still, the Italian fashion world is holding vigil, awaiting word on the fate of Vittorio Missoni. A similar plane carrying Italians went down over the same waters in 2008—oddly enough, on Jan. 4, the same day that Missoni’s plane disappeared. The wreckage was never found. Only when the remains of a copilot washed up on shore several weeks after the disappearance did authorities confirm the incident as an accident and declare the passengers dead. Another plane went down in the same waters a year later, but all the passengers survived, plucked from the rough seas hours after the accident.

The Missoni family may have to wait for weeks to get a final confirmation on what really happened. In the meantime, they say they still will present the brand’s latest menswear line at a Milan fashion show later this month.