How Ottavio Missoni Became the First Athlete Designer

David Beckham, Russell Westbrook, and a fellow named Michael Jordan follow in the footsteps of a legendary Italian track star.

Last week, Barney’s, the statement piece supplier to New York’s fashion elite, announced a collaboration with Oklahoma City Thunder forward Russell Westbrook. This comes on the heels of British menswear staple Belstaff’s reveal of an upcoming David Beckham collection. These athletes’ new designer gigs are just the latest jock incursions into high fashion, fresh evidence of two publicity-hungry industries in search of under-the-table, on-the-court, and ready-to-wear agreements. The athlete-as-designer trend is often credited to Michael Jordan, who made Nike a lot of money by jumping really high in a pair of sneakers and never coming back down, but the practice is in fact much older than that. Depending on how you feel about Westbrook’s eyewear and Beckham’s permastubble, the latest collaborations can be blamed on or credited to a charming Italian Olympian.

Ottavio “Tai” Missoni made his fortune with zigzags, creating technicolor woven dresses and sweaters that became an international sensation in the late sixties, but he spent his early years obsessing over finish lines. The founder of the Missoni fashion house fought his way onto the Italian National Track Team in 1937 and remained a star well into the forties despite spending most of World War II in an English POW camp in Egypt. Born in Croatia, Missoni had an ardent following in Milan, where he trained. There were stamps celebrating his accomplishments and posters painted with his handsome, toothy grin. In 1948, he was one of Italy’s big hopes at the London Olympics. He failed to medal, but succeeded at meeting a beautiful Italian student studying English abroad and following her back to Lombardy, where they set about building a brand around his celebrity and her connections in the fabric business.

The 1952 Olympics were a major success for Missoni, who was no longer competing. Instead of chasing a sub 53-second time in the hurdles, he outfitted the Azzurri with slick wool jackets with “ITALIA” scrawled across them in screaming caps. The uniforms weren’t remarkable, but the fledgling fashion house got the bid on the back of Tai’s connections and saw its design paraded in front of millions. It was a major publicity coup, the ideal opportunity to spin style credibility from athletic accomplishment.

The Missonis collaborated with Milan boutiques for a few years before launching their label a major department store in 1958. As one of the first Italian sportswear companies, the brand was known more for its lightweight garments than for any unique aesthetic. Fashion editors, taken as much with his sporting persona as with his actual work, promoted Missoni. He remained a charismatic outsider – talking about sports and designing comfortable yet slightly scandalous dresses¬†– until he couldn’t pretend to be an outsider any longer.

He was no longer a former track star. He was a runway staple.

Missoni spent the rest of his life designing scarves, sweater, coaches, shoes, and pretty much anything else he could stick a needle in while taking time off to father and grandfather dauntingly beautiful women. Today, his last name as ubiquitous as his first name isn’t. Ask someone wearing knitwear shoes from Converse about Ottavio and they’ll probably assume you’re talking about someone on Brazil’s World Cup squad.

Will Russell Westbrook or David Beckham ever have their own independent label? Well, Tony Hawk does. Venus Williams does. Jack Nicklaus does. The bigger the star, the easier the transition and the lower the likelihood that their first career will be forgotten. Still, it’s possible. It’s hard to imagine a future in which the House of Westbrook dresses sell for tens of thousands of dollar, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. Russell can follow in Ottavio’s footsteps. He already is.

Photos by Allesandro Bianchi/Reuters/Corbis