Italian knitwear impresario Ottavio "Tai" Missoni, whose distinctive colourful zigzag dresses became a global fashion empire, died on Thursday at his home in northern Italy at 92, his family said.

Missoni co-founded the fashion brand in 1953 with his wife Rosita Jelmini and their designs have graced the rich and famous from Jackie Kennedy to the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton.

Missoni was born in the then Yugoslavia on February 11, 1921 and started out with a career in track athletics after moving to Italy.

He became a national champion before World War II and took part in the 1948 London Olympics.

During the war, he fought in the Battle of El-Alamein and was held as a prisoner of war.

At the Olympics he met his future wife, whose family owned a textile business in northern Italy.

The Missoni brand quickly earned a reputation for testing new boundaries in the 1960s and was kicked out of the Pitti fashion shows in Florence when its models did not wear bras on the catwalk.

Missoni was a self-effacing, jovial man who told one interviewer that the geometric patterns on his dresses "were like that simply because we had machinery that could only make straight lines."

But the company kept up a reputation for innovation in recent years and was the first to delve into the mass market through a successful partnership with US mega-store chain Target.

It also followed other major Italian fashion chains in setting up branded hotels in different cities including Edinburgh and Kuwait.

But Missoni suffered tragedy earlier this year when a plane carrying his eldest son, Vittorio, and five other people went missing on a flight from the Venezuelan island resort of Los Roques.

An intensive search failed to yield results and the 58-year-old is feared dead.