Every so often, there are individuals who possess an ability to peel away the surface and gaze into fundamental components of humanity. Deemed mystics, they’re treated with prophetic reverence, even when they shy away from the public eye. These sentiments were often awarded to Issey Miyake, the legendary designer whose extensive body of work is considered a transcendental contribution to the lexicon of fashion. And rightfully so. Though he would be the last to describe it as such. The Japanese designer passed away August 5th, leaving behind an immeasurably impactful body of work. Throughout his extensive career, Issey Miyake was guided by relentless curiosity and an almost stubborn focus towards the future.
Born in Hiroshima in 1938, as a young boy Miyake watched from the city’s hillside as the nuclear bomb destroyed his city in mere seconds. This moment in human history catalyzed an existential pivot to an uncertain relationship with reality. The construction of the Hiroshima Peace Bridge by Isamu Noguchi was a symbol of post-war resilience, offering Miyake a distinct optimism that quickly turned into profound creativity. After graduating in graphic design from Tama Art University in 1964, Miyake departed for Paris. With the humility of Japanese farm women selling their fruit carried in burdensome baskets at the forefront of his mind, this change of pace presented by the French mecca exposed him to a multitude of cultures. While studying at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Miyake worked as assistants to both Guy Laroche and Hubert de Givenchy. As a student, he witnessed the May 1968 protests, a pivotal moment in French history as workers and students led a resistance against the country’s traditional power structures through strikes and occupations, often teetering on an outright civil war. In response, Miyake once more set his sights to the unknown, spending time in New York working for Geoffrey Beene before returning to Tokyo.
Miyake established the Miyake Design Studio (MDS) in 1970. For him, everything was based on the simple principle of “making things.” By shedding the weight of complex narratives and rejecting decadent intellectualism in favor of pure pragmatism, Miyake was able to create garments that made people’s lives easier. Designating objects as mere “things” relieves a certain amount of sophistication that can hinder one’s creative process. This fostered a more organic process, centered on the treatment of clothing as only “a piece of cloth.” The onset of MDS saw the pursuit of traditional textiles in their workshop, beginning with sashiko fabrics. Here began a nearly three-decade relationship with Makiko Minagawa, a fellow Japanese creative who operated as Miyake’s textile developer in the studio and greatly contributed to the ancestral quality of his aesthetic.
At first, Miyake was hesitant to allow external input into his process. In a conversation with Time magazine, Eiko Ishioka, an art director who produced Miyake’s seminal “Issey Miyake and Twelve Black Girls,” said, “when he was young, Issey lacked confidence and experience, and he could not control his emotional reactions or talent. His staff did not want to be slaves, they wanted to be equals, so he had to change his character.” This concession and change of character would foster a substantial number of collaborations, including one with the graphic designer Tadanori Yakoo, who would go on to design each seasonal invitation to Miyake’s presentations. Perhaps the most influential of these creative unions was his work with photographer Irving Penn, whose longstanding 13-year partnership with the designer resulted in a collection of some of the most stunning fashion imagery of the last century - all while Miyake never attended a single session. His trust in Penn stemmed from the Japanese word “A-ún,” referring to a voiceless communication, an unspoken understanding between people, something that extended to each wearer of his clothing. In the same Time interview, Miyake said, “Without the wearer’s ingenuity, my clothing isn’t clothing. These are clothes where room is left for wearers to make things their own.”
Miyake’s contributions to the international art world weren’t unnoticed by his native country, and the designer became a focal point for Japan’s creative output. When he was a student, Miyake wrote a letter to the leaders of the Mainichi Design Awards, the most prestigious design acknowledgement one could receive. For most of its existence, the prize was preceded by the word “Industrial,” as this was largely the only legitimate discipline of design recognized in Japan. In his letter, Miyake questioned why fashion should not be included, considering its utility and importance to everyday life, and requested that the criteria be expanded. His wish was granted in 1977 when he was selected for the prize. A few years earlier, Miyake petitioned for Diana Vreeland’s exhibit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled “The Tens, The Twenties, and the Thirties: Inventive Clothes: 1909-1939” to be shown in Japan. At the time, it was revolutionary for a Japanese museum to show historical Western clothing. This exhibition would later lead to the establishment of the Kyoto Costume Institute in 1978.
In the 80’s, Miyake grew concerned with the consumptive nature of fashion and its environmental implications. The materials used in clothing and their sustainability became focal points for the studio. Autumn/Winter 1980 presented the “Plastic Body,” a corset made of plastic molded directly onto the model. Beyond the obvious implications of its textile choice, this garment also more intimately questioned the relationship between clothing and the body. It raised the question: where does the body end? Furthermore, where does clothing begin? In 1985, Miyake established the “Permanente” line, which focused on clothing made to be worn for a lifetime. He saw that friends and contemporaries were proudly wearing garments from years prior without regard for superficial perceptions of newness.
Miyake’s obsessive pursuits were solidified in his most successful endeavor, “Pleats, Please.” His fascination with the movement and fluidity of his clothing stemmed from his appreciation of dance. This extended to collection presentations, with models moving about the runway in choreographed movements that best showcased the garments dynamism. Miyake was enlisted to create costumes repeatedly throughout his career, and his work with William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet generated the creative impetus for “Pleats, Please.” The line launched in 1993 and quickly became a signature product.
In 1998, the house introduced “A-POC,” named after Miyake’s everlasting foundational principle of clothing as just “a piece of cloth.” Studio designers carried a runway-length tubular knit that connected the models and cut the fabric into singular garments. The knitwear was computer-generated which removed the possibility of fraying- another technological triumph for the studio’s resume.
In 1999, Issey Miyake relinquished control of design operations, passing the torch to his team. He continued as the final overseer for the brand’s direction while focusing on the development of innovative textiles for the rest of his career.
The transcendence of Miyake’s endlessly refreshing ethos stretches beyond clothing, beyond art. His fundamental notion of ‘moving forward’ and fostering relentless curiosity acts as a foundation from which people can transform each day into meaningful devotions to themselves, their community, and the world.
Taking a cue from Miyake, it’s on to the next thing.
Writer: Nash Hill