Master Class: Issey Miyake
Issey Miyake’s creativity and seemingly boundless imagination are so intimidating that they can be difficult to digest all at once. His life is almost non-linear, as though it operates outside the basic rules of space and time—an ethereal quality that extends to his designs. Is it more comforting to follow tiny narrative inroads into the imposing tangle of his larger life, to remember that he designed every black turtleneck that the tech evangelist Steve Jobs wore as his uniform, or to discover that his collaboration with Irving Penn on those unnerving, iconic images took fourteen years? Unorthodox pairings, however, are particularly ordinary for the enigmatic designer. Miyake has closely worked with craftswomen in the Miyagi prefecture in Northern Japan, the ceramicist Dame Lucie Rie, Nobuyoshi Araki, Hubert de Givenchy in the ‘60s, and the 1992 Lithuanian Olympics team. He has collaborated with architects, curators, artists, product designers, and artisans, acting as a glue between disparate practices and drawing them closer together. The designer’s infinite curiosity and endless experimentation make him one of the most brilliant design minds of our time.
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Issey Miyake was born in 1938 in Hiroshima. He later contracted bone marrow disease from the residual effects of nuclear radiation, leaving him with a permanent limp. While Miyake wrote about this only once to encourage President Obama to visit Hiroshima in 2009, the origins of his limp have appeared in nearly every profile of the designer. What he has discussed, and even has written about on his website, was his first encounter with design that made him realize its visceral effect: a Peace bridge, inscribed with “to live” and “to die,” built in Hiroshima where the bomb hit.
While he originally wanted to be an athlete, Miyake developed an early interest in fashion through his sister’s copies of Vogue. He studied philosophy, but felt emboldened as Japan’s youth became increasingly rebellious and restrictions on travel were lifted. Miyake traveled to Paris in 1965, where he enrolled in the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and learned to make clothes. He further worked for Guy Laroche and Hubert de Givenchy, crafting couture gowns against the backdrop of the 1968 riots. In a 2006 awards acceptance speech, Miyake said, “Raised in a culture alien to this kind of world, I’d thought I wouldn’t have much of a future in the business. When the riots broke out, I witnessed first-hand the beginning of a new era: the era of the common man.”
Miyake became obsessed with making clothes out of new, innovative fabrics for non-bourgeoisie people. He established Miyake Design Studio in 1970. “From the outset,” his site read, “Miyake’s creative process has been based upon the concept of ‘one piece of cloth.’ His process explores the fundamental relationship between the body, the cloth that covers it, and the space and room that is created between these elements, divesting itself of the labels of ‘East’ or ‘West.’” Miyake’s main collection garments similarly play with avant-garde abstraction as deftly as his Pleats Please line revolutionized wash & wear.
Throughout the ‘70s, Miyake cultivated art and fashion collaborations that would come to be a defining feature of his output, focusing specifically on working with a single piece of material that would later be dubbed A Piece Of Cloth (APOC). While Miyake eschewed certain boundaries of the fashion world, he has traditionally shown his collections twice a year since 1973 at Paris Fashion week. Miyake’s runway shows allowed him to demonstrate the wearability of his painstaking labors, no matter how abstract the garments. In 1999, Miyake sent 23 models down the runway in garments constructed from a single continuous tube of red fabric. Seventeen years later, Solange Knowles referenced the moment in her music video for “Cranes in the Sky,” where her mother, Tina Knowles, took on APOC, connecting Solange to her dancers with a purple silk cloth.
In addition to regular runway presentations, Miyake curated and constructed exhibitions of his work. A chronology of his work has read more like an artist’s CV than a fashion designer’s. This included A Piece Of Cloth at the Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, ISSEY MIYAKE A-ŪN at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, and ISSEY MIYAKE SPECTACLE: BODYWORKS at the Laforet Iikura Museum, which all took place before 1990. In 1989, Miyake would debut his next big revelation: a densely and intricately pleated jersey fabric that flatters, stretches, is machine-washable, and resists wrinkling. Miyake said that he prefers his clothing to be shown on the floor rather than hung; Pleats Please, which has been a work of art both on and off the body, embodies that notion. The fabric’s popularity has allowed Pleats Please to become a standalone brand under the Issey Miyake Inc umbrella since 1993.
Miyake currently oversees 11 design studio brands; he has turned over mens and womenswear designs to associates in 1994 and 1999, respectively, though he retains complete private control and artistic oversight. He founded Reality Lab in 2007 to investigate newer and better textiles, which he incorporated in the 132.5 line, in clothing made from recycled polyester, and in a lighting collection called IN-EI. “I never analyze what I am doing or how it fits in,” he told The New York Times in 2014, “However, I do always try to go forward and for that end I train my mind and constantly work on research and development.”