More Than Clothing: The Brilliant, Innovative Mind of Issey Miyake
More Than Clothing: The Brilliant, Innovative Mind of Issey Miyake
- Words Jake Silbert
- Date March 31, 2017
When considering the Big Three Japanese designers–Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake–it’s easy to define the designs of Comme des Garçons and Yohji with empty, generalized adjectives: avant-garde, introverted, shapeless, angry, black, deconstructed, etc. This not only neglects the intricate variety offered by both brands, but also serves as a somewhat unspecific descriptor of their early output. Though Kawkubo and Yamamoto are Miyake’s contemporaries, his label took a much different path to success.
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Following the first wave of international Japanese designers like Kenzo Takada and Hanae Mori, Miyake honed his skills in Paris in the 1960s with apprenticeships at Givenchy and Guy Laroche. Miyake then worked at Geoffrey Beene in Manhattan until 1970. Upon return to Japan, Miyake founded the Miyake Design Studio. He began tinkering with the tenets of Western design, applying Eastern fabrication techniques and delicately subverting conventional Western fashion. Issey Miyake, Miyake Design Studio’s first fashion line, began showing in New York in 1971 and Paris in 1973, nearly a decade before Comme des Garçons's infamous debut.
Miyake began experimenting with pleated polyester in the '80s, perfecting the technique by 1988, and included pleated designs in his 1989 mainline collection. Pleats Please, a line wholly committed to the style, formally debuted in 1993. Whereas Kawakubo made use of unusual fabrics like polyester as both a cost-saving and anti-fashion move, Miyake made use of high-quality polyester’s malleability to produce single-piece clothes with intricate pleating. Pleats Please garments retain their shape remarkably well; they can be thrown in a washing machine or a suitcase and emerge unwrinkled. The label’s designs are simple and versatile, and colors generally follow suit. Though Pleats Please is arguably Miyake’s most celebrated line, the designer is responsible for many individual clothing and product lines, a dozen of which are still readily being produced today.
Miyake sources inspiration from concepts explored by both his team and various other lines. The natural fabrics of the now-discontinued Plantation gave way to Haat, and partially influenced the brilliantly packaged, single-size shirting line me Issey Miyake. Other lines include:
In-Ei Issey Miyake: A homewares line, featuring Miyake’s geometric designs and unusual textiles.
Bao-Bao Issey Miyake: An accessories line, which has produced hugely popular angular bags.
132 5. Issey Miyake: Established by Miyake and his Reality Lab team, 132 5. Issey Miyake is a forward-thinking, geometric clothing line and a spiritual successor to Miyake’s ingenious A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) line, which used computers to produce garments using a single bolt of fabric.
There are of course several others, such as Homme Plisse Issey Miyake and the now defunct Issey Sports line, which became I.S. Chisato Tsumori Design, and subsequently led to Tsumori Chisato’s own eponymous line. Miyake relinquished the lead design role for his mainline collections in 1994 (men’s) and 1999 (women’s) and continued his work in textile research.
Both Yohji and Comme are often cited as quintessentially Japanese designers, much to Yamamoto and Kawakubo’s chagrin. Both designers are regarded as trailblazers for establishment-upsetting design and producing garments that toe the line of fashionable good taste, though both Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons have made concessions toward marketability for the sake of staying profitable. Miyake is also a trailblazer, albeit a far less controversial one. His work has consistently utilized inspired textiles and sustainable design ethos, while remaining consistently wearable.
Whereas Yamamoto and Kawakubo consistently courted controversy, Miyake simultaneously produced conventional lines and experimental garments, sometimes even under the same sub-label. For example, 132 5. Issey Miyake initially created wearable, three-dimensional clothing out of designs that collapse into two-dimensional shapes. These designs have progressed to futuristic dresses, pants and shirts that evoke Pierre Cardin’s space age style. Miyake's interest in Futurism is clear and his fascination with producing ever forward-looking and geometric designs can be traced back to the production of his first UFO dresses.
The primary link connecting the triumvirate of Japanese designers–besides their country of origin and mutual dislike of being called a “fashion designer”–is their determination to experiment with the relationship between the human body and clothing. Kawakubo's and Yamamoto's collections are infamous for how they utilized techniques like drape, oversized silhouettes and aggressive layering to undermine conservative fashion norms, whereas Miyake shied away from raw, monochromatic collections. Still, his collections were just as inimitable as his colleagues.
Consider Miyake’s Windcoat line of oversized, dolman sleeve rain coats—the voluminous Spring/Summer collection photographed in 1987 by Irving Penn—and the Body Series produced in the 80s that sought to blur the line between clothing and sculpture. Function has just as much place as form in Miyake’s design process. He was an early adaptor of utilizing cutting-edge technology to produce clothes, beginning with machines used to permanently create the dramatic lines of Pleats Please, then with computers for A-POC and so on. It’s fitting, then, that Miyake is arguably best remembered for designing Steve Jobs’ infamous turtlenecks—the perfect marriage of one technological innovator outfitted another.
Whereas dozens of designers consider themselves fans and, subsequently, students of Kawakubo and Yamamoto, it may not be immediately clear what legacy Miyake leaves behind as a fashion designer, especially considering he hasn’t been the primary designer of any of his brand’s lines for almost 20 years. That’s not to say that Miyake was a shoddy designer by any means, merely that Miyake’s legacy as an innovator speaks volumes louder than his clothing designs. Take, for example, the 2008 Miyake-curated
XXIc. – XXIst Century Man, which exhibited work from architects, designers and artists that aimed to explore new technology and environmental concerns and had little-to-nothing to do with fashion. Or, the 2016 National Art Center exhibit centered around Miyake’s designs which showcased countless articles of clothing designed by Miyake, but, instead of referencing fashion or style directly, was titled “The WORK of Miyake Issey" (emphasis mine).
One could very well argue that Miyake’s legacy has very little to do with the actual clothes that bear his name. Instead, it’s rich beyond imagination with dazzling innovations. To merely call him a fashion designer fails to encompass the magnitude of Miyake’s decades of creative brilliance.