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Unfolding the Work of Issey Miyake
There's much more to the designer's legacy than pleats.
There has been no shortage of homages to the late Japanese designer Issey Miyake since he passed this week. The truly innovative designer has been memorialized as the master of pleats, and among other things, the man behind Steve Jobs’ famous black turtlenecks.
But he’s also been recognized as a humanist and truly kind person who saw design as a means of making someone’s life better. An ideal example of that is a quote from the designer that’s been making the rounds: “Design stems from reflecting on and challenging the times we live in. Why bother designing unless you have a unique point of view?”
The quote in question comes from the documentary Issey Miyake Moves, originally broadcast on Japan’s Wowow Japan Satellite Broadcasting in 1993. In 2002, an English dubbed version was released—thankfully only translating the narrator’s voice while maintaining Miyake’s voice and his team members in their native Japanese.
The film goes in-depth about the novel process by which Issey Miyake’s garments are made, noting his experiments using a singular piece of fabric (now known as his A-POC line, for “A Piece of Cloth”), to his equally lauded Twist tops, which debuted before his acclaimed pleats. Those pieces start as angular pieces of fabric that are twisted by hand, then pressed on high heat so the wrinkles are baked into the fabric.
“The interaction between cloth and the human body, the wind, Nature was my investigation, my Research,” said Miyake. This approach and the graceful, elegant movement that defines his design ethos is inspired by a moment when he was sailing down the Nile, and got inspired by the life brought onto boat sails as he watched them become filled with wind.
His idea that clothing didn’t have to move with the lines of the body, but could operate in concert with them became one of his defining codes. It certainly is a prominent feature of his pleats collection, which is also characterized by how it’s still made today.
Pleating is actually the last step after the sewing is finished, then rectangular pieces of cloth are folded diagonally and sandwiched in paper into a machine that pleats them at a temperature of about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, a process that takes about a minute.
Later on in the documentary, Miyake admits that his pleats collections helped him defeat a creative block. After feeling like his own work was faltering, even his team could see how cathartic that revolutionary collection was.
“Design is born out of Research, out of a positive approach,” said Miyake. “The ideas must contain Life, and be energized with living.”
The approach to pleats mixes the incredibly thoughtful design aspect of a couture piece with the pop art appeal of a readymade. But also speaks to the sculptural inspiration Miyake carried from one of his biggest influences: Isamu Noguchi.
“Isamu Noguchi was always the person I respected most,” he said. “I was impressed by the newness, the sense of fun in his design.”
Indeed, one of the first times Miyake had seen his work was when Noguchi designed railings for the Peace Bridge in Miyake’s native Hiroshima.
Miyake would later go on to collect several of Noguchi’s pieces, but also stage a show featuring Noguchi’s sculptures shortly after the the artist passed away in 1988. The synergy between Miyake and Noguchi’s work was further explored in the 1997 book Arizona, covering a joint exhibit between Noguchi, Miyake, and painter Genichiro Inokuma.
Originally shown at the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art (MIMOCA) in Japan, the exhibit outlined the friendship between Noguchi and Inokuma, a Japanese-American immigrant, and a trip they took to Poston, Arizona—where Japanese-Americans were put into an internment camp during WWII. There, Inokuma took inspiration from the Kachina dolls of Hopi Indians, which ended up in some of his paintings. Later, these works would influence clothing by Issey Miyake.
The resulting juxtaposition speaks to an organic collaboration between three respective masters of their craft, while also reinforcing that Issey Miyake truly elevated fashion to a form of high art, which is why he also has the distinct honor of being the first fashion designer to win the coveted Mainichi Design Prize in Japan, which he earned in 1976 for his A Piece of Cloth work.