Miyake’s unwavering approach to creation is the freedom to have ideas, unconstrained by any preexisting rules or framework, and to be able to make them realities through a tenacious process of research and experimentation. Miyake works in a manner that not only advances his own ideas but also cultivates skills in the people around him, constantly pushing both the tradition and the evolution of design.
The Concepts and Work of Issey Miyake
Miyake’s first encounter with design was in his home-town of Hiroshima in which were two bridges: to live and to die, situated near the epicenter where the Atomic Bomb hit. (Built in 1952, and later renamed: to Create and to Go.) Walking over the bridges, watching them, was his first encounter with a design’s ability to inspire powerful emotional responses; and hope.
When the World Design Conference was first held in Japan in 1960, Miyake, who was a student at the then Faculty of Graphic Design at Tama Art University, sent a letter to the head office, questioning why clothing design was not included in the program. His focus on clothing as design instead of fashion gained attention. Shortly thereafter, he began designing his own clothing. Art director Jo Murakoshi approached him to create clothing for the Toyo Rayon (now Toray Industries, Inc.) calendar, 1963 edition.
Miyake presented his first collection, Nuno to ishi no uta (Poems of cloth and stone) after graduating from Tama Art University in 1963.
In 1965, Miyake traveled to Paris. After studying haute couture, he worked as an assistant at two fashion houses. He witnessed the May 1968 Paris riots, an event that inspired a determination to create clothing for a wider range of people. The following year, 1969, he moved to New York. While working in an American ready-to-wear, he was inspired by the future potential of Japan, which was gaining momentum due to the impending Osaka Expo ’70. Then he returned to Japan.
Miyake also participated in 1970 TORAY KNIT EXHIBITION, presenting a group of clothing made up of parts that could be assembled and disassembled. In the same year he established the Miyake Design Studio.
From the outset, 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 creative process begins by studying a single thread and creating his material. In the 1970s, Miyake joined with a number of collaborators, the result of which was the development of many new fabrics and ways by which to make things that incorporated traditional handcrafts wedded to the newest technology. While making innovative improvements to the cutting-edge synthetic technologies of the time and incorporating them into his pieces, Miyake also visited historic production regions and excavated traditional techniques, such as dyeing and weaving, that were on the verge of extinction. He forged ahead with his work, bringing traditional methods back to life to respond to the demands of the times. Miyake established a working method of collaborating with manufacturers and artists, trying to adapt new products to the needs of a contemporary lifestyle. These collaborations and research attempts led to the development of his trademark concept, “ one piece of cloth.” An overview of his work during this period is available via the compilation ISSEY MIYAKE : East Meets West, published 1978 (Heibonsha). It was the first monograph of a living fashion designer to be published in the world. A multitude of dynamic photographs and essays by artists from different mediums explored Miyake’s interpretations of “one piece of cloth” with art direction by Ikko Tanaka and editing by Kazuko Koike.
In the 1980s, Miyake furthered his exploration of the body’s motions and form, enthusiastically taking on the challenge of designing garments using materials other than cloth: plastic, paper, and wire. He called his creations from this period “Body Works.” The American art magazine Artforum featured a Rattan- vine Body created by Miyake on its February 1982 cover—the first time clothing had been featured on the cover of an art magazine. Miyake also used computers to incorporate a variety of jacquard patterns and textures into his work.
In 1988, he presented an exhibition ISSEY MIYAKE A-ŪN at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The exhibition focused on Miyake’s explorations with new kinds of cloth, while also presenting his work as a whole. In the 80s, while he pursued textile research, he also started work on a new type of clothing that accommodated people’s needs day-to-day. In 1981, he launched the brand Plantation, which offered beautifully designed, practical modern solutions without losing the essence of handcrafts. The brand, which uses mostly natural materials, features simple and comfortably loose designs and remains popular today. ISSEY MIYAKE PERMANENTE, which was launched in 1985, was based upon original shapes and fabrics used in previous ISSEY MIYAKE Collections and intended to be a line of classic, long-lasting clothes.
Miyake believes in creating clothing that addresses the demands of the times by combining traditional techniques from Japan and elsewhere with cutting edge technologies. His work is collaborative, and his staff, over the years has included many talented people including Makiko Minagawa and Tomio Mohri, as well as Akira Onozuka, Naoki Takizawa, and Tokujin Yoshioka. Miyake’s spirit lies in his ability to explore a single theme for many years, using evolving materials and processes. His clothing speaks to the hearts of its wearers, and invokes feelings of joy and happiness.
After the ISSEY MIYAKE A-ŪN exhibition in 1988, Miyake began to experiment further with pleats, in the hopes of expanding the possibilities of the medium. When William Forsythe came to Miyake asking him to create clothing for his new production The Loss of Small Detail for the Frankfurt Ballet (first performed in 1991) Miyake was inspired and attempted to create pleated clothing that would move, using a new lightweight knitted material and introducing a new technique called “garment pleating.” Traditional pleated clothing is made by pleating fabric, then cutting and sewing the individual garments. Here, an oversized piece of cloth was cut and sewn in the shape of the desired garment and then sandwiched between two layers of washi paper and fed into a heat-press. Unlike its predecessors, these pleats remained permanently in the fabric’s “memory” and never had to be returned for re-pleating.
This experiment lead to further changes and adjustments and in 1993, the line PLEATS PLEASE ISSEY MIYAKE was born. The label offered clothing as a product that was easy to to wear, care for and to travel with; PLEATS PLEASE ISSEY MIYAKE was the perfect, elegant, yet practical and affordable solution for the needs of a modern woman, translating effortlessly from work to play to suit her diverse needs. A quarter century after witnessing the May 1968 protests in Paris, Miyake had accomplished his goal by creating clothing as universal as “jeans and T-shirts” which suited both the times and the needs of women, everywhere.
It is impossible to tell the story of Miyake’s work without mentioning the unique collaboration with Irving Penn that lasted for over 10 years, beginning in 1986. Penn’s photographs, which number around 250 and were styled by Midori Kitamura (current president of Miyake Design Studio), burst with energy and surprise, and were compiled into 7 books. This body of work represents not only an archive documenting a unique artistic collaboration but also of the spiritual connection between two creators, separated by two continents but which resonate and transcend the realm of fashion photography.
In 1998, Miyake began to develop A-POC (A Piece Of Cloth) with Dai Fujiwara. A-POC was not only able to create clothing with a high degree of variation, but was also able to control the amount created through the process of casting, where each thread receives computerized instructions. A-POC was revolutionary in that it began with a single thread and resulted in fabric, texture and a fully finished set of clothing in a single process. It led the way, along with the concept of engineering design, to a new methodology of clothing design. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York added this project to its permanent collection in 2006. In 1998, soon after Miyake started research on A-POC, he presented the ISSEY MIYAKE MAKING THINGS exhibition in Paris. (This later traveled to both New York and Tokyo.) The exhibition presented his work from Pleats (1988) onward and was widely acclaimed. “His work is grounded in that stretch of history called the present and draws meaning from fashion’s immediate context. ‘Making Things’ presents that context with immense glamour and wit.” (By Herbert Muschamp, December 27, 1998 The New York Times)
Miyake’s work and concepts transcend genres, and continue to draw attention around the world. In 1986, his clothing appeared on the cover of America’s Time Magazine (January 27th issue), along with an article entitled “Changing Clothes: Issey Miyake,” which dug deeply into his approach to creation. Later he was chosen alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Zedong, the Dalai Lama, and Emperor Hirohito for a special 1999 Time feature on the “Most Influential Asians of the 20th Century” (August 23-30 issue); and was introduced as the “Beauty Maker.” The article stated, “With the future as his guide and nature his inspiration, the path-breaking Japanese designer has created clothing with enduring, global appeal.” The French magazine Le Monde 2 visited the Miyake Design Studio, and introduced the projects of Miyake and his staff as “not a maison de couture, but a laboratory for development and production, unparalleled in the world” (December 10, 2005 issue).
In 2004, Miyake established The Miyake Issey Foundation. Besides creating archives of his own work, the Foundation seeks to sow the seeds of evolution for design in society and pass them on to the next generation by training professionals and introducing young artists from all over the world. In 2007, the Foundation opened the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT (featuring architecture by Tadao Ando), with the support of Mitsui Fudosan Co., Ltd., at Tokyo Midtown. Miyake was appointed as its director, along with Taku Satoh, Naoto Fukasawa, and Noriko Kawakami. The center hosts exhibitions fashioned from the unique perspectives of the different directors based on each theme, and have had great impact both in and outside of Japan.
Today, Miyake is working on the next phase and new projects. He and longtime Issey Miyake Collection production chiefs Sachiko Yamamoto and Manabu Kikuchi have assembled a select team of experienced and young staff members from within the Studio known as the “Reality Lab”. The Reality Lab ‘s focus is on new designs that are intimately connected to society. Many of these projects come out of the extensive research undertaken in preparation for the XXIst – Century Man, an exhibition directed by Miyake at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT in 2008. The work at the Reality Lab includes a focus upon the development of environmentally-friendly materials that recycle and recreate new and better things from pre-existing ones. In 2010 the group presented the 132 5. ISSEY MIYAKE collection, as well as the IN-EI ISSEY MIYAKE lighting collection for Artemide in 2012 at Messe Frankfurt’s Light + Building and at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano (the Milan Furniture Fair).
“The Work of Miyake Issey” exhibition was held at the National Art Center, Tokyo, in 2016 (March 16-June 13). The exhibition was a partial chronology and displayed Miyake’s early work through his latest projects. The exhibition’s focus was upon Miyake’s approach to design and to making things past, present and future. The exhibition gave the viewer an insight into Miyake’s evolutionary path of making clothing.
There is a founding principal that has always informed Miyake’s relentless search for new and more advanced designs to serve and enhance the 21st century: Making ideas, making things that have never been made before; making new realities.