On August 5, 2022, the world lost creative luminary Issey Miyake. The acclaimed fashion designer who helped propel Japanese fashion into the global spotlight and inspired generations of designers passed away at the age of 84 in Tokyo, the city where he founded his design studio in 1970. Though known for his work in apparel, he was much more than a fashion designer, famously revolutionizing garment forms and continually blurring the line between fashion, design, technology, visual art, and performance. His influence crossed countless disciplines and extended globally.
Born Miyake Kazunaru in Hiroshima in 1938, Miyake had an early interest in fashion, but majored in graphic design at Tama Art University in Tokyo, since the university had no fashion department. However, in 1963, while still a student at Tama, he staged his first fashion show, with the title “A Poem of Cloth and Stone” – a boldly simple phrase that would be echoed in later collections and projects. After graduating in 1964, he moved to Paris to pursue fashion, studying at the l'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture (where a classmate and friend was fellow Japanese designer Kenzo Takada). There, he apprenticed with designer Guy Laroche and sketched for the house of Givenchy. In 1969, he decamped for New York, where he immersed himself in the groundbreaking visual art scene of the time and worked for American designer Geoffrey Beene, before returning to Japan in 1970 and setting up the Miyake Design Studio. As he began creating his own designs in Tokyo, he drew inspiration from his time abroad, particularly his experiences in Paris. Witnessing the student demonstrations and social unrest of May 1968 convinced him that fashion could be a radical wearable art for all people, and not simply conspicuous consumption for elite customers. He also strived to create a new fashion vernacular that channeled Japanese aesthetics but would also be hybrid, fluid, and experimental; among other things, it would totally subvert typical Western expectations.
These themes can be seen even in his very first collection, which premiered in New York in 1971 and included a line of graphic tee shirts inspired by traditional Japanese tattoos – but of Western pop figures like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to explore these ideas and engage in a career-long experimentation with material, shape, color, and concept, gaining renown in the Euro-centric Parisian fashion world (where so far only Takada had gained a foothold as a non-European designer), and winning the loyalty of dressers (particularly women) who appreciated the simultaneous sense of freedom, comfort, and refined mystery that his clothes bestowed on the wearer. By 1982, a Miyake design was featured on the cover of Artforum magazine (the first fashion designer to ever appear there), Issey Miyake boutiques had opened in Paris and Tokyo, and celebrities like Grace Jones were embracing his designs. Miyake was also commissioned by the Sony corporation to create a staff uniform for their 35th anniversary. (The rip-stop nylon jacket would later inspire Apple founder Steve Jobs to conceptualize his own “uniform” – the black turtleneck and jeans combination he became known for - the turtlenecks purchased off-the-shelf from Issey Miyake, of course).
Meanwhile, Miyake was working hard to push the limits of textiles themselves. In 1989, he premiered his ground-breaking invention – a patented method of pleating synthetic fabric using a heat-press that allowed new possibilities of cutting, draping, and wearing, without any wrinkling. The resulting line of garments was launched as “Pleats Please” in 1993, and showcased the technological, as well as aesthetic, innovations in Miyake’s practice. His designs also came boldly to life in the early 1990s with a series of collaborations with choreographer William Forsythe, whose dancers were able to fly, leap, and spin in Miyake’s creations in ways that made them an essential ingredient of the whole performance. In 1992, he launched “L’Eau d’Issey”, his bestselling fragrance inspired by the scent of water and sold in a bottle designed by Miyake to evoke the moon above the Eiffel Tower. Later in 2000, architecture again inspired Miyake’s “Bao Bao Bag”, the geometric plates of which paid homage to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, who Miyake greatly admired. The bag, in a variety of candy colors and useful shapes, became an instant classic (and perhaps one of the most widely pirated accessories in the world).
All of these milestones and more were on display at the momentous retrospective “Miyake Issey Exhibition: The Work of Issey Miyake”, which opened at the National Art Center, Tokyo in 2016. The first comprehensive look back at the work of a designer who had always celebrated looking forward, the exhibition introduced the breadth and depth of his work to record numbers of visitors.
As a pioneer and innovator in the design world, Miyake also championed younger designers and colleagues at his atelier, and since the launch of the Miyake Issey Foundation in 2004, Miyake had taken on a new role as institution-builder, to further the study and practice of design in all forms. He helped to establish Tokyo’s 21_21 Design Sight (a research center and exhibition space designed by architect Tadao Ando), and he served as its director until his death. He was awarded the Kyoto Prize (2006) or the French Legion of Honor (2016) for his contributions to fashion and design.
But even in his late-career forays into supporting design as a keystone of culture, Miyake valued the simple profundity of fashion as a part of everyday life. As he said in an interview after winning the Kyoto Prize, “when I grow weary with where I’m going, or when I stumble, I’ll return to the theme of ‘A Piece of Cloth.’” The line refers to the very foundation of fashion - the piece of cloth or animal-skin that humans first used as protection from the elements - and which remains the mundane yet somehow magical function of any garment today. Though Miyake has now departed, his brilliance lives on through his astonishing body of work, his innovations and collaborations, and the deeply creative spirit that he infused into the line that bears his name.