Issey Miyake, one of the greatest fashion designers of the late 20th century, has died aged 84.
Miyake was the innovative leader of a diverse group of Japanese designers who changed the face of haute couture and wearable fashion over the past four decades, and helped make contemporary fashion a staple of costume institutes and museum retrospectives. Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Junior Watanabe and the late Kenzo Takada, brought to their garments – each in their own very particular way – a blend of minimalist calm and historically informed tailoring craftsmanship, underpinned by a respect for the structural beauty of the kimono and the power of traditional Japanese calligraphy and tattoo art.
In the 1980s, Miyake’s work in particular acted as a painterly and wearable antidote to a global world of fashion and entertainment dominated by the permanent excesses of padded shoulders, brash colors and big hair.
Miyake has made a name for himself as a master of pleats – reviving a lost art perfected by Mariano Fortuny, in silk, in the 1930s – most notably in his headline-grabbing 1994 Flying Saucer dress, which been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York’s Covid-delayed 150th anniversary exhibition About time: mode and duration in 2020. But Miyake, unconcerned with the cost and impracticality of high fashion, brought this aspect of his work to the high street in 1993 with his Pleats Please garments – now collectibles – where the Heat-treated polyester was used to create truly unisex garments that were permanently pleated, flowy, and one-size-fits-most. In 1997, Miyake produced another user-friendly concept in “A Piece of Cloth” (A-POC), which allowed people to create their own clothes from a tube of fabric by cutting along pre-knit seams in dotted.
Miyake made a different kind of headlines when he provided what became a polyester and cotton turtleneck to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, an item of clothing that has become as much a brand marker for the larger technology company in the world as the bitten apple logo and the curve of a corner on the iPhone. On a trip to Japan in the 1980s, Jobs had admired the practical chic of the gray uniforms worn by Sony employees, and that company’s head, Akio Morita, told him that Miyake had designed them. Jobs didn’t draw much attention when he suggested that Apple staff might wear something similar, but the introduction paid off, as Jobs explained to his biographer Walter Isaacson: “I had Issey make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them…I’ve got enough to last the rest of my life.” “
Miyake was born in Hiroshima, Japan in 1938. He survived when an atomic bomb was dropped by the United States Air Force on the city while he was in school on August 6, 1945, but his mother is died three years later of radiation sickness. In 2009, Miyake, who had long balked at being labeled “the designer who survived the atomic bomb”, wrote a powerful opinion piece on his experience for New York Times, in which he encouraged then-US President Barack Obama to visit the city to demonstrate his commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. “When I close my eyes,” Miyake wrote, “I still see things no one should ever experience: a bright red light, the dark cloud shortly after, people running in all directions desperately trying to escape .”
In the same post, he revealed how this traumatic experience made him determined to look to the future. “I turned to the field of clothing design,” he writes, “in part because it’s a creative format that’s modern and upbeat.” He studied design in Tokyo before moving to Paris in the 1960s, where he worked with fashion designers Guy Laroche and Hubert de Givenchy. In 1970, he created the Miyake Design Studio in Tokyo and presented his first collection in New York the following year.
Miyake had a long-standing connection to art and artists. In Paris, he had discovered and been very impressed by the work of Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi. In New York in the late 1960s, he became friends with Robert Rauschenberg and Christo. He became a great admirer of the British potter of Viennese origin Lucie Rie, whose work he had discovered when he opened a book on ceramics in a London bookshop. He organized the 1989 exhibition Issey Miyake meets Lucie Rie in Tokyo and Osaka, describing it as a tribute to the emotional connection he felt with the artist. “I was surprised that Lucie’s work, largely unknown at the time, was so well received,” Miyake said. vogue. “Each piece was on display, floating on the surface of a gigantic rectangular pool.” One of Miyake’s 1989/90 collections featured overcoats with part of the range of multicolored sandstone buttons that Rie had made during World War II. When Rie died in 1995, she left Miyake her collection of ceramic buttons.
From 1996 to 1998, Miyake led a series of guest artists, where contemporary artists, beginning with Yasumasa Morimura, used his durable Pleats Please garments as their canvas. Morimura’s work built an elaborate but bold relationship with the nude figure at the heart of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ painting of 1856 The source. The point, for Miyake, was that this work wasn’t done until this artistically printed jersey dress was worn by a third party. “When I do something,” he says, “it’s only half done. When people use it — for years and years — then it’s done.”
Miyake handed over management of his business, which had expanded to perfumes – including L’eau d’Issey – and other merchandise, to others in 1997, to focus on researching new fabrics and techniques of production, fueled by his interest in the link between technology and creativity. Besides the Met, his clothes are held by institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the Denver Art Museum, where pieces by Miyake and Yamamoto sit alongside traditional Japanese clothing. The casual elegance of Miyake’s designs lent themselves well to photography. And the first 15 years of his studio’s output are captured in a lavishly cool monograph, Issey Miyake & Miyake Design Studio 1970-1985 (Works Words Years) (1985). A remarkable retrospective of his work took place at the National Art Center in Tokyo in 2016, spanning 45 years of his design work.
The positive streak that first led Miyake to make clothes as something modern and upbeat stayed with him. “Clothing means, in Japanese, hifukuhe said, “so hifuku means happiness. And I’m probably trying to do hifuku, happiness, for the people. And for me.”
- Issey Miyake; born Hiroshima on April 22, 1938; died in Tokyo on August 5, 2022.