With the future as his guide and nature his inspiration, the path-breaking Japanese designer has created clothing with enduring, global appeal
By JULIE DAM
Think of what fashion shows have become in the late 1990s: bright-light spectacles accompanied by thumping music, with skulking supermodels on the runway and preening celebrities in the front row. The clothes, often, are secondary to the drama surrounding the catwalk: laser shows, live bands, even locomotives delivering the models.
Then think of an Issey Miyake show. At last October's presentation in Paris, for instance, the stage was set with sculptural works by Japanese artist Susumu Shingu: Wind, made of feather-light squares of white material floating on wire stands, and White Aurora, strips of cloth suspended from the ceiling that turned with the breeze. The show opened silently, as design staffers rolled out tubes of white stretch fabric and plied their shears until a whole wardrobe emerged--a demonstration of Miyake's do-it-yourself a-poc (made from a piece of cloth) garments. Then, one by one, a procession of models presented clothes that wrapped, clung and flowed, suggesting sails and the sea. As a finale, the girls returned in red a-poc outfits still attached to one another in the long tube of fabric. Aside from the applause, the room was as serene as an art museum.
It was a typical Issey Miyake moment. In his three decades in design, Miyake has worked at the intersection of art and fashion, nature and technology, innovation and tradition and, notably, East and West. High-tech fibers are an obsession, but nature is an inspiration. He has used experimental materials such as nylon monofilament and molded silicone, but also traditional wares such as aburagami (an oil-soaked Japanese handmade paper used for umbrellas) and sashiko (a method of cotton quilting). He makes clothes that might seem unwearable without instructions (he once decided to turn a garment inside-out during a final fitting). But he also launched, in 1993, Pleats Please, a collection of pieces made of Fortuny-like folded fabrics that are meant to be universal, comfortable staples, like stylish alternatives to jeans and T shirts.
Above all, he is the first Asian designer to have become truly global, not only in renown but also in aesthetic. He has shown in Paris, New York and Tokyo. In 1978, he published East Meets West, a summary of his work up to that point, as well as a statement of his international intentions. Today, Miyake isn't identified so much as a Japanese designer as a designer who happens to be from Japan. Led by Miyake, Japan's so-called Big Three designers--the others are Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo--broke onto the European fashion scene in the '70s and revolutionized it in the early '80s.
The Miyake design sensibility revolves around change and movement. Displayed as art, as they were in the Making Things exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain in Paris last year, the clothes appear precisely geometric and static. Once worn, though, they take on volume and mobility, as if they are living sculptures.
And like art, they sometimes seem unsuitable for practical use. "People refer to clothes that no one can wear as being 'avant-garde,'" Miyake commented last year, "but that's not really true. People always refer to the past when they speak, but I just happen to think that the present is a bit behind itself."
That philosophy of always looking forward has its roots in his early life in Hiroshima. Born in 1938, Miyake was riding his bicycle to school when the bomb dropped. His mother was badly burned; because there was no medicine available, doctors put raw egg on her wounds to ease the pain. A teacher, she continued to work until she died four years later. At the same time, Miyake was recovering from osteomyelitis, a bone-marrow disease (evidently unrelated to the bombing) he developed at age 10. "I saw it all with my eyes," he later recalled. "But I thought I'd better forget."
Fascinated with his sister's fashion magazines, Miyake set out to become a designer, even though the vocation was not considered man's work. He attended Tokyo's Tama Art University, concentrating on graphics. After graduating in 1965, he went to Paris, where he studied at the Syndicat de la Couture school, and then apprenticed with Guy Laroche and Hubert de Givenchy. The rigidity of haute couture didn't appeal to Miyake. "I don't think," Givenchy said later, "I influenced him in any way."
Miyake moved on to New York, where he worked for Geoffrey Beene. He finally returned to Tokyo, and with the help of friends opened the Miyake Design Studio in 1970. Soon after, he took a few pieces to Bloomingdales, which promptly gave the fledgling designer a small corner of the store. His clothes began to be sold in the two biggest department stores in Tokyo. In 1971, his first collection was shown in New York. Two years later, he moved his shows to Paris, where they are still put on twice a year.
After that rapid rise to prominence, Miyake has kept up the pace of inspired creation. In the 1970s, he began by riffing on traditional Japanese clothing such as kimonos and sashiko coats. But by 1976, he had broken from an exclusively Eastern style with the famous "Twelve Black Girls" show in Tokyo, in which a dozen black models displayed riveting second-skin designs. Soon to follow were tattoo-printed bodysuits, experimental pleating techniques, twisted fabrics, a-poc, and Pleats Please dresses printed with reproductions of works by living artists whom Miyake admires. Bookending the 1976 show was another eye-opening presentation, 1995's "Beautiful Ladies," which featured six women ages 62 to 92.
Today, Miyake pieces from past seasons still seem fresh, eliciting a frisson of excitement and recognition when spotted on a person of any age or sex. Fans of his designs often behave like art collectors, dusting off treasured vintage pieces to exhibit--on themselves--over and over again. That's not something that can be said of many designers in an era in which trends last but a minute. "Issey changed the concept of clothing," designer Kenzo, who has known Miyake since his university and Paris days, once said. "He has a Japanese side to him, but it's very modern, very simple, more futuristic." And it's the future that continues to drive Miyake in his design. "I would be very happy if it was said of me that I had provided some keys to the 21st century," he said last year. "All I can do is to keep experimenting, keep developing my thoughts further. Certain people think that the definition of design is the beauty of the useful, but in my own work I want to integrate feelings, emotion. You have to put life into it." What Miyake does so exquisitely is to put life into art, and art into life.
Julie Dam is a senior writer for People magazine in New York. Until last January, she covered European fashion for TIME Atlantic