BY Sophie Tolhurst in Opinion | 15 AUG 22

Issey Miyake (1938–2022): Five-Dimensional Joy

How collaboration and constant experimentation defined the late fashion designer’s remarkable career

BY Sophie Tolhurst in Opinion | 15 AUG 22

Issey Miyake, designer, artist and maker of clothes, died from liver cancer on 5 August 2022, aged 84. His remarkable career was defined by collaborations across the arts and the constant experimentation of his Miyake Design Studio, with material and manufacture, both traditional and futuristic; form, of ever-surprising silhouette; and colour, always lighting up the room. But this was always the means to an end, in service of the dedicated exploration of clothing and the body that underpinned everything Miyake did. 

It always started with ‘a piece of cloth’ – the notion behind his project A-POC, launched in 1998, in which a roll of knitted fabric produces a range of garments to be cut out, ready to wear. Simplicity also lay behind Pleats Please, whose radical twist on a pleating technique produced more than 30 years of transcendent basics. Collections such as ‘Starburst’ (A/W 1998) demonstrated his prescient work with re-use, reinvigorating old clothes by heat-pressing metallic foil onto their surface. Irving Penn’s photograph Two Miyake Warriors (1998) hints at the ancient and futuristic quality of Miyake’s garments. In an interview with curator Hervé Chandés in the ‘Issey Miyake: Making Things’ catalogue from Foundation Cartier in 1998, the designer suggested that the present was simply ‘a bit behind’.

Issey Miyake
Issey Miyake, Spring/Summer 2012, Paris, 2011. Courtesy: AFP and Getty Images; photographer: Patrick Kovarik 

Born in Hiroshima in 1938, Miyake was witness to era-defining events, including the atomic bomb of 1945, a horror of which he rarely spoke but which led to his mother’s death. During a later period in Paris, he attended the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and apprenticed at Guy Laroche and Givenchy. He found himself among the tumult of the May 1968 student protests, prompting a desire to create clothing as easy and accessible as jeans and t-shirts. In New York, he worked for Geoffrey Beene and met Christo, Joe Eula, Donna Jordan and Robert Rauschenberg, before returning to Japan in 1970.

Where he found restriction, he challenged it. In 1960, while Miyake was a graphic design student, the World Design Conference came to Japan for the first time. The event brought together the most significant names in design – but nothing on fashion. Miyake was outraged and confronted the organiser. From the start, he turned his attention to clothing and was its greatest advocate. 

Issey Miyake
Issey Miyake, 1984. Courtesy: AFP and Getty Images; photographer: Pierre Guillaud

Miyake had the time traveller’s power to change the present. He brought French couture to Japan via Diana Vreeland’s 1975 exhibition ‘Inventive Clothes: 1909–1939’, as well as the work of British potter Lucie Rie. In 1976, he cast Grace Jones in his fashion show ‘Issey Miyake and Twelve Black Girls’. He was the first of the influential Japanese designers to show his collections in Paris, and in a 1988 piece in Artforum, Mark Holborn described how Miyake’s book East Meets West (1978) ‘undermined our own Eurocentered perspective’.

His collaborators were many, including choreographer William Forsythe, graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo, designer Isamu Noguchi and the essayist, Noh performer and textile expert Masako Shirasu. Some, such as artist Makiko Minagawa, who created the tattoo-like print of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix for his first collection in 1971, joined his studio. Miyake said that these collaborations made him, and the feeling was mutual. The 1990 exhibition ‘Energieën’ at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum mixed his work with that of Jenny Holzer, Anselm Kiefer, Walter de Maria, Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman and Ettore Sottsass. In addition to Jones, whose iconic image Miyake’s designs contributed to, he dressed Miles Davis, Mick Jagger and Jessye Norman. Steve Jobs bulk-bought his turtlenecks. 

Issey Miyake
Issey Miyake, Men Fall/Winter 2020/2021, Paris, 2020. Courtesy: AFP and Getty Images; photographer: Anne-Christine Poujoulat 

These highlights punctuated Miyake’s career, but throughout his studio worked to fashion’s twice-yearly calendar, which he compared in Making Things to a check-up at the doctor: ‘I think it does me a lot of good’. The main line allowed for the development of ideas, but his legacy was equally secured by the lasting appeal of commercial lines Pleats Please and Homme Plissé. For Miyake, who favoured ‘clothes’ over ‘fashion’, this was as good a place for art as any. His 1996–98 ‘Guest Artist Series’ invited Yasumasa Morimura, Nobuyoshi Araki, Tim Hawkinson and Cai Guo-Qiang to use his garments as canvas with exciting results: Morimura’s design featured a reproduction of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s La Source (1820/56), while Guo-Qiang created a performance work involving explosives, the blast marks creating the print.

Miyake’s designs are best immortalized in the collaboration with photographer Irving Penn, which lasted for 13 years from 1986. Often against a white background, the models’ poses displayed volumes both straightforward (a circle) and stratospheric (a dress like a flying saucer). Penn’s still lives show the garments twisted or laid flat – elegant and elemental – but on the body, the images reveal what clothes give their wearer, and what vitality the body gives to clothes. This energy is visible across all of Miyake’s work, from the runway shows to his influential exhibitions such as ‘Issey Miyake A-ŪN’, at the Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, in 1988. In Issey Miyake: Photographs by Iriving Penn (1988), referring to two meanings of the Japanese word fuku – ‘clothing’ and ‘happiness’ – Myake said, ‘People ask me what I do. [...] I say I make happiness’.

Issey Miyake
Issey Miyake, Fall/Winter 1999/2000, Paris, 1999. Courtesy: AFP and Getty Images; photographer: Pierre Verdy

In 2010, Miyake Design Studio created a line called 132 5. – the process starts with cloth (1D), is constructed to 3D, then folded again (2D); wearing the garment, the studio’s website explains, ‘transcends time and dimensions’ (5D). While this might be hard to follow, I am not alone in my gratitude for the transcendent mathematics of Miyake’s work, where clothes can be both radiant, and as far-fetched as joy in five dimensions.

Main image: Issey Miyake ready-to-wear Spring/Summer, Paris, 1974. Courtesy: AFP via Getty Images

Sophie Tolhurst’s writing about art, design and fashion has appeared in publications including Disegno and FX Magazine, where she is deputy editor