Japanese Pop Culture Icons: Issey Miyake | CoolJapan

Issey Miyake doesn’t like talking about his past as a survivor of a catastrophic event. He simply doesn’t want to be defined by this experience. Even so, the tragedy’s influence in his life’s work is undeniable. More than the physical condition he acquired from the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, there was a sense of wanting to create things that would bring joy.

“I have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to put them behind me, preferring to think of things that can be created, not destroyed, and that bring beauty and joy. I gravitated toward the field of clothing design, partly because it is a creative format that is modern and optimistic,” he wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times in 2009. And create beautiful things he did.

An icon’s inspiration

A bridge that passes through the heart of the city leading to the Peace Memorial Park on its south end was built seven years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The look of the bridge itself isn’t something out of the ordinary, it’s the railings that will catch your eye. The perfect adjectives to describe the abstract art quality of these railings are hard to find. It’s designed by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American sculptor who voluntarily entered an internment camp during the second world war. He wanted Hiroshima to be a place “living strongly for the future”. Perhaps, it’s why his designs for the city were so futuristic.

This quality was what caught the fancy of a high schooler Issey Miyake, who, upon passing this beautiful bridge countless times on his way to class, would be inspired to choose design — speciality not yet decided — as his life’s calling.

Fashion design came into the picture a little later. Intrigued by his sister’s Vogue magazines, Issey Miyake became enamoured with the art of fashion — an interest that is considered atypical in mid-20th century Japan and a field that at the time was internationally dominated by European names such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior.

And so, with limited opportunities for studying fashion design in the country, young Issey Miyake opted to learn graphic design instead at Tama Art University in Tokyo. He was graduating around the time when Japanese citizens were finally permitted to travel abroad for pleasure.

Armed with newfound design knowledge, some savings, and freedom to move, 27-year-old Issey Miyake went to Paris and enrolled in Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne to study traditional couture. In the city of love, Issey Miyake became an apprentice to Guy Laroche and Hubert de Givenchy, becoming involved in helping to create classic, sophisticated designs that are a far cry from the “Flying Saucer” dress he would become known for.

It was also during this time when he witnessed the 1968 Paris riots against capitalism and consumerism with protesters demanding for better working conditions. This politically significant event is said to have inspired Issey Miyake to make clothes for “a wider range of people” of many shapes and sizes.

He then left the world of couture for New York to work on ready-to-wear pieces under Geoffrey Beene, an American designer known for creating uncomplicated and comfortable yet dressy womenswear. The sketches Issey Miyake did for Geoffrey Beene during this time have now been set up for auction.

Going against the tide

In the 1970s, Japan was becoming known for advancements in technology including textiles. Osaka was chosen to be the venue for the 1970 World Expo, an event meant to showcase grand visions and exciting technologies. Issey Miyake told The Telegraph in 2010 that his move back to Japan from New York in 1970 was partly because fabric manufacturers in Japan are “constantly making innovations'' and he wanted to be part of the up-and-coming scene “to make clothes that hadn't been imagined before”.

Thus, Issey Miyake Design Studio was born in Tokyo. From the get-go, the fashion house’s ethos revolved around material.  His passion for experimenting with different fabrics earned him the apt nickname “Material Boy”, coined by the makers of the documentary Renegades of Fashion, a series about the fashion industry's trailblazers.

Issey would collaborate with many people, from technologically adept textile designers to those who are versed in traditional weaving and dyeing techniques that were, at the time, in danger of being extinct. All these led to innovations such as A-POC (A Piece Of Cloth), which means creating clothing from “a single piece of thread in a single process” which not only produces durable pieces but also minimises waste. Yes, Issey Miyake thought about fashion sustainability before it was a trending topic.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the East meets West concept became popular for its unique eccentric looks, thanks largely to Japanese avant-garde designers Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and of course, Issey Miyake. Suddenly, fashion isn’t just for European designers anymore.

But even when the fashion industry at the time lumped Japanese designers together, each label had its one-of-a-kind attributes. Issey Miyake’s was always material innovation. In 1993, a more accessible sub-line of the Issey Miyake brand for women called Pleats Please was launched. It featured clothing that’s wrinkle-proof, lightweight and — wait for it — doesn’t need to be dry cleaned. It’s durable. It would be Issey Miyake’s most commercially successful endeavour.

Future perfect

Right before the turn of the millennium, Issey Miyake handed over the reins to Naoki Takizawa (who is now the Design Director for Special Project at UNIQLO). However, it doesn’t mean that he exited the fashion world completely. Issey simply wanted to pour his efforts into research for textile innovations.

He founded Reality Lab, a team of designers and engineers united by a single goal of developing techniques and technologies for creating new sustainable materials. As a result of their research, in 2013, Issey Miyake released Homme Plissé, Pleats Please for males.

Now in his 80s, Issey continues to explore new possibilities when it comes to materials. In a fairly recent interview with The Guardian, he talked excitedly about a paper suit that doesn’t crease. Clearly, this “Material Boy” won’t stop finding new, fun ways to make durable, comfortable clothing a reality. In his own words: “There are no boundaries for what can be fabric, for what clothes can be made from. Anything can be clothing.”

(Cover photo from: commons.m.wikimedia.org)