A True Pioneer

Obituary | There is no better way to describe Issey Miyake: He was, without doubt, ahead of his time

The world mourned an iconoclast of fashion design when it was reported yesterday in the Japanese press (and immediately picked up by the West) that Issey Miyake had died five days earlier. An official statement issued by the company he founded in 1970 Miyake Design Studio (MDS) stated that the designer “passed away on August 5th, 2022, at a hospital in Tokyo, surrounded by close friends and associates. The cause of death was hepatocellular carcinoma”, considered a common type of liver cancer (the same disease that took the life of another Japanese fashion designer of the era, Mitsuhiro Matsuda, in 2008). According to Nikkei Asia, “the funeral has already been held”. A company employee was quoted by The Japan Times to have indicated that there would not be a public ceremony, as the designer had requested. Mr Miyake was 84.

Born Miyake Kazumaru (the Japanese characters 一生 also read as Issey, which he adopted professionally) in 1938, in Hiroshima, the south of Japan’s largest island Honshu, he grew up in the higashi-ku (or east ward) of the city. At the time, Hiroshima was a military base, and considered a prominent one, where the residents, according to the city’s own literature, worked for the army or were from Korea and Taiwan, which were then Japanese colonies. Six years later, in 1945, an American B-29 bomber released the world’s first atomic bomb, code-named Little Boy, on Hiroshima. Mr Miyake was himself a little boy when the attack struck. His experience during the bombing, which obliterated his home city and resulted, at the end of that year, the death of between 90,000 to 166,000 city folks, most of whom were civilians, was never truly recounted. But in a now-famous and oft-quoted op-ed for The New York Times in 2009, he wrote: “When I close my eyes, I still see things no one should ever experience: a bright red light, the black cloud soon after, people running in every direction trying desperately to escape—I remember it all. Within three years, my mother died from radiation exposure.” He still did not talk about his younger days, least of all the precise details of living in the aftermath of the bombings, but that fateful day in 1945 did leave him with a pronounced limp.

Issey Miyake in 1970. Photo: Claude Charlie’s/Vogue

As an adult and through his professional life, he offered almost no glimpse of his formative years, fearing any recollection might label him, as he wrote, “the designer who survived the atomic bomb”. In fact, till his piece for NYT, not many knew of his war-time experience. “I have always avoided questions about Hiroshima. They made me uncomfortable.” To understand his discomfort, we may have to look at the experiences of others who survived the bombing. In one 2014 report in The Chugoku Shimbun, a former electrical technician Shinji Mikamo, by then 87, described how he lost his family and home to the American attack. The situation in Hiroshima was already tense at the time. “To create a fire lane in the event of an air raid,” the paper wrote, “he was helping to dismantle his house. He was on the roof, removing roof tiles to take them to the spot where the house would be rebuilt. Suddenly, a yellow ball of fire, three times as large as the sun, filled his vision. At the same instant, he felt a blast of intense heat, as if splashed with boiling water… his pants had caught fire and he suffered serious burns to his right thigh. He was also burned and wounded on his back, right arm, both hands, and face.”

We do not know much of Mr Miyake’s youth following the Hiroshima bombing, or his health, but a 2010 article in the British paper The Telegraph wrote that he was diagnosed with a bone-marrow disease when he was 10 years old. In 2015, he finally revealed more to the Japanese paper The Yomiuri Shimbun. He said, “I was a first-grade primary school student when the atomic bomb was dropped 70 years ago on Hiroshima on August 6. I heard the boom all of a sudden when I entered a classroom after a morning assembly. A broken piece of window glass got stuck into my head. I was frightened. I told the people at the home to which I had been evacuated, ‘I want to go home,’ and they gave me lots of hard, dry biscuits. I headed home alone to search for my mother. People were burned, lying on top of each other, and others gathered at a stream for water. I found my mother, who was burned over half her body, the following day. I developed periostitis (inflammation of the connective tissue that surrounds bone) due to radiation exposure when I was a fourth-grader at primary school. Some people died of this disease, but I was saved by penicillin. My mother nursed me while I was fighting the disease and died soon after my condition improved.”

The illustration of Issey Miyake’s 1969 collection Constructible Cloth. Photo: Miyake Design Studio

The execution. Photo: Kishin Shinoyama/Miyake Design Studio

Whether he remained in Hiroshima is not ascertained, nor when he moved to Tokyo. We do know that Mr Miyake was interested in dance, but did not pursue it. In 1962, he enrolled in the private institution Tama Art University in the mountain suburb of Tama, west of Tokyo. He chose graphic design, as the school did not offer a course in fashion (his contemporaries included the late Makoto Wada—famed illustrator, as well as film director [1988’s Kaitō Ruby]). But fashion had stirred a deep interest in him when he became an ardent reader of his sister’s fashion magazines—in Japan they were an invaluable source of information and inspiration. So passionate he was about fashion that in 1960, during the World Design Conference (that gathered Japanese designers, architects and industrial designers with their European and American counterparts to discuss ‘Total Image for the 20th Century’ that year), which Japan was hosting for the first time, Mr Miyake shot a letter to the secretariat and put to them why clothing design was not part of the program. It is not known if he was given an answer.

Yet, according to MDS, “his focus upon clothing as design rather than fashion attracted attention”. Whether this was campus-wide, city-wide, or nation-wide, it is not specified. Although graphic design was the subject on his books, it was fashion design that Mr Miyake held on tightly to (surprising, he did not choose to go to Bunka Fashion College, where many of the country’s elite designers went). Reportedly, he started designing clothing for himself. Then the art director Jo Murakoshi, founder of the Tokyo advertising firm Light Publicity, came acalling with the suggestion that Mr Miyake designed the clothes for the calendar that he was doing for the fabric manufacturer Toyo Rayon, now know worldwide as Toray Industries. After his graduation, he created his first collection called nuno to ishi no uta (布と石の詩 or Poem of Cloth and Stone); its art-school vibe unmistakable. The collection enjoyed a proper show, staged at the old Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry building in Marunouchi, not far from the Tokyo Imperial Palace. It is not quite certain what happened after the show or if it made a mark in Tokyo.

With his models at the end of his spring/summer 1988 collection. Photo: Getty Images

A year after he graduated in 1964, Mr Miyake decided to go to Paris, where just months earlier compatriot Kenzo Takada had arrived. There, he enrolled, as Mr Takada did too, at the prestigious L’École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne (where the famed Bunka lecturer Chie Koike was educated and where a young Yves Saint Laurent was reportedly in her class) and stayed for a year. School was followed by work in surprisingly traditional couture houses: First, at Guy Laroche, and a year later, at Hubert de Givenchy. But Paris couture had insufficient pull and he moved to New York where he was assistant to Geoffrey Beene, who, in a 1999 interview for Veery Journal, curiously opined: “I admire Issey Miyake who worked for me at one time for his technique. I don’t think the clothes are modern but the technique is.” In New York, it was said that Mr Miyake took English classes at Columbia University, but it did not seem he intended to stay. In less than a year he was back in Tokyo.

In 1970, Miyake Design Studio was established upon the designer’s return. A year later, he was back in New York to stage his first overseas fashion show. The collection featured “body tights” in skin-coloured stretch fabrics on which images of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin—following their tragic deaths—were employed just like Japanese tattoos, only more vivid and, as was the graphic style of the time, pop. In 1973, he showed his first collection at Paris Fashion Week, and since then, the brand has not departed the Paris calendar (2023 would be its 50th year showing in Paris). While Mr Miyake was often placed together with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto as one of “The Big Three” to rock the French establishment in 1981 with their radical looks, which, ironically (even cruelly) was described as “Hiroshima chic”, among other names, he did debut earlier—eight years earlier, which made him the veritable veteran of the trio—and he did not show anything with holes. Ms Kawakubo’s and Mr Yamamoto’s overnight success probably bolstered Mr Miyake’s standing. Finally, the Japanese designers had arrived.

Poster for the Tokyo leg of the exhibition Issey Miyake Spectacle: Bodyworks. Photo: Miyake Design Studio

With The Plastic Body—his famous bustier made of fibreglass—at the Issey Miyake Spectacle: Bodyworks at the Laforet Museum Iikura, Tokyo in 1983. Photo: club21global.com

Three years after Mr Miyake’s Paris debut, in what can now be seen as a far-sighted idea, he staged an off-season show in Tokyo titled “Issey Miyake and Twelve Black Girls in Tokyo”, which trained the spotlight on Black models, including Grace Jones and Toukie Smith (sister of the designer Willi Smith of the ’80s label Williwear). It is tempting to say that the designer’s sojourn in New York in 1969 exposed him to the beauty and potential of Black models, just as American sportswear might have influenced him into wanting his clothes to be totally wearable and to reach many people, not just fashion folks. But while his designs were practical and practicable no matter how out-there they sometimes were, the clothes were not at all in the same league as Uniqlo’s Lifewear. Every design was a confluence of tradition and technology, with Mr Miyake equally interested in looms and software, in wefts and bytes. His famous Pleats Please line, born in 1993 that saw the garment (or object) pleated after they were cut and sewn, rather than before, as was the conventional practice (hence the patented “garment pleating”, a concept much copied), is testament to his willingness to see the tried-and-tested given a technological spin. Much of Mr Miyake’s pioneering and groundbreaking work will probably be covered by the press in the coming days.

Although he was unable to follow his love of dance professionally, Mr Miyake was able to support the art by designing costumes for ballets (and other dances), such as William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet company in 1991. But the idea of fashion as performance-display-entertainment truly came in the form of the numerous exhibitions throughout the world that dramatically showcased his work. Bodyworks in 1983 is still considered the most unforgettable; it featured Mr Miyake’s most indentifiable construction The Plastic Body and the curvilineal armour made of bamboo, as an exploration of hard materials that could be made to be worn on a body, and in doing so, examine the space between the garment and the body. The result of the rattan bodice was so radical, but so beautiful in its form as well as its nod to traditional basketry that the magazine Artforum featured it on the cover of its February 1982 issue, making it the first-ever garment to appear. His reputation as an artist was slowly consolidated. But in 1994 and 1999, Mr Miyake relinquished the design of the men’s and women’s lines respectively to his assistant Naoki Takizawa (who in 2014 joined Uniqlo), in order to do research and explore new concepts—even at retail level—full-time.

With models for the Pleats Please launch show in Paris, 1993. Photo: AP

The designs of Issey Miyake were brought to our shores in the ’70s. Although the brand is presently linked to Club 21, with a freestanding boutique at The Shopping Gallery in the new Voco Orchard, it was the store of the ’80s and ’90s, Man and his Woman, that introduced it here. In the early ’70s proprietress and former journalist Judith Chung bought the line not long after Mr Miyake’s Paris debut for her first store at the now largely-forgotten Specialists’ Shopping Centre (where Orchard Gateway now stands). Ms Chung was an arden supporter of not just the trending European designers of the day, but also the those of the burgeoning Japanese avant-garde. She was no stranger to Japanese designers, having earlier stocked Kenzo Takada’s Jungle Jap. But in Issey Miyake, with whom she would form a firm friendship, she saw a talent that was special. And in time, not only did she carry the men’s (which was launched in 1978), she opened the brand’s stand-alone store in 1984—the first in Asia outside Japan—at The Promenade, where Man and his Woman moved to after Specialists’ Shopping Centre, in 1982. The Promenade was demolished in 2003 for the extension of the Paragon. In 1993, when Ms Chung closed Man and his Woman for good, the retail and distributorship of Issey Miyake went to Club 21.

An ex-staffer at the Issey Miyake store in The Promenade, who was later also a fashion stylist, shared on Instagram (we quote verbatim), “It was such a great learning experience to see , touch n sell all those collections . And Thanks to Judith I had the experienced to do buying , visited his Studios n meeting Mr Miyake himself in Tokyo. I learned so much !” One former designer told us that the Issey Miyake fibreglass bustier, The Plastic Body, was unforgettable: “First saw it in a magazine and was always sketching it in my text book while in class! When I finally saw it at Man and his Woman, I almost cried. It taught me that fashion could be art.” Another designer, now based in New York, said, “When Man and his Woman had a store in Specialists’ Shopping Center, a friend and I used to go there and try all the clothes! Back then, it was outré… but now…? That’s why he was so ahead of his time.” A former editor, who said that the designs made him rethink “how clothes could flow around the body”, told us, “people these days often talk about ‘newness’, a requisite that is stress to designers and retailers. Back then, Issey Miyake was newness, totally. And every season too.”

Illustration (top): Just So

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