This past April, at the annual black tie award gala thrown by the Design Museum London, Issey Miyake and his design team, the Reality Lab, won the fashion world’s equivalent of the Academy Award, beating some stiff competition in the process – most notably, Alexander McQueen’s custom wedding dress made for the Duchess of Cambridge. 132 5, the collection for which he won the award, presents clothes that fold origami-like into two-dimensional shapes and are made of recycled plastic bottles. In January, the same museum will feature the designs of 132 5 in its Collection Exhibition in a section devoted to reexamining the use of plastics in contemporary life.

These recent developments bring to mind a comment Mr. Miyake made in 1982, early in his career: “In the future, designers will work in groups and make clothing that is like a very good plastic cup.”

Today, the comment seems like a no-brainer. Mr. Miyake heads up the Japan-based global empire Issey Miyake Inc., which encompasses a network of design teams. No longer the head designer of his signature line Issey Miyake (he resigned in the late 1990s), he is, perhaps, in service to the preeminence of the team, and is very rarely seen (his press team accepted his award at the Design Museum). He makes clothing from technologically innovative materials like plastic – the threads for 132 5 are spun from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), to be exact. And, like a “very good plastic cup,” the underlying philosophy of 132 5 is functionality and durability of design, its keywords being “recycling” and “regeneration.”

While his comment turns out to be as prescient today as it was thirty years ago, Miyake has taken it one step further and folded his own identity into that of his team, proving that the work, not his ego, is paramount.


Issey Miyake was born in Hiroshima a few years before the outbreak of World War Two. On August 6, 1945, at the age of seven, he witnessed the explosions of nuclear bombs while riding home on a bicycle. Miyake lost most of his family in the months that followed and, later, his mother, who was severely burned but continued working as a schoolteacher for four years afterward.

At the age of 26, after getting his degree in graphic design from the prestigious Tama Art University in Tokyo, Mr. Miyake left for Paris where, in 1965, he apprenticed with Hubert de Givenchy and Guy Laroche. He then did a stint with Geoffrey Beene in New York before returning to Japan where, in 1970, he started up Issey Miyake Design Studio. Although he continued to show his collections in Paris, be believed that the elitist attitude of Parisian fashion was wrong for the modern woman, and he set out to make garments that would be as pervasive and essential as blue jeans – or, perhaps, a plastic cup.

Mr. Miyake was known from the start for his particular interest in bringing technological innovation to his clothes. In the 1970s, believing he had nothing to add to Western traditions, he began mining Japanese textile traditions like dyeing and weaving (which were on the verge of fading out) and pairing them with novel synthetic technologies. By the mid-1970s he had already begun his design experiments, such as wrapping women in single pieces of cloth – an approach that can still be seen in his work with 132 5 today. By 1980 he moved beyond cloth, covering the body with such materials as paper, wire and molded motorcycle plastic.


Excitement over Mr. Miyake’s designs reached a heady pitch in the early 1980s, when he and the Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto led a so-called “fashion revolution.” It was a turning point in global fashion that saw sharp, dramatic silhouettes marching down runways in minimal color palettes and a fusion of Eastern textile traditions with new technology that reflected a modern approach. In contrast to the sexy clothes and plumes of silk that were prevalent on the catwalks of Paris at the time, Mr. Miyake’s explorations into exotic and synthetic fabrics and his departure from trends were felt beyond the fashion world. Citing his success at capturing a moment in time when radical innovations were seen across a variety of visual media, Ingrid Sischy, the then-editor of Artforum, famously put a model in one of Mr. Miyake’s designs – a dress with a cage-like bustier of bamboo and rattan – on the cover of the magazine’s February 1982 issue. It was the first time clothes were featured on the cover of the vaunted art world journal, at a time when fashion and art still operated in distinct spheres. The implied suggestion that a mere garment could be considered art caused an outcry and cemented the designer’s place in cultural history. In 1983, in what seemed an apogee of his wave of fame, Mr. Miyake published the Bodyworks catalog, which had celebrities donning his clothes and singing his praises.

“What looks initially like a bodice,” said Ingrid Sischy in a 1982 interview noting the universality and appeal of Mr. Miyake’s designs, “could just as easily be a shield. What looks like a puff sleeve could be the wing for a Space Invader. What looks initially like a frum and a frill on a skirt could just as easily be a pioneer woman’s skirt.”

Consequent to the international attention his designs were garnering, Mr. Miyake’s film-star good looks could be seen on the pages of Vogue, Newsweek and The New York Times. In Japan he was a national hero, making cameos in commercials – such as the 1979 spot for Suntory Whisky, in which a moodily-lit Miyake lurks in a doorway eyeing a group of dancing women in flowing clothes as he sips from a glass of the spirits.

But, as the fashion revolution waned, Mr. Miyake showed up in fewer popular newsweeklies, devoting more of his time to research, product development, and the cultivation of his growing team of protégés at Issey Miyake Inc. Though he continued to innovate with such lines as Pleats Please and A-POC (an acronym for “a piece of cloth”), by 1999 he handed over the design reigns to his head designer, Naoki Takizawa, and retreated further from the spotlight. In an age where designers often take star turns (see Marc Jacobs posing nude in the campaign for his fragrance Bang) or have the details of their personal lives recounted in the dailies (see Karl Lagerfeld’s weight loss), his reticence is all the more noteworthy.


A clue to Mr. Miyake’s selfless approach to his work might be found in a now-legendary exchange between the designer and the photographer Irving Penn. When Penn conveyed an interest in collaborating with Mr. Miyake, the fashion designer sent him 300 pieces of clothing, along with his favorite model and a message: “Please now forget me. My work is already finished.”

Whatever you make of this Zen koan-like message, that was the mid-eighties – Mr. Miyake’s work was hardly over then and is less so now. For starters, his company has expanded tremendously. By the close of the 1970s, after its first decade of operation, Issey Miyake Inc. had just two lines: ISSEY MIYAKE and ISSEY MIYAKE MEN. Today, the company has numerous brands under the Issey Miyake hub: Pleats Please ISSEY MIYAKE, Bao Bao ISSEY MIYAKE, HaaT, me ISSEY MIYAKE / CAULIFLOWER and, his latest, 132 5. ISSEY MIYAKE. He also has a line of bags (Hikaru Matsumura The Unique-Bag), watches and perfumes, and a line of lamps (IN-EI) designed in collaboration with Artemide. The company also has subsidiaries IN Europe, the United States and the U.K., and a number of shops in Paris, New York, Tokyo and London. In 2007 he opened 21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo’s first museum devoted exclusively to design.

Mr. Miyake – or, Issey-san, as he is referred to among his peers and colleagues – is known for being tremendously supportive and nurturing of the talent on his team, and for encouraging his apprentices and lead designers to break out on their own and develop their own lines. His long-time textile director, Makiko Minagawa, is now the creative director of her own line, called HaaT, under the Issey Miyake umbrella. Likewise, Naoki Takizawa was given control of the fashion line in 1999. Dai Fujiwara collaborated with Mr. Miyake on the line A-POC in 1997, and in 2006 became the creative director of Miyake Design Studio. In 2011, Mr. Fujiwara resigned from the company and went out on his own.


On a recent trip to Issey Miyake Design Studio’s flagship, ISSEY MIYAKE Tribeca, the store was alive with activity. A young woman was splashing the windows with colorful paint. “I’m having a Pollock moment,” she told another staffer. Around the store, clothes racks – all of which are designed with casters to impart a sense of movement – displayed the colorful clothing from Issey Miyake Inc.’s various lines including HaaT, Bao Bao and, his most recent line, 132 5. At the center of the store is The Tornado, a colossal titanium structure designed by Frank Gehry that originates in the cellar of the building and extends up through the main floor where it unfolds into wide, rippling waves. Mr. Miyake was attracted to the idea of the tornado not for its destructive effects, but for its evocation of movement and evolution.
A woman walked nearby wearing one of the dresses from the 132 5 line which had a profusion of angles below the waistline, like a three-dimensional work of Cubism. It had the visual effect of ruffles, but there were no seams. The entire dress was made from one piece of fabric. A subsequent visit to the Fashion and Technology show at FIT made it clear that Mr. Miyake’s legacy is more relevant than ever.

The show at FIT displayed fashions from the late 19th century to the present that applied technological innovations to textiles and designs, such as synthetic materials used to make a drip-dry suit in the 1950s, or the use of a computer program and a 3-D printer to make a dress from nylon powder. Miyake’s touch seemed everywhere – from Sarka Siskova’s yellow pleated dress that was meant to evoke the dynamism of a New York taxi, to Hussein Chalayan’s futuristic Airmail dress (1999) made from Tyvek, which could be folded up into an envelope and sent through the mail.

Even his shapes are back on the runways. His exacting lines and his minimalist palette were recently seen on high fashion runways such as that of Alexander Wang’s Pre-Fall 2013 exhibition, which showed sleek column-like dresses, boxy jackets, baggy sport pants, and a somber color palette of black, grey and white. Young designers are also jumping on the bandwagon, citing Mr. Miyake as inspiration – like Alexandra Groover, whose black, cape-like, roomy tops and sharply cut dresses owe homage to Issey.

Fashion journalist Tim Blanks welcomed the sights of a trove of vintage Issey Miyake menswear brought to light by London fashion retailer LN-CC. “The pieces evoke the era as succinctly as any one of Gaultier’s Soviet sheath dresses,” wrote Mr. Blanks. “And they remind you in a moment that Issey is ripe for revisiting, and not just because the Miyake collections for both men and women are so consistently stocked with desirable clothes or because the shows that present those clothes to the world in Paris are so consistently imaginative, inspiring, and downright charming.”

Issey Miyake continues to remain relevant.  His designs always seem to hew to the same basic tenets of movement, wearability, and the relationship between cloth and the body. Mr. Miyake’s egoless, humanistic view feels right for the time. While the use of synthetic materials in 1980 heralded a reach for something new, today, with the use of recycled materials, the designs of the Miyake Design Studio reveal an awareness and humility that run counter to the irreverence and fast-paced trends of the fashion world.

“We need to be aware that we are at a crossroads in human history, where our natural and human resources are at risk,” said Mr. Miyake in a statement made at the presentation of 132 5. “Our goals must be to find new environmentally friendly ways by which to continue the art of creation, to utilize our valuable human skills and to make things that will bring joy.”


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