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Living: The Man Who’s Changing Clothes

19 minute read
Jay Cocks

A general introduction, courtesy Issey Miyake: “I make clothes.” A gentle caution: “We must not be too logical.” And an all-purpose question: “How do you think it?”

“Issey,” asks a friend, standing in a bustling hotel lobby, “how do I work this?” The friend is flapping about in the enveloping intricacies of a new raincoat. “I made it like this,” says the designer, improvising a fitting at the front desk. He unbuttons a half-cape that spans the sleeves and puts the loose ends around his friend’s neck. “Like a scarf, you see?”

“But what about this?” says a companion, trashing logic and pulling the cape over the friend’s head, buttoning it under the neck to make a watertight hood. The designer looks; his head tilts. “How do you think it?” his friend teases.

Miyake’s face creases into the sort of smile that should come in a gift box. “Great!” he says, grabbing his companion in a tight hug, as if some souvenir sphinx had suddenly surrendered a secret. To all the patrons in the hotel lobby, it looks as if old friends were reuniting at the end of a long trip; in fact, any voyage with Issey Miyake is ongoing. “Next time I make like that, and you do something different again,” he laughs. “Always fresh, always different, always challenge. That way is best, I think. Want to eat?”

In a minute, maybe. Meanwhile, it is worth pointing out that some strenuous modification of that lobby styling session has produced, over the past 15 < years, some of the best clothes there are, some of the most adventurous anyone has ever done. These are clothes that defy convention by flowing all around it, like so many pieces of whole cloth finding fresh form in the controlled accident of the fall, making the body under them feel as loose and free as the fabric. He has even experimented with molding the body underneath. Other designers working the same territory might just market a line of underwear. Not Miyake. He designs bustiers for intrepid evening wear out of motorcycle- helmet plastic and mounts a museum project called “Bodyworks,” which has appeared in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco and at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Miyake’s clothes, declarations of independence for the body, do not look at all out of place on exhibit in museums. Yvonne Deslandres, curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, casts traditional French fashion jingoism aside and calls Miyake “the greatest creator of clothing of our time.” His designs challenge so many traditional expectations and break so many rules that they need different sets of standards to be understood or even worn. “I know many people resist or reject my clothing, because it’s not a package that’s already formed, like European clothing,” the designer will concede. “Without the wearer’s ingenuity, my clothing isn’t clothing. These are clothes where room is left for wearers to make things their own. That may need courage at first, but once you get the trick, it’s not difficult.”

The trick, most often, is simplicity. What may be difficult is the attitude that the clothes need, and indeed can instill, once they are on the body, making with every movement of the arm or arch of the hip shapes full of gentle, sensual surprise. Miyake clothes on women are a revelation. On men, they are a relief. If most conventional clothing is, as the designer says, “a package,” then wearing Miyake feels like being unwrapped at Christmas.

The lines of the garments, the tones of the fabrics, the unstructured and unstrictured social attitudes implicit in both the making and the wearing of Miyake clothes are, altogether, something rather more than an alternative form of dressing. They are Japanese in origin, Western in spirit and, finally, universal not just in their impact but in the ravishing new images of the body they propose. These clothes taunt trend and defy style; they are not “fashion,” except in its broadest generic definition. They are objects made by a designer who has the true spirit of an artist.

Robert Rauschenberg refers to Miyake easily as “an international artist, the most influential artist in Japan. He’s supporting the whole of the artistic community.” Miles Davis likes to remark that Miyake “designs the way I think about music,” and, pressed a little on the subject, comes up with some elegant riffs about Miyake’s work. “He has balance, composition; he’s incredible with fabric. He is an artist, yes, more than a fashion designer. I’d like to buy all of his stuff and put it on the wall, to look at when I get depressed.” Even among his designer peers, Miyake pulls top points. Giorgio Armani says flat out that “Miyake is a genius. In image, in approach, he goes beyond fashion.”

Commerce, however, does not go begging. Miyake’s designs for his men’s and women’s collections and for a couple of spin-off lines like the lively, lower- priced Plantation, as well as royalties from assorted licensees supervised by him, pull in upwards of $50 million yearly to the Miyake offices in Tokyo. Stateside his clothes are available in 15 specialty and department stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman-Marcus, and in many of the more adventurous boutiques. Manageably pricey in Japan, where most of them are made, the clothes get pretty dear after freight charges, duties and store markups are added for sale in other parts of the world (a fall coat, for example, made of wool and nylon mesh costs $955). Two pieces of advice in passing, then, to the intrepid and well-heeled consumer taking a maiden voyage into Miyake: the clothes, so unconstraining, can be addictive; and the name is pronounced Me-yah-kay. Ee-say Me-yah-kay.

Miyake’s fall line, bursting with a full natural landscape of shades and shifting silhouettes, is moving briskly in the stores. His new spring collection, to be shown publicly for the first time in Paris on Oct. 19 and previewed exclusively here by TIME, is a meteor shower of radiant colors full of playful forms and unexpected but always amenable shapes. The new collection is also a solid demonstration of the amplitude of Miyake’s gifts, of all the discipline, restlessness and romance of his free-ranging creative spirit. Challenge, whether in his native Japanese, his fluent French or his serviceable English, is a favorite word: he uses it as a prod, a goal, a signpost and an explanation. Fashion fits into his vocabulary only as a practicality. “The semantics aren’t important,” he explains. “But in Japanese, we have three words: yofuku, which means Western clothing; wafuku, which means Japanese clothing; and fuku, which means clothing. It can also mean good fortune, a kind of happiness. People ask me what I do. I don’t say yofuku or wafuku. I say I make happiness.”

Miyake, 47, grew up in Hiroshima during the war and emerged with his own brand of optimism, a spirit that is perpetually renewed by being hard pressed, perhaps because all other challenges seem small after survival. “I say problem is opportunity,” he explains. “When we have found a big problem, that is wonderful.” In the case of his work, he realized that “my very disadvantage, my lack of Western heritage, would also be my advantage. I was free of Western tradition or convention. There was no other way for me to go but forward.” The kimono may be “a shape frozen in time,” but Miyake not only took from it a way of cutting and wrapping clothes and a means for construction of a sleeve that did not constrict, he used its central concept of the space between body and cloth as a way to let wearer and garment interact, to make from their respective shapes a whole new form.

Comments his friend Tomoko Komuro, who went into partnership with him to form the Miyake Design Studio (M.D.S.) in 1970: “He was attracted by some kind of excitement that goes beyond the limit of clothing.” Miyake found the limit, then pushed past it. He used plastic, paper, rubber, insisting that “anything can be clothing.” His clothes always seemed to have been sewed together in some sensual time warp entirely of his own devising. They are ancestral and futuristic all at once. They do not go out of style because they have little relation to anything as evanescent as a trend.

Miyake approaches even the humblest bolt of cloth with the sophistication that comes from long practical experience, as well as from a grounding in the inward splendors of the classic Japanese tea ceremony. Two central concepts of tea culture are sabi and wabi. Sabi conveys the dull sheen of posterity, the finish, mystery and allure acquired by an object that has been well worn. Wabi suggests the use of a humble material for a higher purpose. Both qualities abound in Miyake’s best clothes: his coats and dresses cut from one piece of cloth, a man’s sweater that looks as if it could warm a wandering trapper but hangs on the shoulders no more heavily than a strand of loose hair.

Miyake has the strongest kind of signature, emphatic but often elusive, in ( part because he gives his associates a lot of lead. Eiko Ishioka, a gifted art director and one of Miyake’s oldest friends, says that “when he was young, Issey lacked confidence and experience, and he could not control his emotional reactions or talent. His staff did not want to be slaves, they wanted to be equals, so he had to change his character.”

Some substantial modification was required. Miyake’s nickname around the workroom had been “Issey 3 mm.” “I wouldn’t compromise by even that much.” Now he is proud to be called “Issey 1 1/2 cm.” “Once upon a time,” he concedes, “I was not quite so happy to see all these eccentrics around the place. But now the sight of these people makes me happy.” There are occasional heady references at M.D.S. to the Bauhaus and the 17th century Japanese school of painting called Rimpa. “I feel there are some possibilities that we might do something similar. That’s why I’m not quitting yet,” jokes Akira Onozuka, the studio’s design director. “I was always worrying about what he would like and what he would want,” confesses Tomio Mohri, who directs Miyake’s fashion shows and special exhibits like “Bodyworks,” all while supervising the spectacular range of knitwear for which Miyake is rightly renowned. “But then I started to change all that. I told myself, ‘I’m going to do what I want.’ ” “At M.D.S.,” says Miyake, “everybody says what they think.” But he also emphasizes, “If I see something at a fitting and I don’t like it, whatever anyone else says, that’s it.”

This congenial and productive tension between group dynamics and artistic autocracy has a familiar echo. “Design work is not alone work,” he says. Watching him with collaborators, fitters and apprentices, soliciting and sifting through ideas, one is reminded of a film director on the set. Like cinema, design as practiced by Miyake is a collaborative medium that deploys a myriad of talents under a single guiding sensibility.

Working with his close associate Makiko Minagawa, Miyake creates his own fabric from what he calls a “broad image, not necessarily too specific. Something from daily life: leaves, trees, bark, sky, air. Anything. A noodle.” “To know what kind of fabric he is going to want,” Minagawa says, is not merely a matter of “what color the sky was that day, but what kind of dance or architecture he is interested in.” Fabric samples are cut into 1 1/ 2-meter pieces and draped over the designer’s body. “Fabric is like the grain – in wood,” he says. “You can’t go against it. I close my eyes and let the fabric tell me what to do.” If the fabric could be a coat, Miyake wraps it around himself; if it is a potential shirt, the designer puts it over his chest. Then it is draped over a model, and only after that last step are sketches made of what the garment will be. “Clothes,” he explains, “have to be seen on the outside as well as felt on the inside.” If it is something he can wear, Miyake will put the finished sample on and go into his single most characteristic fitting gesture: whirling an arm up, down and around in a quickly widening circle, making sure the garment has plenty of ease. He looks like a relief pitcher winding up to throw a high hard one that will retire the side.

The only thing that confounds him is the expected. He loves old wristwatches and wears them with zest, even though he says, “I don’t like the correct time.” He cannot drive and declines to learn, for the simple reason that “I don’t like anything where, if you turn right, you go right.” He seems perpetually beguiled by byways and the wisdom of the wrong direction. When he makes his yearly round of visits to fabric makers, he will often tell them, “Show me your failures,” because he can get fresh ideas, even inspiration, from them. It takes a very fleet eye to catch a surprise before it is forgotten as a mistake, and Miyake, ready for anything, can see it almost as it starts. Onozuka remembers once doing some larky variations on a woman’s jacket. The garment was ultimately turned inside out and put back on the model. Miyake laughed, said, “This is how it should be,” and left it like that. Says Onozuka: “That jacket sold immediately.”

His personal life holds no such surprises. He is a major cultural celebrity on home turf, but he has not yet become so Westernized that his intimate life is common tender. He has kept company with the same woman for over a decade, which is not nearly so interesting as the fact that many people who know him, and her, know nothing of the relationship. He is abstemious about all matters of autobiography, and it is easy enough to credit his reserve. It may be, as he says, that “the question creative people all ask–What can we do?–changes tomorrow.” For Miyake, every tomorrow is a gift. “I just wanted to do something to feel good,” he says, “to do something better. I grew up in Hiroshima. I thought that was life.”

“I always say that I was far away in the mountains when the bomb was ( dropped, but in fact I was not,” says Miyake, who was riding his bicycle to school. “I saw it all with my eyes. I can remember it; I can remember what I did. I remember. But I thought I’d better forget.” That would not be possible. “In my memory, it was terrible because I lost my mother and most of my family. I saw my mother, and half her body was burned. There was no penicillin or anything else. We had no medicine, so we put eggs on her.”

She lived for four more years, teaching flower arrangement, teaching cooking, teaching the samisen. “Even burned, she continued to teach,” her son says. “My father was a professional soldier, so my mother had to learn how to live without him if he were to die. My mother was great. I am very much weaker than she.” Certainly she had always known how to adapt. When Miyake, 2, had nothing to wear to an autumn harvest celebration, she cut up festival flags and made him a suit. She insisted that he always go to school. If he had a fever, she would take him on a bicycle. “She never,” he says, “gave me a chance to escape.”

When he was ten years old, Miyake developed osteomyelitis, a bone-marrow disease. He makes light of it–“the ‘osso buco’ is disappearing,” he will say–but he has been hospitalized twice for treatment, and he endured a seven- month siege of traction. At first, after the war, penicillin was the only available treatment for the condition. “My mother sold our land in the mountains to buy penicillin for me,” he says. “After I had almost recovered, she died.” The bone disease is not bomb related, he explains, but his left leg remains shorter than the right, and he often limps. An old friend says that when he limps, he is in pain. He limps a lot.

All that usually shows on his face is a smile or a look of dreamy, distracted concentration. “I don’t know when it was I got my drive,” he says, “but all the things that happened have been good for me.” He thought he might become a painter, and he went to a special crafts school. At night, he remembers, “I went through drawings of naked femmes.” It was the clothed ones, however, that first seduced him. As a teenager, he recalls stopping his bike in front of a shop window, staring at the French-style mannequins inside, seeing his own reflection mirrored in the glass. He borrowed some books and started to copy French fashion sketches. His first drawing was a Balenciaga. “It was like a spiral,” he says, still seeing it. “A woman with a long neck and bare + arms and her back rounded.”

Being a fashion designer in Japan was, he says, “frightening.” It was not man’s work, and it was not respected. He attended the highly regarded Tama Art University, where he studied graphics, then took off for Paris and New York City, two capitals more hospitable to fashion novitiates. He apprenticed with Hubert de Givenchy and Guy Laroche in Paris and Geoffrey Beene on Seventh Avenue before returning to Tokyo and launching M.D.S. in 1970. Almost immediately his clothes showed up in New York City at Bloomingdale’s and at two of Tokyo’s most prestigious department stores. He staged a fashion show in an indoor parking garage and, as his friend Ishioka puts it, “suddenly his name was famous.” Japanese fashion seemed, all at once, to have found its focus and forward force.

This gave Miyake the confidence to initiate the design experiments that produced some of his greatest work: the cocoon coat, clothing made of a single piece of cloth or layered like segments of a child’s spinning top, a man’s raincoat that looks like a combination of an opera cape and an overturned circus tent. But there were new burdens to contend with. He put superb photos of his best work into East Meets West, a seminal book of contemporary design that appeared in 1978. By then, however, he was also starting to get overworked, overextended and frightened. “I always tried to smile,” he remembers, flashing a typical dazzler. “But after East Meets West, I went to pieces.” He was showing a whole separate collection in Milan, which was punishing; seeing nearly a decade’s worth of work pressed between the covers of one book was daunting and brought him up against a dead end: Now what?

He bailed out of the Italian collection, retrenched and headed off for new territory. He began to bring his clothes into closer conformity with the body, changing the body’s lines without constraining them, playing his frisky games with shape and size on a sharper silhouette. There are still occasional doubts. It has only been in the past few years that after a collection showing in Paris, “I haven’t felt like calling Tokyo and saying, ‘Is the company still there?’ “

There, flourishing, and even expanding a little. Miyake is just about to pull off an exercise in the theoretical physics of fashion by moving ahead as he turns a little backward. He is launching a new line called Permanente, an excavation of his creative past that probably has no precedent in all of fashion. Most designers pack their old work off to some commercial attic; Miyake will turn his attic into a shop that trades evenly between past and present. Anyone who spots a vintage number on a Miyake fan and comes up with the familiar run-on question, “God-that’s-beautiful-where-can-I- get-one?”, can now be directed to Permanente.

Repose is not a part of this picture, of course, and relaxation is mostly a rumor. Holidays usually have some sort of affiliated work benefits–“Sand,” says his colleague Komuro, “can turn into an accessory”–and he likes challenges in his recreation as well as his vocation. On a trip last year to the Kutch desert in the Indian state of Gujarat, his car broke down in the middle of a bridge spanning a salt sea. While friends fought off fantasies of sunstroke, dehydration and death in the wilderness, Miyake gazed at the weird water patterns below him, exclaiming, “This is really special.” The travelers were eventually rescued and transported to a remote village, where they shared a room with a number of nimble rats. Recalls his friend, Museum Curator Kazuko Koike, “Issey snored through it all.”

“I try sometimes to just go rest and not get ideas,” he says stoutly, but, Ishioka insists, “he cannot stay in one place for more than three days.” Figuratively, at least, that is just as well. In May he lived out a long-cherished goal and traveled the southwestern United States by car, and he is now dreaming of further voyages. To Buenos Aires in November; to Tahiti for the new year. “Make me a plan for my trip,” he will ask friends who have covered the same territory. “I’ll go anywhere,” he adds, although there is no mistaking that. “Where there are roads. Where there aren’t any roads.”

His body, animated with anticipation, seems already under way. “Where there aren’t any roads . . . That’s even better.” And just thinking of it, Issey is off. He moves a little, a short stride unbroken just at this moment, and takes a single, sure step in his accustomed direction. Forward.

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