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Japan

From Japan, Unpacking Miyake's Pleated Revolution

Hiroshima-born designer Issey Miyake has spent his career creating garments that challenge sizing conventions and are both practical and beautiful. A French reporter ponders his influence.

Miyake, turning the fashion world upside-down
Miyake, turning the fashion world upside-down
Caroline Rousseau

TOKYO — If he had been like everyone else, he might have called his exhibition The World of Issey Miyake. Instead, it's called The Work of Miyake Issey.

In refuting the term "retrospective" — too pretentious, too definitive, too focused on the past — the exhibition highlights not the brand's success, but rather, Miyake's lifetime quest. It's about the work of a man born in Hiroshima in 1938 and who, over the course of 45 years, put his fervent need to never look back, his innovation and his ingenuity at the service of the fashion industry.

On March 15, the day of the inauguration, the hall of Tokyo's National Art Center was densely crowded. An unusual group of people attended this equally unusual event: A few men looked stunning in pleated suits, while women wore Pleats Please tunics, especially those featuring sketches by graphic designer Ikko Tanaka (which were for sale at the end of the exhibit) or carried Bao Bao shopping bags. (One Aoyama boutique has a sign these days noting that no single customer can buy more than three copies of the Bao Bao, or two models in similar colors, because production cannot keep up with demand.)

Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison, Harri Koskinen, Tadao Ando, Ernst Gamperl, Andrew Bolton, and politician Jack Lang — who obtained a special dispensation to attend the event and elevate the visibly moved designer to the Legion of Honor with the rank of Commander — were all present. All had come to see the first major exhibit devoted entirely to Miyake, who is described in the latest edition of the illustrated dictionary Musée de la Mode as "very influential and part of Japan's fashion elite, like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto."

The Francophile designer, who attended the The School of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and later worked for Hubert de Givenchy, is a creator in the true sense of the word, a doer, an inventor, a builder — and that's no easy task when one has chosen to work with raw materials such as cotton and polyester. Lang, a longtime friend of Miyake's, calls him "an architect of purity, a man humble and open to the world, whose immense body of work, at once ancient and futuristic, surprises and moves us. It combines sculpture with movement."

The meaning behind his unique work is palpable at this Roppongi district museum, which was designed by Kisho Kurokawa. The majestic structure in iron and glass has a rippling façade, and its high ceilings and 14,000 square meters of exhibition space led Miyake to think that if he were ever to organize his own exhibition, he would do it here, in this structured and airy shell: Like his clothes, it is wide enough not to constrict, and allows air to circulate.

Beyond taking in the powerful setup of the first two rooms and the hypnotic pleasure, in the third, of seeing the machine that produces a Pleats Please tunic in 15 minutes, visitors will be intrigued by the way this exhibition, which took seven years to install, was developed more to encourage and inspire than to celebrate the designer behind it.

What visitors are really looking for — and can find, if they pay close attention — is the drive that has pushed Miyake for all these years, his energy, vigor and desire to innovate. Those who aren't lucky enough to visit Tokyo can grasp this energy in a beautiful new book published by Taschen.

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Miyake in Tokyo in March 2016 — Photo: Hsinhuei Chiou

"He didn't want to do a retrospective at all, because he hates looking back," says Midori Kitamura, president of Miyake's Design Studio, who has worked with the designer for 40 years. "And in fact, if you follow his gaze, you'll see his back, because he is always moving forward."

Through his research, Miyake made discoveries, both in terms of raw materials and of the final shape of his products. He used materials not typically associated with clothing, like plastics reinforced with fibers, but also washi (an artisanal Japanese paper), horsehair and raffia. He developed an infusion of synthetic resin to create a series of sculpted bustiers in 1980. In what was for him a gratifying game, the designer relied on shrewd calculations — a mix of mathematics and origami — to turn 2D designs into 3D garments. He could create a piece of clothing, or even an entire outfit, with a single swath of fabric. Once an idea took hold, Miyake would allow it to evolve slowly before unleashing it: he enhanced the beauty and texture of fabric, minimized waste and optimized comfort.

Creating a ubiquitous clothing style

Miyake conceived clothing as none before him ever did, by shattering the conventions of Western tailoring: He never cut or shortened a sleeve; instead, he devised a shape that an arm could naturally pass through. And at first, this shape confused viewers: Was it hard or soft? Composed of a single piece of fabric, or several?

"Making thing, making think," Miyake has often said, revealing an understanding of his job that is at odds with the prevailing trends, seasons and classic styles of women's clothing. He never thought about the body in terms of curves or size, but rather in terms of its fundamental need for freedom (of movement). He never ordered women to fit into a size 36 (roughly a U.S. size 4). Instead, Miyake's expertly cut fabrics would adapt to each woman wearing them, giving greater importance to people than to garments — although the designer's clothes, which were often colorful and playful, never failed to attract attention.

A single, worthy goal propelled Miyake's research: to create clothes as ubiquitous as jeans and T-shirts. If Americans were able to make that everyday style mainstream, what might a Japanese person come up with? What could real Japanese "casual wear" look like? The designer found the answer to this question in the pleats that he developed at the start of the 1990s.

He developed a technique and created a new style of beautiful utilitarian clothing, with garments that were original, resistant and practical, because they did not wrinkle, could be easily washed and did not require ironing. A suit jacket from Miyake's Homme Plissé line costs about 320 euros in Japan (double that in France), does not need ironing, is available in black or navy blue, and transitions smoothly from the office to a friend's wedding. It's remarkable, and must still amuse the designer, though he has long since moved on.

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