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How Issey Miyake brought art into fashion

11 August 2022

In 1998, Issey Miyake’s team reverently laid white, tightly pleated garments in a long serpentine across the floor of the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The clothes were weighed down with rocks, and a long fuse was arranged across them. On each garment, artist Cai Guo-Qiang positioned cardboard roughly shaped like a Chinese dragon in flight, along which he shook a length of gunpowder. The fire, when it came, zipped through the room in seconds, with a series of explosions that scorched and charred the clothes. Reimagined as prints, the dragon-shaped burns became the basis of Miyake’s collection that season.

Miyake, who died this week aged 84, designed garments beloved by the art world. Showing in Paris in the 1980s alongside younger contemporaries Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, he offered working women an alternative to the stiff power suits and the body-conscious glamour of the era. Instead of following the contours of the body, Miyake valued ma – space between – creating silhouettes that held their shape proud of the wearer. He designed clothes to be worn by all bodies and all ages, favoured by gallerists, curators, architects (Zaha Hadid was a devotee) and others who appreciated their androgynous elegance and ease.

Born in Hiroshima in 1938, Miyake was a child survivor of the atomic bombing of 1945. As a teenager he witnessed the construction of Isamu Noguchi’s Peace Bridges: functional objects with sculptural form. Their spirit inspired Miyake to design striking garments that allowed free movement of the body, often made possible through experimental fabric technology. In the early 1980s, he also constructed stiff, armour-like silhouettes dubbed ‘Body Works’, using materials such as rattan, paper and wire. One look made the cover of Artforum – a first for the magazine, which paid tribute to his avant-garde sensibility. The series was later exhibited in Tokyo, London and the US.

Models display Pleats please creations as part of Issey Miyake Spring-Summer 1995 ready-to-wear collection in Paris, 1994. Photo: Yoshikazu TSUNO/AFP via Getty Images

For his ‘Permanente’ line in 1985, Miyake commissioned portraits of creative women. Shot by Lord Snowdon, the models included writer Marina Warner, designer Charlotte Perriand, and artists Elizabeth Frink and Liliane Lijn. For Miyake, the most exciting inclusion was ceramic artist Lucy Rie, then in her eighties, and so tiny she required a custom outfit. It was the start of an important friendship. In 1989, Miyake designed a collection around stoneware buttons Rie had fabricated as a commercial sideline during the Second World War, and staged the exhibition ‘Issey Miyake Meets Lucie Rie’ in Tokyo and Osaka.

He offered photographers full creative freedom: over 10 years working with Irving Penn, Miyake reportedly never visited the studio during a shoot. The demands of other art forms brought stimulating challenges. A costume commission for William Forsythe’s ballet The Loss of Small Detail in 1991 precipitated Miyake’s experiments with shape memory pleating. Garments were accordion pleated with thin paper and treated with a heat press to create springy textile forms that expanded to accommodate the moving body. Such was the origin of Miyake’s most recognisable line, Pleats Please. The explosive collaboration with Cai Guo-Qiang in 1998 concluded the Pleats Please ‘Guest Artists’ series, for which Miyake also worked with Nobuyoshi Araki, Yasumasa Morimura and Tim Hawkinson.

More than  three decades after she modelled for Miyake, Liliane Lijn still wears the outfit he gifted her after the shoot. She felt ‘comfortable and at the same time very elegant and beautiful’ in his clothes, but also appreciated the humanism that informed their design. His clothes were ‘not necessarily feminine, and I liked that – they didn’t subscribe to the conventional notions of what a woman should look like,’ Lijn recalled when I interviewed her in 2016. ‘That’s a very important issue, what the body is made to look like – women want to grow up just as men want to grow up, they don’t want to be little girls.’