Earlier this week, the world learned of the loss of Issey Miyake—the “designer’s designer,” “master of pleats,” and advocate of “clothes for living”—at the age of 84. In accordance with Miyake’s wishes, no public service will be held. It’s a quiet end for a maverick whose innovations were decades ahead of their time and whose body of work demonstrates how craft, technology, borderless thinking, and experimentation can advance the frontier of design.
Emulating the movement and fluidity of the human body, Miyake’s designs subverted the dimensions and materials traditionally associated with fashion. His work transcended not only proportion and form, but also gender, size, and age. From Steve Jobs’s sartorial black turtleneck and Zaha Hadid’s wildly dimensional outerwear to Sony factory workers’ uniforms in Japan, Miyake designs became ubiquitous among innovators and creators of all stripes. As design editor Diana Budds has commented, “There’s a stereotype that the design world’s uniform is anything black. But more aspirationally, it’s anything Issey Miyake.”
Miyake, who was born in Hiroshima in 1938 and survived its atomic bombing seven years later, was educated in graphic design at the Tama Art University. Miyake fell in love with design in part through his exposure to Isamu Noguchi’s two bridges in the Hiroshima city center—a memorial of Hiroshima victims—which he called the “spiritual support of the people.” He went on to study dressmaking in Paris in 1965 and founded the Miyake Design Studio shortly thereafter in 1970. Miyake’s marriage of traditional Japanese handcraft and technological experimentation allowed him to defy the restraints of two-dimensional clothing and imbue architectural concepts into his work. As his designs became internationally recognized, Miyake published his seminal book East Meets West in 1978 and became the first Asian designer to show at Paris Fashion Week.
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His trailblazing career crescendoed in the ’80s, when he pioneered and patented the micro-pleated textile for which he is most recognized today. Made from ultrathin polyester, the fabric featured waterfalls of crisp, accordion-like pleats that echoed the comfort of loungewear and maintained their shape after washing, drying, and crumpling. As the style rose to critical acclaim, Miyake launched his Pleats Please collection in 1993 (and later, in 2013, the masculine counterpart Homme Plissé), which, to this day, is the brand’s most successful enterprise. Pleats Please clothes have no closures, delineated forms, or low-cut necklines, as the free-flowing textile seeks to liberate the human body from inhibition.
In 1983, Miyake displayed an array of his textile innovations—including unorthodox materials such as rattan and reinforced plastic—in his seminal exhibit “Issey Miyake: Body Works” in Tokyo. It was one of the first exhibits in Asia that showed fashion as an art form, and his clothing continued to challenge the constraints of fashion by penetrating the world of science and design. For instance, in 1998, he founded A Piece of Cloth (A-POC), a line of garments machine-knitted from a single thread. The fabric had various lines of demarcation; upon snipping, it could produce a dress, a hat—any garment conceivable—as well as a cover for Ron Arad’s looping figure-eight Ripple Chair. Known as “A-POC Trampoline,” the collaboration was exhibited at Milan’s annual Salone del Mobile design conference in 2006.
As Miyake’s fashion brand continued to penetrate the design space, he opened the doors for young designers: In 1974, for instance, Miyake commissioned then-emerging talent Shiro Kuramata for the brand’s first retail location in Tokyo, later hiring him to create the bottle for his perfume. Starchitect David Chipperfield also caught the eye of Miyake early on: In 1985, the British architect was hired to devise Miyake’s London boutique. As Chipperfield wrote in his Instagram post commemorating Miyake, “Designing his shop on Sloane Street marked the beginning of my career. For three years afterwards, I traveled around Japan designing a series of little shops for him. It was a fundamental, formative part of my design experience.”
Though the fashion titan is most renowned for his fashion brand, Miyake married science and sculpture in his work, and his technology-driven textiles and iconoclastic styles will have a lasting impact on the design world. Miyake was more than a fashion designer—he was an architect, an engineer, and a humanitarian whose milestones redefined the possibilities of materiality and form.