Designate Issey Miyake died at 84, leaving an indelible mark on the fashion world. He was famous for his clothes that responded to the moving body and were conceptual in design but also quite appropriate for everyday life. Her clothes were often based on simple geometric shapes made in finely pleated fabrics that gave rise to new and unexpected silhouettes.

Miyake stood out from the fashion crowd in several ways. For a global audience, it was poignant and meaningful to see a non-Western designer not only establish his own internationally successful multicultural fashion business, but also offer fashion beyond body shape, fabric styles and established and conventional imagery.

The next generation of fashion designers have much to learn from Miyake’s work, from his innovative reinvention of Japanese clothing traditions to his bravery in embracing new textile technologies and silhouettes. Perhaps most relevant to modern audiences was his inclusive vision, his goal of “designing for as many people as possible”. He demonstrated this not only through the design and cut of his clothes, but also in the models he chose to include in his shows and campaigns. Miyake has always ensured that “the greatest number” meant including models from underrepresented backgrounds.

An egalitarian vision

Born in Hiroshima, Japan in 1938, Miyake was seven years old when his hometown was destroyed by the atomic bomb that marked the end of World War II in Asia. He suffered a serious leg injury and lost his mother to radiation sickness shortly afterwards, events which inspired him to “think about things that can be created, not destroyed”.

Miyake then studied graphic design at Tama Art University in Tokyo before attending the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in Paris in 1965. He witnessed the revolution May 1968 demonstrations in Paris, a series of student and worker protests that resulted in improved workers’ rights and rapid social change. This led Miyake to question the status quo and inspired him to think more egalitarian and radical about fashion design.

Issey Miyake in Paris, 1980 [Photo: Daniel Simon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images]

In 1970, he founded the Miyake Design Studio. His first range was based on the concept he called “A Piece of Cloth”, which was a way of designing with the two-dimensional quality of fabric and minimizing waste. While working on the Expo ’70 world’s fair in Osaka, he designed a range of modular garments that could be assembled into a variety of outfits chosen by the wearer, aptly called “buildable fashion”.

Miyake was fascinated by the interaction between clothing and the body, exploring what fashion could be. This is evident in his many innovations, especially in the way he blended his Japanese heritage with his European and North American experiences. He developed his vision of contemporary fashion, combining the comfort of Western styles with the textiles and silhouettes of the Orient, exploring Japanese gangster tattoos as textile designs, sashiko quilt for the coats and geometric shapes inspired by the kimono for the handkerchief dresses.

Break with convention

Alongside designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, her work was part of a wave of Japanese designers who established the relevance of a fashion perspective outside mainstream Euro-American fashion narratives. When I studied the history of fashion in the 2000s, it was as if it only existed in London, Paris, Milan and New York, but this “new wave” of Japanese designers paved the way for other international creators.

Throughout the 1980s, Miyake continued to experiment, exhibiting his work in museums and galleries. He further explores materials, for example: molded breastplates, bamboo and rattan bodices that begin to look like sculptures, while still using fashion as a tool for studying the body. In 1981, he created Plantation, a pioneering gender-neutral range, designed to be worn by all ages and body types in an easy-care natural fabric. The collection was relaunched and renamed Issey Miyake Permanente in 1985.

His Pleats Please brand was established in 1988, a line of clothing made from a new pleating technology he developed for pleated fabric. Pleats provide a functional benefit as they create stretch in a garment, allowing for versatile sizing. It was another playful development in Miyake’s boundary disruption.

[Photos: Andrew Toth/Getty Images]

In 1999, he presented the A-POC range, a return to his original A Piece of Cloth concept. The range featured long tubes of knitted fabric which can be cut by the wearer to the desired length, an approach aimed at minimizing waste. These simple styles have become iconic and are worn by men and women of all ages, representing a perfect manifestation of Miyake’s vision for clothing that offers the best of “east meets west”. They exist as something unique, but provide everyday functionality.

Miyake also brought this spirit of experimentation and pushing boundaries to his shows. This was best exemplified in his radical show, Issey Miyake and Twelve Black Girls, which took place at Tokyo’s Seibu Theater and Osaka Municipal Gymnasium. Lasting over a month, the show put 12 black models, including Grace Jones, front and center in a way that had never been done before.

In her autobiography, Jones highlighted the value of Miyake’s support when she was a young model in Paris. This episode is representative of her forward-thinking attitude and inclusive mindset at a time when it was unusual to showcase designs exclusively on color models.

Whether he’s reinventing garment shapes, using technology to pleat innovative fabrics, reducing fabric waste, or designing gender-neutral pieces, his vision has always been modern and wearable every day. Issey Miyake was a true pioneer, and his pioneering vision will be sorely missed.

Noorin Khamisani is a lecturer in fashion and textile design at University of Portsmouth.

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