Remembering fashion designer Issey Miyake

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When Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake passed away on August 5 in Tokyo, the fashion community paid tribute to the life of an artist who brought thought and beauty to a world of turmoil and destruction.

In the bookends of his life hides a gripping cultural and political poetry on the state of the world.

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Born in Hiroshima, 7-year-old Miyake saw his city engulfed in an atomic disaster. During his final days battling liver cancer, the haunting August heat sparked rumors of possible nuclear weapons in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Between entering and exiting life in chaotic global conditions, Miyake’s career is defined by challenging notions of war and inhumanity.

Miyake’s early design inspirations stem from his dream of becoming a professional dancer and his sister’s fashion magazines. He completed formal training in graphic design at Tama University in Tokyo while simultaneously submitting applications to Bunka Fashion College.

Although ambitious, Miyake recognized his insufficient sewing and pattern-making skills and sought to improve them in Paris. In the fashion capital of the world, the budding designer entered the Holy Grail of couture at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. His studies were followed by internships in important arteliers and his tutelage under household names such as Guy Laroche, Hubert de Givenchy and Geoffry Beene would later inspire the start of his own label.

His independent business, Miyake Design Studio, opened in 1973 in Tokyo. During the 1980s, Miyake’s collections gained traction in tandem with other Japanese wave designers. This artistic movement included artists like the avant-garde Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

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Many of his brightly colored and patterned creations are often compared to origami shapes. During the production period of his “Pleats Please” collection, he became known as the “King of Pleats”. This title laid the foundation for his recognition as the first recipient of the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for lifetime achievement.

Miyake’s greatest experimentation is in “A Piece of Cloth” technology, a technique where fabric is created from a single thread. These garments – often constructed with a priority for movement and humanity – were developed using early computer-generated prints and industrial knitting initiatives. The fluid nature of fabric movement provided a metaphorical link to freedom in the human condition.

Other notable designer achievements include Steve Jobs’ signature black faux turtleneck and his world’s best-selling fragrance, L’Eau d’Issey. The former consolidated his status as an international connoisseur and his affinity for collaborating with visionaries. The latter popularized ocean scents and encapsulated Miyake’s emphasis on the purpose of nature.

Reviewing her journey in the fashion industry, it is important to note that Miyake’s feelings of being an artistic pariah in Japan and an outsider in the Western sphere gave her the edge to carve out her own models.

Combining the disenchanted feelings of his generation in traditionalist Japan with the freedom-loving people of Western countries, Miyake played a vital role in laying the artistic foundation for the reconstruction of Japan’s modern identity as a pioneer in design and technology. By interweaving an innovative vigor for exploring the deconstruction and construction of the Earth, the designer was able to create a legacy of hope for unification between East and West.

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