Issey Miyake invites us to see his material world


Special To The Japan Times

Issey Miyake, designer of some of the world’s most distinctive clothing and international symbol of modern Japanese craftsmanship, received France’s Legion of Honor on Tuesday at the opening of a major exhibition of his work at The National Art Center, Tokyo.

He received the award from Jack Lang, France’s culture minister for much of the 1980s and ’90s, the time when Miyake’s innovative ideas perhaps had their greatest impact on clothing design. The 77-year-old designer was gracious, and he assured the hundreds of visitors who had gathered to get a first glimpse of “Miyake Issey Exhibition: The Work of Miyake Issey” that he would continue to work on new ways to explore the “basic human need for beauty.”

After an affectionate speech by Lang, in which he passed on a message from President Francois Hollande that Miyake is venerated in France for his vast and extraordinary body of work, the designer, who has made Paris one of his main bases of operation since the ’70s, briefly expressed his gratitude in a gentle voice that was, at times, barely audible in the expansive main forum of the National Art Center.

Miyake has often referred to his experience of the energy and radicalism of Paris in May 1968 as one of the key motivating factors in his design philosophy, citing freedom, egalitarianism and democracy as guiding principles in his own projects, which often emphasize simplicity, comfort and play. He rejects the idea of so-called high fashion, separate from the practice of daily life, and has been keen to promote the idea that his clothes are inclusive; crossing class, gender and ethnic boundaries.

In reality, the clothes and design objects that come from the Miyake studio — including bags, furnishings, perfume, watches and other accessories — are mostly priced beyond the reach of casual shoppers, and their design often too radical for everyday wear. In this sense it was perhaps appropriate that it be Lang, who critics see as a poster boy for the term “gauche caviar” (roughly equivalent to the English term “Champagne socialist”), who bestowed the rank of commander of the Legion of Honor on Miyake; a system devised by Napoleon Bonaparte to reward merit and service irrespective of class and the traditional hierarchies of pre-revolutionary France.

Miyake’s clothes may not have been embraced by socio-economic groups beyond the well-heeled and design savvy, but it should be said that a piece of Miyake clothing may well outlast a cheaper item several times over, making them, in the long run, better value and more environmentally friendly. The initial cost being what it is, though, many people may only have been exposed to his design ethos when it has been pastiched in science fiction such as Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner.” At that time, American-style heavy industry and manufacturing was seen as growing weak in the face of superior Japanese products. The people of the future were often envisioned as dressing in a mixture of kimono-based gowns or asymmetric angular constructions that clearly referenced Miyake’s work; a roundabout testament to his being way ahead of the curve.

In fact the organizers of the exhibition, in no uncertain terms, put a ban on media referring to the exhibition as a “retrospective.”

“That implies looking back and Issey Miyake is always looking to the future,” his PR team told the press. To their credit, while Miyake can be considered as a central figure who helped define the zeitgeist of the ’80s and ’90s, his work is no less futuristic, startling and fresh when seen today.

Since Irving Penn first photographed Miyake’s creations against a white background for Vogue magazine in 1983, emphasizing their qualities both as sculptured forms and graphic shapes, the designer’s clothes have played a critical role in challenging the distinction between art and design. The “Miyake Issey Exhibition” shows this off to great effect and it is delightful and thrilling to see the variety of experiments that the Miyake studio has performed in the quest of introducing a layer between the human body and the elements without any prejudice with respect to material, technology, color or shape. There are rough, primitive-looking coverings made of materials like raffia and horsehair, but also sleek brightly colored bodices molded from fiber-reinforced plastic. As Miyake’s Pleats Please! designs are practically de rigueur for art professionals, do not be surprised if one of the intricately creased dresses or suits suddenly walks off while you are looking at it.

Miyake is such an outstanding force in fashion and design, it was fairly inevitable that on the occasion of this unprecedented exhibition of his work in Japan, and the official recognition of his achievements by the French government, there would be some nationalistic attempt to frame his creativity in terms of Japan vs. the West. This came in the form of an introductory remark by a luminary of the National Art Center who said that he feels Western clothes wear him, but Miyake’s “Japanese-inspired” designs feel more natural and comfortable. Following this, Miyake himself said that he wasn’t interested in national histories, traditions or categories. As a genuine and original innovator, this seemed entirely fitting.

Miyake Issey Exhibition: The Work of Miyake Issey” runs through June 13 at The National Art Center, Tokyo. For more information, visit