“Irving Penn and Issey Miyake: Visual Dialogue”

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

21_21 Design Sight
Closes April 8

In 1953, when Irving Penn opened his studio in New York, he famously announced that “photographing cake can be art.” Then already a renowned fashion photographer, Penn went on to prove that photographing almost anything can be art.

His shoots for American Vogue are instantly recognizable. Stark, static and bold, they deliberately lack the fluidity of much of today’s fashion photography, and this pioneering crossover of commercial photography and art led him to the longest tenure ever with Vogue’s publisher, Condé Nast.

It also impressed fashion icon Issey Miyake, who was so surprised by Penn’s interpretation of his designs for a 1983 Vogue spread that he asked the photographer to shoot every one of his biennial collections. This became an unusual 13-year “non-collaborative” collaboration, based on mutual trust and respect. To avoid influencing Penn’s work, Miyake never went to a photo sitting and likewise Penn never saw a runway show. Instead, Midori Kitamura, Miyake’s trusted assistant and this exhibition’s director, delivered Miyake’s collections to Penn in New York and then returned to Tokyo with Penn’s photographs.

The results were exactly what Miyake had hoped for — startling interpretations of more than 250 of his designs from 1987 until 1999. Sharing similar aesthetics, with both artists admiring geometric forms and minimalism, Miyake couldn’t have found a better match.

Many of Penn’s images were used for posters, 67 of which are on display, along with 57 prints of sketches that Penn made during sittings. There is also an animation by Pascal Roulin based on drawings by cartoonist Michael Crawford, which documents the artists’ relationship. But most impressive is the 31-meter-long photo-projection show of 148 of Penn’s images that detail Miyake’s designs in gigantic proportions.

Penn allowed the garments to inspire him. He had models strike odd, unnatural poses; he positioned the clothing to exaggerate its points, angles and curves. Often, he flattened-out the original shape of the garment and either hid the models’ limbs and faces within the clothing or disguised them with unusual makeup.

His images are almost abstract, creating narratives out of weird and wonderful shapes, but they also reveal the ingenuity and complexity of Miyake’s designs that would have remained hidden in garments worn on a runway. More than turning fashion into art, Penn captured the art already in fashion.

Completing this exhibition is a collection of unrelated original prints that reveal Penn’s talent for creating beauty from the oddest subjects. A cigarette butt has the air of an archeological find and a delicate tulip is actually withering, its petals drooping. When we see his 1968 “Poppy: Glowing Embers” alongside Miyake’s dress for the image “Flower Pleats,” it becomes clear that for the photographer and the designer, inspiration must have worked both ways. (Mio Yamada)

21_21 Design Sight is a 5-min. walk from the Tokyo Midtown exit of Roppongi Station; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m, closed Tue. For more information, visit www.2121designsight.jp.