“I’m so sorry I’m late,” Midori Kitamura says as she settles into her chair. “OK, let’s take a break.”
“But we haven’t even started,” says one of her colleagues.
“My break!” insists Kitamura. “I need a break. Let’s eat.”
As we are served tea, she explains that she has come straight from the Issey Miyake exhibition at Tokyo’s National Art Center, where she had been showing around guests from overseas.
“It was just incredibly busy, and so many people wanted to talk to Miyake, so of course I had to stay,” she says as she unwraps a pastry.
It seems Kitamura is always this busy — and always this direct. In 1974, while she was in her early 20s, that friendly, no-nonsense manner won her the respect of designer Issey Miyake when she made some startlingly frank comments about the “many, many peculiar things” in his studio. Now, as president of the Miyake Design Studio and 21_21 Design Sight Inc., she is just as candid about Taschen’s new tome on the fashion pioneer’s work. And she should be: Kitamura spent the past seven years working on the publication’s concept and editorial direction.
“Zero” is her deadpan response when asked about Miyake’s involvement in the book. “Of course, after a certain time we showed him a visual mockup, which he went through. But he made it very clear this was to be my project” she says with a smile.
“He was probably (secretly) worried that I would commit double suicide with it,” she jokes, indicating how daunting the project must have seemed to him. “But, actually, he didn’t even come to visit us in the room where we were working on it.”
Miyake’s absence does seem astonishing, but his hands-off approach shows his true level of confidence in Kitamura, with whom he has worked exclusively with for almost 43 years.
Kitamura was the one person Miyake trusted to take each season’s runway collection to photographer Irving Penn in New York for him to shoot the unusual “Visual Dialogue” series — a project that spanned 13 years. She oversaw every collection until 1999, and now manages the creative direction of countless projects and all of the designer’s exhibitions and publications.
Taschen’s “Issey Miyake” documents 55 years of work through eight essays by creative director/veteran design writer Kazuko Koike and a wealth of color images, including captioned magazine clippings, iconic posters, and shoots from runway shows and editorials. It is encyclopedic in detail and so comprehensive that every new recruit to the Miyake Design Studio this year was given a copy as “a kind of textbook” to study, says Kitamura.
“It’s like a dictionary, so nothing could be wrong in this book,” she says, explaining the painstaking research process.
“When I started this, I actually thought I knew everything, because I thought that was my responsibility. Our team thought so, too. If I couldn’t answer any question (about Miyake), then who could?” she asks. “But, once we started making decisions about what to select as representative pieces, even I had to admit I didn’t know everything. Having to put his life’s work into a comprehensive context became a new way of learning.”
Before even contemplating the content, freelance journalist Yoshiko Ikoma was hired to work alongside staff member Masako Omori and make weekly charts that chronologically recorded key data for every year Miyake had been designing. Kitamura, Omori and project coordinator Sawako Ogitani studied these charts, which detailed the collections produced, the underlying concept of the designs, contemporaneous style trends and major local and world news of that time.
“That alone took about four years to digest,” says Kitamura.
She then pored over every photo from Miyake’s runway shows, deciding which were most representative of well over 100 collections.
The result was “a selection of more than 500 photos (from thousands),” she exclaims, before adding that after Miyake and Taschen had made their comments on the first mockup, she then had to repeat some of the process.
“We had to rent a space specially for the project. I basically locked myself in there for three years,” she says, only half joking. “Everyone kept asking where I was — even the chef of a noodle shop that I used to regularly visit. He was genuinely worried.”
She goes on to describe the momentous task of physically sifting through the Miyake Issey Foundation’s archives and paring down selections, the challenge of deciding how many pages needed to be devoted to each year or topic, and the decision to include an extra 250 glossy pages of photographs by Yuriko Takagi.
“Now, why would I have done that?” she asks rhetorically.
These images, otherworldly studies of some of Miyake’s most famous pieces, were photographed in natural landscapes around the globe, atmospherically lit indoor spaces and even underwater. They were “quite an investment” and commissioned “as a way to correct something that I think was kind of a mistake,” says Kitamura with unbridled honesty.
“Fashion ages easily, but Miyake identifies himself as a ‘clothing’ — not a ‘fashion’ — designer,” she explains. “His concept is ‘one piece of cloth,’ the very basic approach to clothing — and that doesn’t age.”
Fearing that the process of arranging Miyake’s work chronologically had accidentally emphasized “the antiquity of the items,” she decided that his garments also needed to be viewed outside the context of time and place. The locations in Takagi’s photographs are therefore unnamed, and the clothing — worn by nonprofessional models — is undated. The images are only explained later in an appendix.
The end result is undeniably impressive: a 512-page hardcover book that invites multiple readings. But it takes on even more weight when Ogitani brings out the original galley that Miyake reviewed. This full-size mockup — literally bursting with hand-pasted printouts and notes that triple its thickness — actually makes the published version look slim.
“This is my treasure,” Kitamura says with a sigh as it is carefully placed on the table.
To the casual reader, her influence may seem slight — Kitamura’s name only appears in the book’s colophon and foreword. But as Miyake said himself, “This is Midori-chan’s book.”
The great women behind Issey Miyake
It is often said that behind every great man there is a great woman. In the case of Issey Miyake, there are in fact many.
“Issey Miyake,” a survey of 55 years of the designer’s work,” was conceived and overseen by his right-hand woman Miyake Design Studio and 21_21 Design Sight Inc. President Midori Kitamura, and involved writer Kazuko Koike, photographer Yuriko Takagi as well project team members Sawako Ogitani and Masako Omori.
Kitamura talks about how women in the workplace has always been something Miyake has been renowned for, even during the early days of designing.
Was it very different in the 1970s to be a woman working in Japan?
Nowadays everyone talks about women’s power, and many women are now involved in businesses (but it wasn’t like that back then). From the early days, Miyake was well-known for being surrounded by many women. I remember, when I was 23 and I was asked if I would be interested in meeting Issey Miyake, I was surprised when I first visited his studio that the workers were almost all women.
Miyake has asked some very notable women of all ages to model his clothing. In 1974, he even wrote to pioneering feminist Fusae Ichikawa (then in her 80s) and asked her to wear one of his outfits. Is his respect for women also reflected in his design work?
It wasn’t directly reflected in his designs. But then his work didn’t actually focus on femininity or the female attitude. (Back in the 1970s-80s) when designers wanted to emphasize the woman, they emphasized the feminine aspects of the body to show female power and directly reflect it. Miyake, however, was strongly motivated by the idea of liberating the body from the constricting shapes of clothing. This is where the idea of “a piece of cloth” came from — to cover the body but not force it into a fixed shape. It was to give freedom to the body — to liberate not just the woman’s but everyone’s body.
Could you tell us a little bit about Koike, who wrote the essays for “Issey Miyake” and Takagi, whose series of photographs complete the book?
Rather than making a patchwork of essays (by different people) for “Issey Miyake,” I thought it would be better if there was someone who knows Miyake and could talk about his work with confidence, without mistakes. Someone who was also well versed in design, culture and social phenomena and could integrate all those different aspects in writing. I couldn’t think of anyone else but Koike — she’s been with us the whole time. She’s been wearing Issey Miyake clothing from very early on in his career, and (as a writer and creative director) she has been involved with Miyake in various projects of different fields many times. Their mutual understanding was there already.
When I felt that it might have been wrong to separate Miyake’s clothing by year (in the book), instead of adding more fashion photos, which are bound by their time and date, I wanted a photographer who took more universal and spatial temporally free images — and Yuriko Takagi came to mind. Takagi’s work is more universal, evoking the more spiritual, and I felt that she could identity the soul of clothing. She’s not really an art photographer or a fashion editorial photographer.