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What Designers Can Learn From Issey Miyake

There are profound lessons for fashion designers around the world embedded in the life and work of the Japanese innovator, whose death was announced this week, writes Angelo Flaccavento.
Issey Miyake at the finale of his 1997 Autumn/Winter show in Paris.
There are profound lessons for fashion designers around the world embedded in the life and work of the Japanese innovator, whose death was announced this week, writes Angelo Flaccavento. (Getty Images)

Issey Miyake, whose death was announced this week, was a prolific inventor and his approach to fashion contains important lessons for designers around the world. There was his dedication to design as problem solving, his embrace of technology, his attention to deep human needs resulting in soulful and enduring products, and his aversion to saying too much about it all. Because real innovation is about hard work, not easy slogans.

Miyake was phenomenally consistent in his focus on “making things” that were meant to be worn, while doing away with unnecessary storytelling. As early as 1983, in a manifesto published in the seminal monograph Bodyworks, he said: “I am neither a writer nor a theorist. For a person who creates things, to utter too many words is to regulate himself — a frightening prospect.” His prime obsession was creating pieces that adapt to the needs of the wearer, making life easier. Shouldn’t fashion design, after all, be something that improves daily life?

Another Miyake lesson: ditch nostalgia. Since he established Miyake Design Studio in Tokyo in 1970, Issey Miyake has been constantly moving forward, channeling countless advancements in construction and fabrication. Resolutely rooted in the moment, he kept looking ahead rather than back, whilst still nurturing an acute awareness of past traditions.

Miyake, in fact, shaped the future of dressing by reconnecting fashion making with shapes that are ancestral — almost primeval — in their pureness and giving them a technological spin. His quest was guided by the urge to devise radical clothing solutions that respond to specific functional needs: forms that are inventive yet practical. This balance of creativity and pragmatism was an unprecedented achievement, if one considers how much today’s designers can be carried away by the pleasure of sacrificing function to form in the name of originality.

Creating clothing that moves instead of just looking good in a static image — the main curse of contemporary fashion making — was another key Miyake achievement. The flowing shapes and volumes he conceived were meant to float around the body; his silhouettes were never static, because movement was always part of his creative process. So was the space between his clothing and the body. Miyake’s epic collaboration with Irving Penn was a testament to that.

Then, there is the way Miyake collided different cultures. The wave of Japanese designers that took Western fashion by storm in the early 80s created a global shift with an approach that sometimes pushed deconstructionism so far as to be destructive. Despite being Japanese, Issey Miyake belonged to an altogether different school of thinking. In fostering a fruitful dialogue between East and West, he repeatedly used the Eastern proclivity for flat shapes that become three-dimensional on the body to rethink Western dressing, including the suit. This spawned a bevy of satellite concept collections which he developed over the years as self-standing brands based on specific design challenges.

In doing so Miyake has created functional wonders such as Plantation, a line launched to global success in the early 80s, the hugely successful Pleats Please and its brother Homme Plissé, which started in 2014. What strikes me about these projects is the fact that the design challenge kept moving — non-design, natural fibres, recycled fabrics, regular pleating — while the creative principle igniting Miyake’s process remained constant.

But perhaps most important of all was Miyake’s will to put the wearer, not the creator, at the centre of his designs. His output was ultimately not about elegance or form, despite these being striking attributes of his work; rather, it was about human needs and how a designer can respond to them. He was a humanist and a purist, ditching pomp and circumstance for tools that allow the wearers of his clothes to live socially without feeling like they are wearing a mask or being worn by clothes that are uncomfortable and overpowering.

And despite its seeming complexity, fuelling Miyake’s work — between East and West, past and future — was something simple yet profound: true curiosity. “It is because of curiosity,” he said, “that we move forward as it will always lead us to the next development.”

THE NEWS IN BRIEF

FASHION, BUSINESS AND THE ECONOMY

Prada bags and shoes.

Prada is seeking at least $1 billion in new Milan listing. The Milanese maker of luxury clothing, fragrances and accessories is working with Goldman Sachs on preliminary preparations for a potential offering, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg. A listing would likely take place next year, they said.

Activist investor fights for broader representation at Richemont. Bluebell Capital Partners on Monday claimed a partial victory in its efforts to overhaul management at luxury group Richemont after the company proposed the appointment of a director to look after the interests of ordinary shareholders.

Ralph Lauren, Capri ride wave of inflation-resistant luxury demand. Earnings from the brands suggest surging prices have had little impact on middle- and high-income households who have been happily splurging on designer labels.

Sequoia Capital China invests in contemporary Norwegian label Holzweiler. The venture firm has acquired a majority stake in the brand as it eyes global expansion, suggesting investors still see opportunity in well-placed fashion plays despite looming economic headwinds.

Stella McCartney and venture capital firm Collaborative Fund launch $200 million climate solutions-focused fund. Collab SOS will invest in companies working to develop more sustainable materials, ingredients, energy and supply chains at the Series A and B level.

US retail cargo seen cooling in second half as inflation, rates bite. After record-setting volumes registered in the spring, retail shipments arriving at the nation’s largest ports from July to December will likely total 12.8 million 20-foot equivalent units, 1.5 percent less than a year earlier, the National Retail Federation said Monday.

Salvatore Ferragamo inks partnership with Farfetch. The Florentine shoemaker has teamed up with the fashion platform to boost its digital capabilities as part of a broader turnaround plan spearheaded by new chief executive Marco Gobbetti.

Bangladesh garment export growth seen slowing to ‘normal’ 15 percent this year. The garment industry accounts for more than 80 percent of total exports for Bangladesh, which is still in the midst of a power crunch. The country sells to clients such as Walmart, Gap Inc, H&M, VF Corp, Zara and American Eagle Outfitters — some of which have already flagged weak sales as their customers prioritise basics.

Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail posts record Q1 sales. The Indian fashion retailer recorded 2875 crore rupees ($361 million) in revenue for the quarter ended June 30, surging 254 percent year-on-year and 39 percent compared to pre-Covid levels.

PEOPLE

Serena Williams stars on the front cover of Vogue's September 2022 issue. She wears a blue gown with a long train held by her daughter on a beach, in front of a sunset.

Serena Williams, style icon, retiring from tennis. In a cover story for Vogue, the superstar athlete and style icon said she was “evolving away” from tennis. While she wasn’t explicit about when she would stop playing the sport, she hinted on Instagram that the upcoming US Open could be her last tournament.

MEDIA AND TECHNOLOGY

Vogue to stage outdoor runway show and street fair during NYFW.

Vogue to stage outdoor runway show and street fair during NYFW. “VOGUE World: New York,” which will be open to the public and broadcast via livestream, is another brand-building and financial opportunity for the publication.

Compiled by Joan Kennedy.

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State of Fashion 2023
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State of Fashion 2023