The Beginner’s Guide to Issey Miyake
For Issey Miyake, the quietly transgressive Japanese designer who passed away in August, everything began and ended with fabric. Through technical innovation and novel technique, his early work established him as a pioneer in the realm of material development. Alongside his textile director Makiko Minagawa, who helped bring Miyake’s ideas to life in the ‘80s and ’90s, the designer proposed radical new ways to understand the clothing-making process, incorporating unorthodox materials like pineapple, bamboo, and jute, often treated with then-unusual plant-based dyes.
After graduating from the department of graphic design at Tokyo’s Tama Art University in 1964, Miyake moved to Paris, where he worked under Guy Laroche in 1966 before decamping to Givenchy two years later. Following a stint with the American designer Geoffrey Beene, Miyake founded his eponymous design studio in Tokyo in 1970, introducing his first collection in New York a year later and debuting at Paris Fashion Week in 1973.
Throughout his career, Miyake focused on making clothing—not fashion, he insisted—that was practical, comfortable, and thrillingly utilitarian. Today, his oeuvre has been feted by the press and exhibited in museums. But above all else, his most recognizable designs are rooted in a certain easy-wearing accessibility, and a simplicity that belies their technical rigor—and two months after his death, the fashion industry is still reckoning with his absence. The next time your water cooler talk turns to the designer’s legacy (or a style-minded colleague mentions his name to break an awkward silence on Zoom), here’s what to weigh in with to sound like an expert.
In 1985, Miyake and his then-textile director Makiko Minagawa designed a coat using a specially-treated nylon fishing line. In combination with strategic cotton-linen threading, the end result took on a distinct shell-like shape, a nifty bit of technical wizardry that emphasized Miyake’s knack for unorthodox material manipulations and his sensitivity to the nuances of the wearer’s body. (If you want a closer look, you’re in luck: it’s currently on display in The Met’s 5th Avenue location through February of next year.)
Miyake’s runway shows were often spectacles of light, sound, and movement, immersive experiences dreamed up to spotlight his designs in the context of his own imagining. For his spring-summer show in 1995, models strolled down the catwalk wearing a series of hooped Minaret dresses that seemed to ripple in tandem with the soaring flute soundtrack. Although partially indebted to Paul Poiret’s canonical lampshade dress, the contemporary twist was typical Miyake: with the wearer’s utility in mind, he designed each of the dresses to fold up neatly for easy packing and transport.
Yes, the now-legendary (and oft-memed) knit Miyake designed for the Apple honcho in the early ’90s deserves a spot on this list. Steve Jobs became fascinated with Miyake’s work after noticing the jackets the designer made for Sony employees in 1981. So he enlisted Miyake’s expertise to help define his signature uniform, striking up a fast friendship in the process. Jobs liked the discreet mock neck Miyake made so much he reportedly ordered around 100 more, and the sweater, along with the Apple co-founder’s faded Levi’s 501s and New Balance 992s, became an indelible part of his public identity—leaving Jobs with one less decision to make each morning (or so the thinking goes), and would-be tech kingpins with a last-minute Halloween outfit ever since.
Miyake’s designs were informed by utility and aesthetics in equal measure; his runway collections routinely featured everything from backpacks that transformed into jackets to coats with easily detachable sleeves. The saga of the military-inspired nylon bomber the designer sent down the catwalk in 1996 was already enshrined in menswear lore when Robin Williams showed up wearing a version of it to the Flubber premiere a year later, but its grail status among fashion fans like Playboi Carti speaks to its—and by extension, Miyake’s—continued relevance today.
Long before sustainability became a fashion industry buzzword, Miyake was experimenting with processes designed to mitigate his impact on the environment. In partnership with Dai Fujiwara in 1998, he began a project dubbed A Piece of Cloth, an initiative expressly introduced to reduce material waste. Officially launched in 2000, A-POC showcased garments made from single pieces of fabric, allowing the wearer to choose how they wanted the end product to look by cutting it as they pleased—yielding unique riffs on his original designs with little squandered in their wake.
The distinct triangular look of Miyake’s Bao Bao bags might seem like it was dreamed up as social media fodder, but its original conceit is pure Miyake. The standalone accessories line, which was first introduced as a Pleats Please sub-label in 2000, evolved into its own collection a decade later thanks its practicality—and, yes, eventual ubiquity. But in its merging of material innovation with studied utility, it represents a canny summation of Miyake’s guiding design ethos.
In 2007, Miyake, inspired by the work of computer scientist Jun Mitani, began experimenting with single-sheet geometric shapes strategically cut to expand into wearable 3D garments. The results yielded 132 5. ISSEY MIYAKE, a new line officially launched three years later. The collection featured skirts, bags, dresses, trousers, and more, all made from sustainable polyester fabrics derived from recycled plastic bottles—another nod to the designer’s ongoing fascination with, and dedication to, fabric manipulation and ethical consumption.
Fueled by a desire to make clothing that was easy to maintain and nearly impossible to wrinkle, Miyake’s experiments with heat-pressing led to his most famous innovation to date: a unique garment pleating process that inspired his wildly popular Pleats Please line. Though the technique was introduced in 1988, it was only five years later that the brand received a patent for the design, launching the now-standalone sub-label into the stratosphere. In 2013, the brand debuted Homme Plissé, a designated men’s line, and if current demand for Miyake’s pleated wares is any indication, the initial shock of the flourish isn’t wearing off any time soon.
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