Issey Miyake, a Japanese fashion designer whose avant-garde clothes and exhibitions garnered significant attention within the international art world, has died at 84. His design studio said he had been battling liver cancer.
Miyake’s experimental designs gained a large art-world following because, to many, they felt and looked similar to what is widely seen in galleries across the globe. Merging artistic concepts from Japan with those drawn from countries beyond, his clothes enlisted processes that made his most famous works seem more like sculptures than wearable garments.
It is now common for fashion designers to show their work in art-world settings—the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion exhibitions are some of its most well-attended offerings, for example. Miyake helped pave the way for that, however, and when his designs first gained art-world popularity in the 1980s, it was unusual from someone in the fashion world to have such crossover appeal.
In 1982, Artforum featured an image of a model wearing a dress that was influenced by samurai practice armor. The gesture was a notable break with tradition at Artforum, which has only ever featured something that wasn’t an artwork on its cover a handful of times. This issue, which was themed around art penetrating mass culture, was the first by Artforum to have fashion on its cover.
“The elements of fashion, of course, are there,” Ingrid Sischy and Germano Celant wrote in an editorial paired with the issue. “So is the kind of dialogue with past and future, with the situation of the individual within a technocracy, that characterizes the mass-oriented avant-garde.”
Other garments produced by Miyake in the years to come seemed to prove Sischy and Celant’s assertion. His famed “Pleats Please” series, begun in 1993, is a grouping of polyester garments that can be folded up, so that they lie flat not unlike paintings. When they were shown at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1990, they were even exhibited not on mannequins, as is typical for fashion exhibitions, but flattened and set within portions of the gallery’s floor.
Despite the conceptual leaning of Miyake’s work, his garments have had mass appeal. He even designed the iconic black turtleneck that Steve Jobs so often donned.
Issey Miyake was born in 1938 in Hiroshima, Japan. In 1945, when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city, he was injured as he was bicycling to school; his mother died of radiation exposure in the years afterward. But he preferred not to recount the experience of witnessing the bomb’s explosion. “I gravitated toward the field of clothing design, partly because it is a creative format that is modern and optimistic,” he wrote in a 2009 New York Times essay.
Miyake later attended the Tama Art University in Tokyo, where he studied graphic design and graduated in 1964. He then went to Paris, where he worked for the designer Hubert de Givenchy, and then moved to New York, where he came into contact with noted artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Years afterward, Warhol would describe Miyake’s designs as “East meets West and I like that because I’ve always liked circles more than squares.”
By the late ’70s, Miyake had begun to gather a loyal fanbase stateside. In 1978, he published East Meets West, a book of his designs that featured essays by architect Arata Isozaki and Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Vogue. “His clothes are totally his and his alone,” Vreeland wrote. In the coming years, as a wave of Japanese fashion swept the international scene, Miyake’s designs continued to gain fame.
Though Westerners like Warhol tended to speak reductively of Miyake’s designs, his sources of inspiration were often specific aspects of Japanese society and history. Some of his earliest innovations relied on sashiko, a cotton fabric associated with Japanese peasantry, and elevated it to something wearable on the runway. Yet he also alluded to figures from Western fashion history, including the French designer Madeleine Vionnet, whose designs enlisted flowy fabrics to draw out parallels between architecture and the body.
While Miyake’s work was seen in major institutions throughout his career, the designer himself seemed somewhat ambivalent about his work being labeled art. “I am not really interested in clothing as a conceptual art form,” he told the New York Times in 1993.
That did not stop artists from wanting to work with him. In 1996, Miyake launched the “Guest Artist Series” for his “Pleats Please” initiative. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang ignited gunpowder explosions onto one slinky pleated dress, singing images of dragons into its fabric. Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura, who is known for casting himself within restaged art-historical images, placed an image of a nude woman from a Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painting onto another dress.
Meanwhile, photographer Irving Penn even put out a book of Miyake’s designs. “Miyake’s work is completed only when he sees it worn, entering the currency of the street, in action,” critic Mark Holborn wrote in a 1988 Artforum review of the book. “At that stage it becomes of the moment, completing the cycle of fashion. Penn’s photographs, then, don’t constitute a book about Issey Miyake. They are an extension of the work itself.”
Later works enlisted digital technology in their making. For the “A-POC” dresses, Miyake worked with the textile engineer Dai Fujiwara to program an industrial knitting machine that works with a large, uncut stream of fabric. It produced dresses that were slightly oversized, which was deliberate—the wearer was meant to cut off pieces as needed to conform it to their body. The Museum of Modern Art in New York owns a dress from that line.
Institutions continued to take a vested interest in Miyake’s work throughout his career. The National Art Center in Tokyo gave him a proper retrospective in 2016, and MoMA has featured Miyake’s work in various exhibitions, including 2013’s touted “Applied Design,” a cutting-edge show that also included video games and other objects that seemed to be at the outer limits of design.
Part of the wider appeal of Miyake’s work could be ascribed to the fact that it did not only cater to the tastes of the cloistered fashion world—some of his designs were machine washable, others of garments did not look like clothes at all. “I was always interested in making clothing that is worn by people in the real world,” he once told the Telegraph.