Art and design according to Issey Miyake

One year after his death, we commemorate Issey Miyake, designer and stylist protagonist of a boundless artistic pursuit.

This article was originally published on Domus 1082, September 2023

For designers who focus on the act of wearing, the material they use must always be “fabric-like”, because it should be able to wrap around the human body and move flexibly with its movements. Naturally, the fabric’s texture and functionality must also respond to the form the designer creates.

Issey Miyake became convinced of the potential of pleats created by heat-treating polyester after making numerous prototypes in the early 1980s. He experimented with a small, handkerchief-sized piece of fabric to see if the pleats he desired could be produced via the heat-pressing process. He then tried the same technique on a piece of fabric that had been sewn into the shape he had in mind. What emerged from the machine was a finished pleated garment. 

Pleats Please Guest Artist Series No.1 – No. 4. View of the exhibition “Issey Miyake Making Things”, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 1998. Photo Yasuaki Yoshinaga

Miyake called me from the factory where that first garment had been created and excitedly told me: “The blouse is baked like a loaf of bread!” Those words may sound simple yet they are very significant if we think about the history of clothing production. The implication is that clothes, which have always been cut, sewn and shaped by human hands, can be made by reversing or ignoring these processes. The method of creating a definitively and beautifully shaped garment from fabric that has complex expressions with its pleats should therefore be regarded as a revolutionary design innovation.

After all, it has to be beautiful.

Issey Miyake

The result was “pleated pleats”, a line of polyester knit apparel that is now acclaimed on the global market. Miyake’s conception of pleated garments as an artistic medium also originated from the outstanding colour reproducibility of pleated fabrics. Miyake soon saw his clothes-making as a form of creation equivalent to contemporary art. This prompted him, for example, to turn to performance and appropriation artist Yasumasa Morimura, who in the 1990s was demonstrating remarkably strong expressions in his work. 

Ikko Tanaka Issey Miyake No. 3, 2017, Work. Photo Francis Giacobetti

Using himself as a medium, Morimura began to enter the public spotlight for his unique perspective on contemporary art. From the series of pieces in which Morimura examined major works in art history, Miyake chose the one that featured Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Source, which portrays a nude Venus holding a pitcher.

Morimura’s piece – where the Japanese artist’s arms and legs are wrapped around the Venus of the original painting – was printed on a pleated dress, transformed into a product and released on the streets in 1996. This product line, named Pleats Please, went on to incorporate works by other guest artists including Nobuyoshi Araki the following year, and Tim Hawkinson and Cai Guo-Qiang in 1998. The idea of using clothing as a medium to express contemporary sensibilities never left Miyake’s mind. 

Pleats Please Issey Miyake, Guest Artist Series No. 4, Cai Guo-Qiang dress, 1998. Photo courtesy of The Issey Miyake Foundation

Nowadays, the research and development of materials suitable for this medium have encountered profound dilemmas. For example, the use of petroleum-based synthetic fibres, which dominated the textile market of the 20th century, must now be reconsidered from the viewpoint of environmental conservation. Miyake was among the first to pursue the use of recycled polyester, an area of textile design that required further development of specialised technology. 

Paradise Lost, Spring Summer 1977. Photo Hiroshi Iwasaki

While his team members went through a series of trial-and-error processes, Miyake constantly inspired them by saying, “After all, it has to be beautiful.” Miyake’s collaboration with art director Ikko Tanaka, which can be seen as lying at the origins of Miyake’s design activities, encompassed all aspects of graphic design, including posters and publications, and their work together is embodied in the Ikko Tanaka Issey Miyake series of products. Furthermore, through the studio’s brilliant textile designs, the symbolic image of numbers by Tatsuo Miyajima, an artist who explores the concept of time in contemporary art, has been developed into beautiful jackets. Likewise, the incorporation of Tadanori Yokoo’s images since Miyake’s early collections has created a wide range of expressions in the form of dresses and jackets. The artistic pursuits of Issey Miyake were boundless and continue to be carried forward by his brand.

Opening image: Ikko Tanaka Issey Miyake No. 5, 2019, Botanical Garden. Photo Francis Giacobetti

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