Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, whose voluminous deconstructed clothes both defined the 1980s and stood in contrast to the excess that characterized the decade, died of liver cancer on August 5 in Tokyo at the age of eighty-four. Miyake’s clothes veered from the wildly inventive, as evidenced by the minuscule knife-edge pleats that characterized many of his garments, to the starkly classic, as embodied by the black turtleneck that would for decades serve as the trademark attire of Microsoft cofounder Steve Jobs. An early proponent of the concept of fashion design as both a form of art and a kind of architecture, he counted among his influences Isamu Noguchi, Constantin Brancusi, and Alberto Giacometti. At a time when fashion and art were often regarded as wholly separate practices, Miyake notoriously hotwired the cover of Artforum with an outfit that Ingrid Sischy and Germano Celant in the 1982 issue’s editorial cast as “a charged mnemonic device representing event and cumulative information. The elements of fashion, of course, are there,” they wrote. “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.”
Issey Miyake was born April 22, 1938, in Hiroshima, Japan. As a result of the August 6, 1945, US bombing of the city during World War II, he would walk with a limp from the age of seven; at the age of ten, he lost his mother to radiation poisoning. His dreams of being a dancer curtailed by his injury, Miyake turned instead to his sister’s fashion magazines, which informed his early interest in clothing design. After graduating from Tokyo’s Tama Art University in 1964 with a degree in graphic design, he moved to Paris. Through the city’s fashion trade organization, he apprenticed with couturier Guy Laroche and then took a position sketching for Hubert de Givenchy. In 1969, he moved to New York, where his encounters with artists including Christo and Robert Rauschenberg further informed the architectural and artistic mien of his garments. After a year spent studying English at Columbia University and working for Geoffrey Beene at the designer’s Seventh Avenue atelier, he returned to Tokyo, where he established the Miyake Design Studio.
His earliest designs, while starkly minimal, featured the wrapped and layered look that would become one of his signatures. In 1973, he became one of the first Japanese designers to show in Paris and thus is credited with breaking a path for such later-arriving contemporaries as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. In 1988, he produced his first micropleated garments, which retained their shape thanks to a technique through which the material was pleated after being cut and sewn, in a reversal of the typical process, in which the fabric would be pleated before use. Miyake would patent this method in 1993, when he launched his famous Pleats Please line. He often worked in polyester jersey, a light, inexpensive fabric that resisted wrinkling. When formed into his signature micropleats, the material gave the impression of cascading from the body. Model Tina Chow was rumored to carry one of his dresses crumpled in her purse to slip into when she was finished working.
Among his other groundbreaking designs was 1998’s A-POC (“A Piece of Cloth”), a tube of jersey created from a single thread via the use of a computer-programmed knitting or weaving machine. The wearer was invited to cut and shape the tube as desired. Miyake in 1992 launched the best-selling fragrance L’Eau d’Issey. The first of a number of perfumes and colognes he would release, it took water as its inspiration and sparked a craze for sea-scented fragrances.
Miyake’s work remained inextricably entangled with the arts. Between 1996 he 1999, he collaborated variously with Yasumasa Morimura, Nobuyoshi Araki, Tim Hawkinson, and Cai Guo-Qiang on his Guest Artist series, which sought to create what he described as an “interactive relationship” between art and the wearer. In 2008, Miyake’s New York TriBeCa flagship store, already home to a massive titanium sculpture by the store’s designer, Frank Gehry,” hosted “Metal Shop” as a part of that year’s Performa.
Decorated for his efforts in nearly every field in which he worked, Miyake was awarded the Wexner Prize in 2004 and the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale for sculpture in 2005; the following year, he won the Arts and Philosophy Kyoto Prize, Japan’s most prestigious private prize for lifetime achievement in the arts and sciences. In 2010, he received Japan’s Order of Culture, the country’s highest arts honor, and in 2014, he won Italy’s Compasso D’Oro, which recognizes outstanding achievements in industrial design. Tokyo’s National Art Center honored him with a retrospective in 2016; his work is held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.