Creasing up: unveiling Pleats Please at the 1994 Paris collection. Photograph: Philippe Brazil.
Issey Miyake is quite excited about his paper suit. “It doesn’t crease!” he tells me as he smiles and scrunches up a bit of his sleeve with his fingers. It springs back to perfectly smooth.
The suit itself looks very straightforward: a smart blue single-breasted jacket with matching trousers, no low crotch on the trousers, no asymmetry; the sleeves are both where you expect sleeves to be; there’s not even a random pleat. But this is typical Issey Miyake. In more than 45 years of designing clothes, he has never stopped innovating. He has an obsession with making clothes that are light, practical and washable, and that don’t crease.
Miyake, 77, doesn’t do much press these days. He has a youthful face, wavy hair which is turning grey, and he walks with a pronounced limp – a result of surviving the atomic bomb dropped on his hometown of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, when he was just seven. His mother died of radiation exposure within three years of the bomb. It’s not something Miyake talks about, but in 2009 he wrote about it in the New York Times to support an invitation for Obama to visit Hiroshima for the anniversary of the first atomic bomb. “In April, President Obama pledged to seek peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons,” he wrote. “He called for not simply a reduction, but elimination. His words awakened something buried deeply within me, something about which I have until now been reluctant to discuss.”
In December he spoke again about the day the bomb dropped, telling the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun how he heard the boom as he went into a classroom after morning assembly. After he found his mother at home, she told him to leave for the countryside. No wonder Miyake doesn’t like looking back.
Last month he made a rare public appearance. A major exhibition of his work from almost half a century, Miyake Issey Exhibition: The Work of Issey Miyake, was opening at the National Art Centre Tokyo. At the press conference Miyake didn’t dwell on his past achievements but instead talked about what he was planning to work on next. He opened up a suitcase. In it was a big piece of handmade washi paper, and a simple kimono-type jacket made crudely out of the paper. “I am very interested in the culture of paper,” he said.
He has been researching the material and had been sent this particular paper, which was woven by hand by a craftswoman in Shiraishi in the Miyagi prefecture in the north of Japan. “She sent it to me to archive,” he tells me when we spoke after the press conference. He was keen to chat despite the fact that there was a crowd gathering in the entrance to the museum to hear him officially open the exhibition. One of his brightly coloured flying saucer dresses hovered above them as they waited, suspended from the ceiling.
“Indian paper is famous, Egyptian papyrus, Chinese paper … every country has used this natural material. But the problem is it’s going to run out because it’s very difficult work,” he tells me in his fluent English. “The woman who made it and sent me the package is 96 now. There is nobody to inherit this precious technique. Depending on how you produce it, it could be useful for many things.” There used to be 300 paper making workshops in Shiraishi, which was badly damaged by the 2011 earthquake. Now there is just one.
Tradition is very important to Miyake. It is the fusion of the most basic of materials and ancient of traditions with new and innovative techniques that has kept his brand at the forefront of fashion – technically if not always critically – for the past four and a half decades. One of his biggest fans was the late Zaha Hadid, who loved wearing his clothes.
When Taschen publishes its definitive survey of the designer’s work this month (a Sumo-sized tome simply called Issey Miyake) we can expect to see the ripples of influence for years to come.
Designer of the moment Jonathan Anderson recently told Business of Fashion: “I’ve always been obsessed by him and how he worked with so many different types of people.” The London-based French designer and 2015 LVMH prize finalist Faustine Steinmetz is similarly fascinated, particularly with how Miyake has developed a universal clothing product with Pleats Please – one of the only labels she wears apart from her own.
These are clothes that are made from polyester and can be machine washed, rolled up in a suitcase and unpacked to look as crisp and springy as they did when you packed them; they are light, ageless, trans-seasonal, cross-cultural, ambisexual (there’s a men’s range, Homme Plissé, because Miyake realised that 10% of Pleats Please customers were men), and don’t cost a fortune.
At the exhibition, I was struck by how timeless – and relevant – the clothes are, even the early pieces like Sashiko (AW71) which is made from hard-wearing quilted fabric used for Judo uniforms and farmers’ work clothes; Tanzen (SS76/77), a loosely cut kimono style coat with a tie belt; and Shohana-momen (SS76/77), a red shirt and cropped trouser set made from fabric traditionally used to line men’s kimonos. Each garment is exquisitely displayed on a figure. The “grid” bodies are made from 365 pieces laser cut from a single sheet of corrugated cardboard and acrylic plastic and then ingeniously slotted together to form the shape of a human body.
Miyake anticipated sustainability issues in the industry long before they were a talking point. I ask him what he thinks the key challenges will be for future generations of fashion designers. “We may have to go through a thinning process,” he says, meaning that we may have to consume less. “This is important. In Paris we call the people who make clothing couturiers – they develop new clothing items – but actually the work of designing is to make something that works in real life.”
In other words, clothes shouldn’t be a frivolous end in themselves, but should have a purpose – they should offer a solution. “The important thing is to make something,” he says. “In reality it’s not important that a designer be known by name –you can remain anonymous. Even the status of a designer will undergo changes, I believe.”
Issey Miyake photographed in New York in 1988 by Irving Penn.