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Grand Couturier*

*A Great Fashion Designer
The fashion world is well suited to Tokyo, and the special elegance of this sophisticated yet conservative capital has not gone unnoticed by Yoshiyuki Miyamae, Head of Womenswear for Issey Miyake. He took us on a tour of this authentic Japanese fashion house.

DESPITE ITS COSMOPOLITAN FACE, TOKYO IS A PROFOUNDLY JAPANESE CITY. ITS SKYSCRAPERS OF MIRRORED GLASS ARE AS EPHEMERAL AS ITS MOSS GARDENS AND RICE-PAPER PARTITIONS. THIS CONSTANT REVOLUTION MAKES THE CITY AS STABLE AS A VIDEO OF A BUSY STREET VIEWED IN FAST-FORWARD. Tokyo is an introvert city, seduced by foreign attractions yet casting a furtive glance over the rest of the world. The city is like one of those stubborn personalities who feign scornful indifference to their detractors, but gradually take the comments on board. For all its polite reticence – the expression of a legitimate sense of difference – it is not a city of pagoda sleeves and Mao collars. It prefers to dress in line with the times, in sensible colours that do not stand out too garishly.


Haute couture is a Western expression of elegance. The Japanese fashion house Issey Miyake, where designer Yoshiyuki Miyamae has recently joined the creative leadership team, is a glittering example of how this visual language of European origin can be used to promote a more exotic approach, without losing its soul in the mass markets of globalisation. The challenge, however, is how to blend these two sensibilities that are as different as water and oil. It takes the same sleight of hand as is required to mix a home-made mayonnaise. The Issey Miyake look is a similar type of emulsion, where the final outcome is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is a Japanese style that is, at the same time, international in its appeal – a transplant so carefully performed that the stitches are no longer visible. It is perhaps unsurprising to learn therefore that the house’s chief womenswear designer has eclectic tastes (he admits to a weakness for “affogato”, vanilla ice cream topped with a double shot of Decaffeinato Intenso). Miyamae is all in favour of blending genres, as long as the result fits with the house style. This is something he is helping to develop, in order to avoid the risk of self-parody, a game of dressing-up once inspiration has run dry. After turning black into such an intense colour, the Issey Miyake Autumn-Winter 2013 collection “Hop, Step, Check” has been imprinted with landscapes viewed from the sky – grid-like cityscapes and agricultural patchworks that leave their mark in chequered patterns, similar to Scottish plaid. On a recent visit to Ireland, Miyamae had noticed the almost supernatural propensity of tartan to express an autumn mood. It seemed to echo mysteriously with his own design style, like a sense of graphic déjà-vu, or the strange impression of spotting a familiar face far from home. As he prepared for the fourth catwalk show of his career, he asked the Japanese electronic music group Open Reel Ensemble to create a custom-made Irish sound to illustrate his vision of this new land of fashion. According to Miyamae’s interpretation, colours should naturally coordinate with the movements behind them, rather than hold them back. The models were encouraged to smile for the cameras during the show, a far cry from the fashionable death stares that are supposed to look distinguished, but instead make fashion look distant. On faces that are so often cruelly platonic, this spontaneous exuberance lent a more sensuous edge to the models’ beauty, enhancing the fresh seasonal designs. It married perfectly with the gentle caress of the Issey Miyake label, this “ready-to-wear haute couture” that attempts to imbue its different styles with a kind of humane generosity.


“The pace of a typical show leaves limited space to tell a story that we have been developing over time. It takes me and my team six months to prepare a Paris show that will last no more than ten minutes.” It’s a painful choice to make, requiring a methodical approach, an art of promotion that Miyamae admires in the demonstrative genius of kabuki, a Japanese interpretation of epic theatre, where the actors do not so much play a character as an animated allegory, taking up an unbending stance that inevitably leads to tragedy. The power of this quasi-mechanical art is its ability to convey the message of each play using a surprisingly economical form of theatricality that nonetheless makes for an entertaining show. With a procession of different acts, vocal registers and above all a wealth of lush costumes, the audience is forced to swim with the tide of the show, with no lasting respite. For Yoshiyuki Miyamae, the creative effort is not over once his collections have been designed. Since the power of his creations will be rendered through the memories of an audience carefully selected for its ability to report back to the public on what it has seen, it is important to find ways to make an impact through the artistic direction of the show. It is an art similar to gastronomy, based around the unvarying hierarchy of a menu and a well-paced delivery that stimulates the appetite, walking that fine line between hunger and repletion. A fashion show has to sell dreams, but at the same time connect with real life, otherwise it all remains too abstract. Just as a restaurant can never serve only desserts, no woman will spend her life in an haute-couture evening dress. Miyamae’s collections are choreographed as carefully as a poet crafts his sonnet, ensuring the metre and rhyme schemes are strictly observed, to heighten the impact of each line end.


The difference for Yoshiyuki Miyamae is that his craft involves weaving together not just the stuff of dreams, but very real and often unique precious fabrics, a considerable investment for Issey Miyake. “Creating a new type of fabric from scratch takes at least a year or two. This is obviously much longer than our normal production times, so we explore a whole range of producer countries, in the hope of stumbling across a new gem. The next step is to take this new-found treasure and work to improve it, shaping it according to our initial ideas, often rejecting more than 200 prototypes before considering that we have a real discovery on our hands. Clearly, we are more attached to the finish of our textiles than any other clothing manufacturer around the world. The cost of this would probably be prohibitive for many.” Miyamae accepts this exacting effort with the stoic determination of a top sportsman, who knows that the path to glory will mean turning his life into an intense training programme. In the world of Issey Miyake, the material comes first, determining the new directions the label will take – while the cut is a secondary concern. Some clothes are designed to be cut from a single cloth, a piece of fabric that has already been shaped and crafted, like a piece of furniture sculpted from solid wood. “When developing the lightest fibre ever created, the designs that use it obviously have to accentuate this quality. We cannot design a collection without thinking about its tactile qualities – after all, our work ultimately stems from that of rag merchants, doesn’t it?” Miyamae regularly travels between his fashion house and some of the world’s most prodigious weavers, who determinedly pursue an ancient art. “These people are monuments of cultural diversity, real-life treasures just waiting to be dug up. Heritage is not just about preserving ancient sanctuaries and fossilised practices. Japan is home to master craftsmen whose trade sometimes draws on many centuries of experience, a know-how so sophisticated and ancient that we have long since lost any notion of its value.” The loss of such craftsmanship would be irreparable and the role of a luxury clothes line is to draw out the benefit of such artistic genius, so the practices remain living realities, not just decorative accessories maintained for sentimental value alone.


“Issey Miyake has always sought to respond to the latest developments in women’s lives. We do like to marry the latest technology with age-old traditions, but the ultimate aim is always to harmonise the expressiveness of our designs with reality. Our philosophy is well summed up in our stretch fabrics and pleated dresses.” Pleats and folds are an area where the Japanese have always been ahead of the game, with their well-known “origami” techniques, which go much further than a paper-folding pastime. It has also been a source of elementary packaging solutions, as highlighted by Issey Miyake in the origami and “furoshiki” (folded packing) workshops at the “Design Ah!” exhibition, hosted in the 21_21 Design Sight museum of which Miyake is one of the directors. The museum is housed in a cathedral of concrete, clothed in a pleated outer garment tailored by legendary architect Tadao Ando. The most remarkable thing about Issey Miyake’s “origami” is its precise nature. Each new discovery is as exact and conclusive as a new mathematical law – almost as if the designer’s pencil had traced an invisible line that had existed since the dawn of time. This metaphysical experience is brought to bear on the lives and requirements of working women, with no time to waste on readjusting their look, buffeted by the tensions of a helter-skelter existence. Miyake’s pleated dresses fold up like fans but don’t ever crease. Thanks to their accordeon-like folds, other designs are so elastic that they hug the curves of any form they take just as they can be rolled up into a ball. By being accumulated in this way, the ridges of a piece also create caesura-like effects, simplifying and stylising body shape in a perfect compromise between the worship of the body that emerged during the Renaissance and its idealisation by gothic artists.


European tailoring traditions are based around the build of the client. The precise measurements are all-important for creating the pattern for the garment. It is a very Western approach to design, determined by our cult of the anatomy. Where Western fashion not only seeks to reveal a shape, but also to perfect it, the traditional craftsmen of other regions of the world, such as the Japanese tradition of the kimono, see no reason why the material should be so moulded to the body it clothes. Most traditional folk dress is based around the quaint charms of a fabric, covering, enveloping the silhouette of the body, in an intricate or simpler covering. In the past, with the high cost of textiles before the invention of industrial looms, traditional societies made a virtue of necessity, developing a waste-not, want-not aesthetic. Issey Miyake these days is seeking to draw inspiration from the classic kimono, cut from a single piece of cloth, both in terms of the economical use of fabric and the astonishing comfort for its wearers. Miyake’s formal ideas are as timeless as opera, whose athletic intensity and emotional power, like a call to prayer, was once thought to be under threat from the invention of microphones, giving a soft, “spoken” timbre the power to shake a concert hall. European culture has exported across the world a concept of style that is unstable, buffeted by the volatile winds of taste and fitted to the temporality of transient body shapes. Issey Miyake has wedded European fashion with the enduring charm and pragmatism of Japanese dress, finding a unique way to fuse eternity and motion.


1976 Born in Tokyo.

1998 Graduates from Bunka Fashion College.

2001 Joins the Issey Miyake Design Studio and gets involved in the A-POC project.

2006 Joins Issey Miyake’s team of designers.

2011 Named Head of Womenswear for Issey Miyake’s 2012 Spring-Summer collection.

Text Julien Bouré - Photography Jean-Claude Amiel - Production Sandrine Giacobetti




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