Remembering Issey Miyake, the Great Clothing Innovator

Across his illustrious five-decade career, the Japanese designer developed proprietary technologies to craft eye-popping yet elegant garments with enduring appeal.

Issey Miyake. Photography by Brigitte Lacombe

Over the weekend, Issey Miyake passed away at age 84 after a battle with liver cancer. Across his five-decade career, the Japanese fashion designer developed proprietary technologies to craft eye-popping yet elegant garments that combined ancient and traditional methods. He remained steadfast that clothing was a form of art—an unmistakably avant-garde perspective for the ‘80s, but one that landed his designs on a 1982 cover of Artforum and earned his eponymous house consistent praise. Though he took a step back from his fashion empire later in life—he turned over design responsibility for menswear in 1994 and womenswear in 1999—he maintained final oversight for his nine brands.  

Born in the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1938, Miyake survived the atomic bomb seven years later that left him with a pronounced limp. He rarely discussed the tragedy, preferring instead “to think of things that can be created, not destroyed, and that bring beauty and joy,” he wrote in a 2009 opinion piece in the New York Times. That ethos would go on to define his career, which exhibited early promise as one of the first Japanese designers to show in Paris shortly after launching the Miyake Design Studio in 1970 following stints working for Hubert de Givenchy and Guy Laroche. His influence helped pave the way for Japanese contemporaries like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. 

Despite his rapid rise to renown, Miyake detested the label “fashion designer” and instead viewed himself as a maker of clothes. “What I wanted to make wasn’t clothes that were only for people with money,” he told the Japanese daily The Yomiuri Shimbun in 2015. “It was things like jeans and T-shirts, things that were familiar to lots of people, easy to wash and easy to use.” It’s safe to say he succeeded: his pleated garments remain popular as loungewear, and his bags have garnered a cult following for their versatility. In honor of Miyake’s sterling career, we revisit four of his top highlights: 

Pleats Please

Though his name became synonymous with cutting-edge ‘80s-era fashion, Miyake will perhaps be best remembered for the innovative micro pleating technique he pioneered in 1993. The proprietary heat treating system allowed the plissé garment collection’s accordion-like pleats to be machine washed without risk of losing shape. Miyake ideated Pleats Please after designing costumes equipped with tricot folds for a performance of William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet in 1991, which inspired him to incorporate avant-garde choreography in his runway shows. The polyester garments are easily movable, breathable, and comfortable, and even experienced a resurgence among Gen Z-ers as luxe, easy loungewear during the pandemic. 


A Super Fan

Perhaps his most dedicated customer was Steve Jobs, the charismatic founder of Apple known for the black turtlenecks he wore religiously. During a visit to Sony’s Japanese headquarters in the ‘80s, Jobs was struck by each employee’s matching work jackets—a nylon garment with sleeves that unzipped to make it a vest—designed by Miyake. Though his plans to implement a company-wide uniform flopped and caused him to get booed off stage during a team meeting, Jobs maintained his signature look and asked Miyake to make him hundreds of identical shirts. He wore it nearly every day for 30 years and once told biographer Walter Isaacson “I have enough to last for the rest of my life.” When he died, in 2011, Issey Miyake retired the turtleneck.


L’eau d’Issey

Though Miyake is widely celebrated for his pleated garments, perhaps his best-known product is L’eau d’Issey through Issey Miyake Parfums. Composed with perfumer Jacques Cavallier, the light aquatic floral fragrance helped popularize oceanic scents when it launched in 1992. (Its name is actually a pun, sounding identical to l’odyssée—“the odyssey”—in French.) Miyake designed the bottle to evoke the view of the moon behind the Eiffel Tower from his Paris apartment. The scent was followed by L’eau d’Issey Pour Homme in 1994. The enduring popularity of each led Miyake to introduce a limited-run women’s fragrance through a guest perfumer every year from 2007 onward.


Bao Bao Bag

It may have debuted later in his career as an extension of Pleats Please, but Bao Bao endures as one of Miyake’s most memorable innovations. Made of lightweight mesh fabric layered with tessellated polyvinyl triangles, Bao Bao creates “shapes made by chance” when moved or placed on surfaces. It was originally named “Bilbao” as an homage to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Spain, whose cubist-like curved facade evokes the bag’s controlled-chaos form. Bao Bao has since been remade multiple times, including a collection that replaced its triangular pieces with other interlocking shapes, and has earned a cult following among design-savvy creatives, particularly architects. Zaha Hadid carried one.

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