Em Poncia takes a look at the life and work of late design legend Issey Miyake.

Adding to the list of design icon losses in 2022, Issey Miyake passed away in August of this year, leaving a unique and important design legacy in his wake. Known for his manipulation of fabric, fascination with technology, and being the designer behind Steve Jobs’ synonymous black mock turtleneck, Miyake’s designs will be iconic long into the future.


Miyake Kazunaru, as he was originally named, was born in 1938 in Hiroshima in Japan, and was living there when the US atomic bomb hit in 1945. This early tragedy in his life was not something he spoke of often, first disclosing the information in 2009 following Barack Obama’s advocation for nuclear disarmament.

However, it is known that the bomb caused the deaths of his mother and sister, staining Miyake’s life with disaster and loss from an early age. In various documentaries and biopics, it has been speculated that this experience informed Miyake’s design in the sense that he was forced to be inventive because of the shortages he experienced following the event.

After studying graphic design at the Tama Art University in Tokyo, he went to Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. He became the apprentice of Guy Laroche, as well as working with Hubert de Givenchy and Geoffrey Beene. He established a Tokyo studio in 1973, developing his trademark look from this space.


A key aspect of Miyake’s rise to prominence is his blending of Eastern and Western aesthetics. Miyake came into the public eye at a similar time as other Japanese artists such as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Kenzo Takada, all of whom took elements of the Japanese aesthetic and fused them with the European/American. Japonisme, the fascination of the West with Japanese aesthetics, had a resurgence following its popularity after the ‘discovery’ of Japanese art in the West in the 19th century.

Miyake’s active participation, and even moulding, of this design phenomenon, is evident in the construction of his designs. The layering and folding techniques that became the hallmark of Miyake’s designs have been evident since the late 70s and remind us of the Japanese artistic tradition of origami. Miyake is reported to have said that paper was his favourite material to use.

One of Miyake’s first commercial endeavours, a small section of US department store Bloomingdale’s, was built on this East meets West aesthetic, featuring the Japanese embroidery technique sashiko.

Equally, ‘Pleats Please’, arguably Miyake’s most iconic and recognisable creative endeavour, is a collection where the Japanese influence is palpable. The garments, which feature detailed pleating, are designed never to crease, and because of their concertina-like design, are very reminiscent of Japanese paper art forms.


Launched in 1996 ‘Pleats Please’, my personal favourite Miyake design, was not only aesthetically stimulating but also boundary-pushing in terms of fashion technology.

Using a patented design of ‘garment pleating’, these items of clothing were pleated after the garment had been cut and sewed rather than before. The clothing had to be made two or three times bigger than its actual size in order to make this possible, but it means that the pleats are permanent; the garment can be washed without needing to be re-pleated.

The items that came out of this collection were 100% polyester and consisted of garments of all kinds and shapes, often in block colours or patterns. The success of this particular line is perhaps down not only to its ingenuity but also its incredible wearability. Because of their engineering, these clothes do not require the same intense (and often expensive) care that other designer items do. Moreover, the shapes created by Miyake are simple and wearable, the fabric being the ingenious aspect allowing for less boldness in shape and colour. Miyake’s nickname of ‘Material Boy’ is surely down to this incredible – ongoing – collection.

As well as ‘Pleats Please’, Miyake’s development of A-POC (“A Piece of Cloth”), launched in 1999, shows further his fascination with the development of material. Garments from this collection were made from a single thread by a machine, and consisted of modular items of clothing that was to be cut into shapes as required by the consumer, allowing customisation and autonomy over their wardrobe.


The fascination with materials Miyake has exhibited throughout his career can also be attributed to his early preoccupation with sustainability within the fashion industry. Miyake wanted his ‘Pleats Please’ collection to be wearable rather than wasteful, as well as versatile and easy to style.

In 2010, the designer launched 132.5, a new brand focused on ‘Regeneration and Re-creation’. Its principle fabric is recycled polyester (a favourite for Miyake), and focuses on modern, everyday, items.


Finally, Miyake’s most recent designs have taken the world by storm, highlighting how this designer was an innovator until the very last.

Released under ‘Pleats Please’, the BaoBao bag of 2000 – later becoming its own brand in 2010 – is made up of triangles arranged in such a way that the form of the bag, its shape, is in a constant flow state. The bags come in many shapes and sizes, but all have an equally futuristic feel to them. Many come in metallic or iridescent futuristic tones. These bags are a feat of engineering, changing shape around the body and the items within. They have been a favourite amongst celebrities since their conception.

For Miyake’s 2015 holiday collection ‘Record’, he once again blurred the lines between fashion and technology by partnering with Sony Records. He took staff photographs in every city where he had a headquarters, extracted the colours from these images using a technique known as omoiiro to create the colour palette for his new accessory line. Each city colour palette features its own range of accessories that utilise his signature pleats. These pieces are a representation of the brand Miyake created through the medium of his own clothing in a very meta way.

Issey Miyake was one of the most innovative designers of the 20th and 21st centuries, and one whose pieces still managed to be wearable and enjoyed in an everyday capacity. Over his lifetime, he revolutionised the boundaries of material and garment construction.

If you would like to read more of Em’s work, you can follow her on twitter @em.poncia

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