An Interview with Issey Miyake

I was eighteen the time I wore an ISSEY MIYAKE dress, and it immediately struck me: there was too much fabric. The sleeves were three times the length of my arms—the neck, intended for a giraffe. It fit me like a glove, but it flowed past the floor, pooling around my feet. But procuring some scissors, the shop girls explained: “Make of it what you want.” They pointed to some lines deftly hidden in the fabric. “There are many options.” And just like that, the consumer becomes the creator and the boutique becomes a personal workshop.

An inversion of the consumer-creator relationship and a reconsideration of the place of technology and engineering in fashion design, the dress was a product of the now famous collaboration between Issey Miyake and Dai Fujiwara.

Viewed today as the Godfather of Japanese fashion, Miyake already had world renowned for his groundbreaking designs. Miyake created the ISSEY MIYAKE design studio in 1970, and spent the following decades challenging the conventional shapes and European traditions of high fashion. Miyake demonstrated particular interest in the intersection of fashion and technology, most notably with his launch of his Pleats Please line in 1993. A production technique that uses a special heat press technique to infuse simple, colorful fabrics with shape and texture, the results are light yet defined, free-flowing yet highly constructed. Further, the polyester clothing requires minimal sewing and corresponds with Miyake’s mission for beauty and function in innovative form.A-POC, which stands for “a piece of clothing,” and rhymes with “epoch,” is the latest technologically-driven line from the Mikaye-Fujiwara collaboration. , Fujiwara and Miyahi’’s collaboration, and their technologically inspired designs and production lines, respond to timeless a question for the fashion world: the delicate balance between high art and a commercial success.

Fashion has always toed a fine line between its dual identitiest’;it is pulled towards the two poles of ready-to-wear street clothes and haute couture. For many designers, the answer comes through the creation of two lines. Designers will show their hand-made high fashion on the runways of Paris and Milan, and spread their names with special, factory-produced collections for lower-end merchandisers. Yohji Yamamoto partnered with Addidas, John Varvatos with Converse, Isaac Mizrahi with Target. These partnerships allow a designer to meet the demands of a more consumer-minded business as well as maintain the freedom of high fashion expression.

The answer for Miyake and Fujiwara, however, came not from the production of two lines, but from use of a new means of production. Merging computer technology with the creativity of the consumer, the design duo founded A-POC—“A Piece of Cloth,” and rhyming with ““epoch.”” A revolutionary design technique, A-POC transforms a single thread into clothing sans coudre. The designer develops a pattern program, funnels a single thread into the knitting machine and presto—out comes a tubular piece of cloth, size and shape dependent on its intended use. Sewing is superfluous. Reliance on sweatshops disappears, as do long hours of hand sewing in Parisian ateliers. In a way, then, A-POC piggy-backed on the work of Miyake’s earlier work, using technology to bring new vigor and innovation to the fashion industry.

Yet despite the use of machine production, A-POC defies the tedium of the mass, factory-produced clothes. It is the consumer who adds the final artistic element, who becomes the final designer. Cutting along faint lines embedded in the production of the cloth, the customer chooses sleeve length, garment length, neck style and more—transforming a long tubular creation into a functional piece of clothing. With a pair of scissors, then, mass produced clothing becomes a custom-made dream.

The power of this form-function solution brought the duo much acclaim, and shifted Fujiwara’s career notably from the textile engineer to the fashion designer. In 2006, Fujiwara became the Creative Director for ISSEY MIYAKE, Miyake himself moving on to new pursuits, and in this role, he has continued the MIYAKE tradition of fusing technology and fashion. Preferring to focus on the new, the original, Fujiwara rarely takes inspiration from the past. His shows are never send-backs to the 1920s flappers nor an homage to Versailles circa Louis XIV. He emphasizes what is new, different, and possible in the modern age. His philosophy is simple: “I do not believe that any discussion of art is possible without bringing technology onboard.”

And even in his most recent work focused on nature, Fujiwara has maintained this dependence on the mechanical and the industrial. Exploring the ways in which technology mimics, preserves, even enables the natural, he illuminates the connection he sees between the typically opposing forces. Last month in Paris he showed “Color Hunting.” In preparation for this show—the Spring 2009 collection—Fujiwara took over 3,000 color swatches to the Amazon Rainforest, aiming to capture the exact, quintessential shades of the jungle. For Summer 2008, Fujiwara was captivated by all things Wind. “To observe the wind is to be aware of nature, to think about the flow of air that envelopes us and the environment in which we exist,” the ISSEY MIYAKE Team explained. The collection thus included clothes unconventionally intended not to protect a person from the elements, but to enhance a person’s interaction with their surroundings.

For both collections, technology was the bridge to the successful partnership between fashion and nature. For “Color Hunting,” Fujiwara identified the natural hues he desired—creating some clothes to achieve the natural element—but he also experimented with the transformation of these colors in the urban landscape, capturing the effect a glass prism or metallic reflection create. To truly create the effect of Wind, Fujiwara partnered with Dyson—the high-tech British vacuum producers. Together the duo built an enormous cyclone to simulate the many forms of wind—mechanically engineering the very natural environment he hopes his clothes will enhance.

For some designers, their fashion shows seem an opportunity to shock and stun. Twice a year, the runway creates an opportunity to smile smugly and say, “Oh yes, I dared.” We love them for it. We love John Galiano for filling Parisian Vogue with models garbed as pirates. We love Marc Jacobs for throwing Grunge-wear in the face of New York’s most fashionable elite. Their dedication to the fabulous—even the absurd—is captivating. It frees us from the daily convention of what one wears.

But what’s interesting about ISSEY MIYAKE is that despite the utter originality of his work, Fujiwara is far from smug. He intends neither to shock, nor stun. Instead, he is eerily nonchalant about his originality, matter of fact, even. Whether by recreating the natural through the mechanical or by creating an entire evening gown from a single thread, Fujiwara will defy every fashion convention in existence all while suggesting that the convention never existed. He makes his innovation seem apparent—obvious creations the circumstance. His models add to this effect. Awash in perfectly engineered color-hues and surrounded by yards of free-flowing, crafted cloth, they seem entitled to the ingenuities enabled by modern engineering.

In conjunction with his participation with Harvard’s Project East fashion show, Fujiwara spoke with The Advocate, and he spent considerable time discussing the place for innovation. His design philosophy helps explain the aura of nonchalance: “Nothing, whether it is new media or emerging circumstances or matters, ever springs into existence suddenly or from nothing,” Fujiwara explains. New thinking and new designs come from precise situations that demand solutions. In a complex society of evolving desires and circumstances, innovative design is but a necessary reaction—a simple, inescapable reality.

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Harvard Advocate: Issey Miyake is famous for his integration of design, technology, engineering and fashion, and you clearly greatly influenced this practice. Can you describe the relationship you see between fashion, technology, and directed research? Why is this important in fashion, and how do you imagine it will influence the future of design? How or does the relationship with technology morph fashion from the world of art into the world of science?

Dai Fujiwara: During the latter half of my research aimed at creating the A-POC brand, I came to embrace a vague image in my mind. Using the flow of a river as a metaphor, apparel is located in the downstream sector of the textile industry infrastructure. Apparel designers must wait for the items produced upstream and there is no great need to worry about how materials used in fashion are made. This approach and thinking had become fixed in the industry, and I was beginning to grow fed up with it.

Computers offer the convenience of guaranteed information operation, with costs remaining low [as well as] the ability to turn out highly adaptable items despite being created through automated mass production. I did not see much evolution in production lines controlled by machines, or in the production methods that required human hands.

Thus, just as I came to the conclusion that production lines not controlled by machines and production methods not requiring human hands were in fact necessary for fashion, I felt that the conventional image of the river had become hackneyed. Much like fish swim from habitats in vast ocean realms to congregate in plankton generated at the boundary line between warm and cold currents, new visions are being drafted and implemented in the midst of capitalist society – the scene of complex interactions between money, people, commodities and now the Net society.

Naturally, it is impossible to discuss fashion outside the realm of clothing, it is also true that it is no longer feasible to ponder fashion solely in terms of clothing. When, at crucial turning points, new information, new commodities, new images and new characters emerge, people will demand those new elements, along with other information, things and images. I believe that creating methods to initiate these new flows is extremely important. I also feel that proposing such changes from the viewpoint of fashion is an effective means of corroborating the performance of potential catalysts. Within my work at present, I strive to fully embrace these concepts.

It is difficult for individuals to generate turning points. However, it may be possible to bring about new movements by joining with different partners or consolidating different categories. If the time can be found to unravel circumstances or situations already in existence, and then find compatible partners to mutually discuss the world around us, our actions and discussions will lead to new ideas and movements.

In the same right, it is also necessary to forge the future of design. A vast array of accountability derived from the structure of society has spread to the design domain, prompting the need for capable designers to respond to this need. Based on the belief that easily manageable solutions are necessary, the A-POC design concept was launched Though it is my impression that there is little change in the scope demanded of fashion design, I can only conclude that the design clout of organizations unable to create items from the stance of environmental engineering will inevitably weaken. Design, by definition, is the work of formulating certain balances, coordinations and other elements. There is thus a need, I feel, to clarify what specific balances need to be struck. For the very reason that diversity is expanding within the sphere of fashion, the demands of design are much greater. Because the social responsibility in this area is in another increasing trend, it is clear that the sphere of design (referred to as balancing abilities here) is expanding and it will be vital to mount effective responses to social demands.

HA: With the continued collaboration of fashion designers and various technicians—from within and outside the world of design—how do you envision fashion’s place within society evolving? How do the technologies now available to fashion designers change the identity of high art and more consumer fashion?

DF: It is impossible to truly discuss the diversity demanded in fashion in terms of a system that looks to Paris or Milan as the pinnacles. Each new logistical revolution in today’s Web society raises momentum explosive to fashion, threatening the status of the conventional collections (twice yearly fashion markets).

Within the Web society, the demand is for “graspable clothing.” This refers to so-called “real clothes” – that is, apparel which easily appeals to consumers and is readily understood by purchasers. In a world that now expands across borders of time and distance, such fashions are beginning to take on the power to change values and thinking. I believe that this impact is also being felt at the “fashion week” events in New York, Milan and Paris – forums for showcasing new creations.

There is also the concern, however, that on the flip side of excessive demands for easily understood results, the overall scene will become tedious. When proceeding with a focus on creation in an era in which both information and commodities have begun to take on their own values, it will likely become difficult to continue to hold up both sides of diverse and “graspable” clothing.

Basically speaking, I believe that fashion must be allotted a major degree of freedom within the world we live in. In the quest for freedom, failure to resolve new issues characterized by strong demands for social qualities will render it impossible to nurture the freedom that everyone recognizes and wants. In that sense, fashion designers who continue to exist in environments of freedom while fulfilling their social responsibilities may very well represent the “new cool.”

With regard to high art and consumer fashion, while the ability of designers to make ready use of technology may place major restrictions on their work, it will also become easier to successfully benefit from cost balance and quality guarantees. Likewise, while the use of technology by designers signifies the transition into work with a high degree of social impact from a management standpoint, it also means that designers are taking on heavy social responsibilities at the same time. If this foundation can be mobilized to render new proposals for consumers through the act of supplying the world with clothing, it will also come to wield great clout in society.

HA: Last year you teamed up with Dyson to create “Wind” as an element of the Spring show and this year the colors of the Amazon influenced your show. Please comment on the relationship between nature and fashion. What is the role of nature in your work? How has your relationship with and your vision of nature changed over the years? How do the natural elements of the show connect with your more technological leanings?

DF: Any worthwhile discussion of nature is incomplete without the inclusion of technology. It is patently clear, therefore, that technology has become indispensable in sustaining the Earth, as we know it. These influences have already been internalized in the realm of fashion as well.

HA: Conventionally, nature and technology seem as opposing forces, and yet both greatly influence your designs. How do they come together in for you in design? How do they complement one another, oppose one another, etc.?

DF: Please conceive that nature is you, yourself. Technology, furthermore, is also encapsulated within your being. While as you say, nature and technology appear to act as opposing forces, in reality they exist in a mutually complementary, give-and-take relationship.

HA: Academy has routinely placed fashion on the sidelines of scholarship, and yet museums and design forums are increasingly acknowledging the place of fashion as a historical artifact and commentary. How do you see fashion and design as a social commentary? Do you have advice for scholars on ways to study and analyze these artifacts?

DF: In recent years, the reality that fashion differs from its conventional image as an extravagant and festive celebration, and is in fact one component of the overall social fabric, has come to be understood through the lens of economic angles. Someday, perhaps, an economist specializing in fashion may be honored with the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences!

HA: Would you like to share anything more on your design philosophy?

DF: Nothing, whether it is new media or emerging circumstances or matters, ever springs into existence suddenly or from nothing. Rather, I believe it is people who sense that the old ideas and thinking no longer do the trick are the forces behind such evolution. Toward that end, to enter new realms through the medium of design, I believe in the need to create, through your own effort and volition, specific opportunities for encounters which demand decisive situations and events. Once you take part in something that needs change, you have put yourself on the path