Living: The Man Who's Changing Clothes

Designer Issey Miyake makes fashion for tomorrow

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A general introduction, courtesy Issey Miyake: "I make clothes." A gentle caution: "We must not be too logical." And an all-purpose question: "How do you think it?"

"Issey," asks a friend, standing in a bustling hotel lobby, "how do I work this?" The friend is flapping about in the enveloping intricacies of a new raincoat. "I made it like this," says the designer, improvising a fitting at the front desk. He unbuttons a half-cape that spans the sleeves and puts the loose ends around his friend's neck. "Like a scarf, you see?"

"But what about this?" says a companion, trashing logic and pulling the cape over the friend's head, buttoning it under the neck to make a watertight hood. The designer looks; his head tilts. "How do you think it?" his friend teases.

Miyake's face creases into the sort of smile that should come in a gift box. "Great!" he says, grabbing his companion in a tight hug, as if some souvenir sphinx had suddenly surrendered a secret. To all the patrons in the hotel lobby, it looks as if old friends were reuniting at the end of a long trip; in fact, any voyage with Issey Miyake is ongoing. "Next time I make like that, and you do something different again," he laughs. "Always fresh, always different, always challenge. That way is best, I think. Want to eat?"

In a minute, maybe. Meanwhile, it is worth pointing out that some strenuous modification of that lobby styling session has produced, over the past 15 < years, some of the best clothes there are, some of the most adventurous anyone has ever done. These are clothes that defy convention by flowing all around it, like so many pieces of whole cloth finding fresh form in the controlled accident of the fall, making the body under them feel as loose and free as the fabric. He has even experimented with molding the body underneath. Other designers working the same territory might just market a line of underwear. Not Miyake. He designs bustiers for intrepid evening wear out of motorcycle- helmet plastic and mounts a museum project called "Bodyworks," which has appeared in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco and at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Miyake's clothes, declarations of independence for the body, do not look at all out of place on exhibit in museums. Yvonne Deslandres, curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, casts traditional French fashion jingoism aside and calls Miyake "the greatest creator of clothing of our time." His designs challenge so many traditional expectations and break so many rules that they need different sets of standards to be understood or even worn. "I know many people resist or reject my clothing, because it's not a package that's already formed, like European clothing," the designer will concede. "Without the wearer's ingenuity, my clothing isn't clothing. These are clothes where room is left for wearers to make things their own. That may need courage at first, but once you get the trick, it's not difficult."

The trick, most often, is simplicity. What may be difficult is the attitude that the clothes need, and indeed can instill, once they are on the body, making with every movement of the arm or arch of the hip shapes full of gentle, sensual surprise. Miyake clothes on women are a revelation. On men, they are a relief. If most conventional clothing is, as the designer says, "a package," then wearing Miyake feels like being unwrapped at Christmas.

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