Living: The Man Who's Changing Clothes

Designer Issey Miyake makes fashion for tomorrow

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Miyake, 47, grew up in Hiroshima during the war and emerged with his own brand of optimism, a spirit that is perpetually renewed by being hard pressed, perhaps because all other challenges seem small after survival. "I say problem is opportunity," he explains. "When we have found a big problem, that is wonderful." In the case of his work, he realized that "my very disadvantage, my lack of Western heritage, would also be my advantage. I was free of Western tradition or convention. There was no other way for me to go but forward." The kimono may be "a shape frozen in time," but Miyake not only took from it a way of cutting and wrapping clothes and a means for construction of a sleeve that did not constrict, he used its central concept of the space between body and cloth as a way to let wearer and garment interact, to make from their respective shapes a whole new form.

Comments his friend Tomoko Komuro, who went into partnership with him to form the Miyake Design Studio (M.D.S.) in 1970: "He was attracted by some kind of excitement that goes beyond the limit of clothing." Miyake found the limit, then pushed past it. He used plastic, paper, rubber, insisting that "anything can be clothing." His clothes always seemed to have been sewed together in some sensual time warp entirely of his own devising. They are ancestral and futuristic all at once. They do not go out of style because they have little relation to anything as evanescent as a trend.

Miyake approaches even the humblest bolt of cloth with the sophistication that comes from long practical experience, as well as from a grounding in the inward splendors of the classic Japanese tea ceremony. Two central concepts of tea culture are sabi and wabi. Sabi conveys the dull sheen of posterity, the finish, mystery and allure acquired by an object that has been well worn. Wabi suggests the use of a humble material for a higher purpose. Both qualities abound in Miyake's best clothes: his coats and dresses cut from one piece of cloth, a man's sweater that looks as if it could warm a wandering trapper but hangs on the shoulders no more heavily than a strand of loose hair.

Miyake has the strongest kind of signature, emphatic but often elusive, in ( part because he gives his associates a lot of lead. Eiko Ishioka, a gifted art director and one of Miyake's oldest friends, says that "when he was young, Issey lacked confidence and experience, and he could not control his emotional reactions or talent. His staff did not want to be slaves, they wanted to be equals, so he had to change his character."

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