Living: The Man Who's Changing Clothes

Designer Issey Miyake makes fashion for tomorrow

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Some substantial modification was required. Miyake's nickname around the workroom had been "Issey 3 mm." "I wouldn't compromise by even that much." Now he is proud to be called "Issey 1 1/2 cm." "Once upon a time," he concedes, "I was not quite so happy to see all these eccentrics around the place. But now the sight of these people makes me happy." There are occasional heady references at M.D.S. to the Bauhaus and the 17th century Japanese school of painting called Rimpa. "I feel there are some possibilities that we might do something similar. That's why I'm not quitting yet," jokes Akira Onozuka, the studio's design director. "I was always worrying about what he would like and what he would want," confesses Tomio Mohri, who directs Miyake's fashion shows and special exhibits like "Bodyworks," all while supervising the spectacular range of knitwear for which Miyake is rightly renowned. "But then I started to change all that. I told myself, 'I'm going to do what I want.' " "At M.D.S.," says Miyake, "everybody says what they think." But he also emphasizes, "If I see something at a fitting and I don't like it, whatever anyone else says, that's it."

This congenial and productive tension between group dynamics and artistic autocracy has a familiar echo. "Design work is not alone work," he says. Watching him with collaborators, fitters and apprentices, soliciting and sifting through ideas, one is reminded of a film director on the set. Like cinema, design as practiced by Miyake is a collaborative medium that deploys a myriad of talents under a single guiding sensibility.

Working with his close associate Makiko Minagawa, Miyake creates his own fabric from what he calls a "broad image, not necessarily too specific. Something from daily life: leaves, trees, bark, sky, air. Anything. A noodle." "To know what kind of fabric he is going to want," Minagawa says, is not merely a matter of "what color the sky was that day, but what kind of dance or architecture he is interested in." Fabric samples are cut into 1 1/ 2-meter pieces and draped over the designer's body. "Fabric is like the grain - in wood," he says. "You can't go against it. I close my eyes and let the fabric tell me what to do." If the fabric could be a coat, Miyake wraps it around himself; if it is a potential shirt, the designer puts it over his chest. Then it is draped over a model, and only after that last step are sketches made of what the garment will be. "Clothes," he explains, "have to be seen on the outside as well as felt on the inside." If it is something he can wear, Miyake will put the finished sample on and go into his single most characteristic fitting gesture: whirling an arm up, down and around in a quickly widening circle, making sure the garment has plenty of ease. He looks like a relief pitcher winding up to throw a high hard one that will retire the side.

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