Living: The Man Who's Changing Clothes

Designer Issey Miyake makes fashion for tomorrow

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When he was ten years old, Miyake developed osteomyelitis, a bone-marrow disease. He makes light of it--"the 'osso buco' is disappearing," he will say--but he has been hospitalized twice for treatment, and he endured a seven- month siege of traction. At first, after the war, penicillin was the only available treatment for the condition. "My mother sold our land in the mountains to buy penicillin for me," he says. "After I had almost recovered, she died." The bone disease is not bomb related, he explains, but his left leg remains shorter than the right, and he often limps. An old friend says that when he limps, he is in pain. He limps a lot.

All that usually shows on his face is a smile or a look of dreamy, distracted concentration. "I don't know when it was I got my drive," he says, "but all the things that happened have been good for me." He thought he might become a painter, and he went to a special crafts school. At night, he remembers, "I went through drawings of naked femmes." It was the clothed ones, however, that first seduced him. As a teenager, he recalls stopping his bike in front of a shop window, staring at the French-style mannequins inside, seeing his own reflection mirrored in the glass. He borrowed some books and started to copy French fashion sketches. His first drawing was a Balenciaga. "It was like a spiral," he says, still seeing it. "A woman with a long neck and bare + arms and her back rounded."

Being a fashion designer in Japan was, he says, "frightening." It was not man's work, and it was not respected. He attended the highly regarded Tama Art University, where he studied graphics, then took off for Paris and New York City, two capitals more hospitable to fashion novitiates. He apprenticed with Hubert de Givenchy and Guy Laroche in Paris and Geoffrey Beene on Seventh Avenue before returning to Tokyo and launching M.D.S. in 1970. Almost immediately his clothes showed up in New York City at Bloomingdale's and at two of Tokyo's most prestigious department stores. He staged a fashion show in an indoor parking garage and, as his friend Ishioka puts it, "suddenly his name was famous." Japanese fashion seemed, all at once, to have found its focus and forward force.

This gave Miyake the confidence to initiate the design experiments that produced some of his greatest work: the cocoon coat, clothing made of a single piece of cloth or layered like segments of a child's spinning top, a man's raincoat that looks like a combination of an opera cape and an overturned circus tent. But there were new burdens to contend with. He put superb photos of his best work into East Meets West, a seminal book of contemporary design that appeared in 1978. By then, however, he was also starting to get overworked, overextended and frightened. "I always tried to smile," he remembers, flashing a typical dazzler. "But after East Meets West, I went to pieces." He was showing a whole separate collection in Milan, which was punishing; seeing nearly a decade's worth of work pressed between the covers of one book was daunting and brought him up against a dead end: Now what?

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