Reflecting on his approach to design, Issey Miyake said, “Even when I work with computers, with high technology, I always try to put in the touch of the hand...two or three people twist them...and put it all into the machine to cook it.” The ‘cooking’ Miyake refers to is the use of a heat press to pleat garments. Miyake’s dynamic, creative approach to pleating has been one of the signatures of his designs since the early 1990s. Understanding what makes Miyake’s approach to pleating unique requires an understanding of the techniques centuries of couturiers before him had developed.
Today’s methods of pleating owe much to the early 20th century designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, who opened his first couture house in Spain in 1906. The ‘Fortuny pleat,’ also called the ‘poetic pleat,’ was adapted from motifs of Greek women, whose airy and layered garments stacked and twisted in dynamic ways against the body. With the Delphos gown, Fortuny made a finely pleated dress inspired by the Grecian models, its silk was interlaced with small beads. Today, the gowns are a sought-after collector’s item, fetching prices of more than $10,000.
Miyake was inspired by the Delphos garments, but in keeping with his creative vision, which blended “high technology” with “the touch of the hand,” he blended the looks of Greek antiquity and Spanish craftsmanship with the industrial production methods of his day. Miyake had a detailed and rigorous process for creating the pleated garments that made up his acclaimed ‘93 Pleats, Please collection. Miyake’s seamstresses would cut triply oversized fabric. After sewing pieces together, fabric was compressed between layers and treated by hand in a heat press, which produced permanent pleats. The result was a design that drew together the intricate subtlety of the Fortuny pleat with the precision and scale of modern industrial design. Miyake’s pleats held rigid as fascinating architectural forms.
After discovering this pleating technique, Miyake found the clothes he made with it were well-suited for dancers, who needed a garment that held its shape perfectly. After studying the history of dance, Miyake began to reach out to dancers to walk in his runway shows instead of models. It is a fascinating example of how innovations in technical manufacture can transform the broader culture and community of fashion.
For Miyake, pleats brought individuality to mass-produced garments in a time when ready-to-wear had led to an explosion of consumer fast fashion. A pleat was a statement of a designer’s unique intent, a handprint. For Miyake, pleating was not a disavowal of fashion’s industrialization, but an artisan’s approach to working with machines, a “touch of the hand.”