When Issey Miyake Went to New York

Issey Miyake is one of the most significant figures in modern Japanese fashion.Leaving Couture Behind

In the late 1960s, the world did not yet know the name Issey Miyake. The young designer was living in Paris, where he made almost 100 sketches a day for the likes of Hubert de Givenchy and other leading lights of the Paris scene. But Miyake, who had grown up studying graphic design in Japan, found himself uninspired by the European world of haute couture. Its cultural rigidity, preference for luxurious maximalism, and close ties to the continent’s history of monarchy, elitism, and social stratification made it a sign of the old world in a moment when new directions in fashion were appearing possible. 

Issey Miyake bodyworks exhibition catalog, 1983.

Years after he worked with Miyake, Givenchy would say, “I don’t think I influenced him in any way.” It was true. For Miyake, Paris was little more than a stop on the way to New York. At the time many artists around the world felt the way Miyake did about New York; that as a young designer, trying to do something new, it was the only place he might survive. 

Issey Miyake and the New York Minimalists

Christo's art has been a significant influence on Issey Miyake.

Miyake only lived in New York for about 6 months, but in that time he managed to meet some of the designers and artists who would inspire him for life. He spent time with Robert Rauschenberg, a pioneer of assemblage, whose unconventional mixed media works prefigured the experiments Miyake would go on to make with fabric throughout the 80s. Miyake also met the recently deceased Christo, who would go on to wear his clothes exclusively, and whose own experiments with fabric at the monumental scale provide an interesting counterpoint to Miyake’s later focus on subtle dynamics of pleating. 

Issey Miyake clothes are undeniably inspired by friendships with artists like Robert Rauschenberg.

Above all though, it was Miyake’s New York day job that set the stage for his groundbreaking work in the 80s. When he was not hanging out with his artist friends or taking English classes at Columbia University, he was working on Seventh Avenue for the godfather of American minimalism, Geoffrey Beene. Beene’s expertise in minimalist women’s dresses won him acclaim throughout the New York scene and gave Miyake a chance to absorb techniques from fashion’s cutting-edge rather than the ossified royalisms of haute couture. 

Geoffrey Beene's minimalism was a significant influence on Miyake.

It was this partnership with Beene, alongside his memories of friends, celebrities, and the faces of American culture that gave Miyake a new kind of inspiration he could not have found in the Paris showrooms. As Issey himself put it, 

“What I do involves all sorts of people, all genres, and I think people in the art community appreciate it as they see it’s another form of expression, they see another point of view. I never wanted to make clothes just for fashion shows, I preferred to develop a relationship with the people who wear my clothes.”

Geoffrey Beene dress featured in a vintage vogue spread.

Thinking About People in Fashion History

When reflecting on his designs, Miyake often ties specific pieces and collections to specific people he has known. There is an imminently personal dimension to the work, which, like a tattoo-style dress Miyake once made that was inspired by Jimi Hendrix, is connected to the lives of historical people. This kind of interpersonal specificity sets Miyake apart as a designer. For some designers, such as Rick Owens, it is often difficult to understand specific garments outside of the overall project, the general aesthetic vision. By contrast, certain Miyake garments are often best understood in isolation, only in reference to the unique constellation of personal circumstances—faces and memories—that brought them into being. 

Issey Miyake's dress inspired by Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

This only speaks to the way that the reference points, models, and traces that drive the transformations of fashion history are rarely uniform in scope and kind—a garment might be inspired by a world-historic event like a war, or something as quotidian as a dinner table conversation. As readers of fashion history, we must remain attentive to these different forms of influence—large and small. Stay tuned to the Gone Library for more information about Miyake, Japanese design, and movements like minimalism in fashion. 

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