For Issey Miyake, the quietly transgressive Japanese designer who died in August, it all started and ended with fabric. Through technical innovation and new technique, his early work established him as a pioneer in the field of materials development. Alongside his textile director Makiko Minagawa, who helped bring Miyake’s ideas to life in the 80s and 90s, the designer proposed radical new ways of understanding the garment-making process, incorporating unorthodox materials like pineapple, bamboo and jute, often treated with then unusual plant-based dyes.
After graduating from the graphic design department of Tama Art University in Tokyo in 1964, Miyake moved to Paris, where he worked with Guy Laroche in 1966 before decamping to Givenchy two years later. After a stint with American designer Geoffrey Beene, Miyake founded his eponymous design studio in Tokyo in 1970, presented his first collection in New York a year later and debuted at Paris Fashion Week in 1973.
Throughout his career, Miyake focused on making clothes – not fashions, he insisted – that were practical, comfortable and incredibly utilitarian. Today, his work is acclaimed by the press and exhibited in museums. But above all, his most recognizable designs are steeped in a certain wearable accessibility, and a simplicity that belies their technical rigor – and two months after his death, the fashion industry still reckons with his absence. The next time your water cooler conversation turns to the designer‘s legacy (or a style-conscious colleague mentions his name to break an awkward silence on Zoom), here’s what to weigh to have look like an expert.
Seashell coat — 1985
In 1985, Miyake and his then textile manager, Makiko Minagawa, designed a coat using specially treated nylon fishing line. Combined with strategic threading of cotton and linen, the end result took on a distinct shell-like shape, an artful piece of technical magic that highlighted Miyake’s talent for unorthodox material manipulations and his sensitivity to the nuances of the wearer’s body. (If you want a closer look, you’re in luck: It’s currently on display in the Met’s 5th Avenue location until February of next year.)
The Minaret Dress — 1995