Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Miyake and Japanese Tradition

By Alan Kennedy a specialist in historic Asian costume and textiles.

What is Japanese in Miyake's work, and why has its "Eastern" component been so well received in the West? The designer understands and appreciates the strengths of Japan's traditions, and is equally aware of how and when to translate that knowledge beyond Japan' borders. The pervasiveness of indigo, for instance, in traditional Japanese folk dress and textiles served as an influence in Miyake's earliest clothing collections. The blue of our ubiquitous blue jeans was originally derived from the same dye source.

In its outlines, the T-shaped kimono can be called an elongated forerunner of our T-shirt. It is simple in construction, being formed of rectangular sections of cloth sewn side to side, which make up the sleeves and body of the garment. In his early handkerchief dresses (1970) Miyake did the same, but instead shifted the orientation of the seams from the vertical to the diagonal.

The relationship between the wearer's body and the traditional kimono is another reference that can be seen in much of Miyake's clothing. Unlike occidental dress, which tends to follow the body's contours through the use of bias cutting, padding and an overall tight fit, the kimono disguises the body's specific shape, and instead suggests the body's movements in the way the voluminous sleeves sway and the long trailing hem sweeps as the wearer moves. Miyake's clothes, which have also been worn by dancers in performances, do not usually hug the body, but move with it in interesting ways.

Because the cut of the kimono is so simple, Japanese textile artisans and designers focused their attention on the fabric itself and its surface decoration. The weight and texture of the cloth used for kimono conveys a wide range of tactile and visual sensations. The designs created by dyeing, weaving, embroidery and applied metal foils can be startling in their dynamic and asymmetric patterning.

An understanding of textile fibers, both natural and synthetic, and of fabrics, both handwoven and traditionally dyed, as well as high-tech textiles that are not woven at all, is one of the most remarkable aspects of Miyake's work. Multi-directional pleating, garments encased in metallic skins, multicolored feltlike clothing "collaged" together from irregularly shaped pieces of cloth, and dresses with large sections that are selectively shrunk represent some of the textile-conscious directions that Miyake has taken in recent years.

A Miyake design doesn't correspond to a particular fashion season, current look or social tendency. His clothes are difficult to put in any chronological order by those who are unfamiliar with his work. One of the more refreshing aspects of Issey Miyake as a fashion designer (a designation he dislikes) is that he does not participate in the seasonal trends involving the selective exposure, exaggeration, or emphasis of a particular part of the female anatomy. This is not to imply that bare skin and transparency are absent from his design vocabulary, but rather that such factors do not drive his design statements. Many of his clothes (as is the case with the kimono) can be worn by women of all ages, shapes and sizes.

The distinction between art and design was not relevant in traditional Japan. Painters worked on kimono, textile designers might also be potters. A hierarchy of fine and applied arts did not exist. An event such as the tea ceremony included a single painting or calligraphic work, ceramics as tea bowls, textiles as wrappers for tea utensils, a flower arrangement and specially-made edibles, all set in a carefully designed space. Perhaps it is this approach that facilitates Miyake's collaborations with artists and his periodic appearances in art museums.;col1

by Louise Mitchell, Curator, International Decorative Arts and Design

Issey Miyake (born 1938), whose name is perhaps the most well known in the west, established the Miyake Design Studio in Tokyo in 1970 after serving an apprenticeship in Europe and New York. Along with his interest in utilising aspects of Japanese folk culture and traditional textiles, Miyake’s preoccupation during the 1970s was the development of a garment that was reduced to its simplest elements. Drawing on the tradition of the kimono he produced garments he called ‘a piece of cloth’ (A-POC), which were, essentially, square or rectangular in shape with sleeves attached, garments that could be wrapped and draped around the body.

Over the years, Miyake has collaborated with weavers, artists and poets, choreographers and photographers as part of his exploration of what clothes can do and be made from. In the mid 1980s he staged a series of exhibitions aimed at exploring the relationship between the body’s form and the garment. Entitled Bodyworks, the exhibition contained installations of moulded plastic bustiers (a corset-like garment) with sci-fi connotations, and rattan and bamboo bustiers reminiscent of samurai armour. While these sculptural creations were more at home in a museum or art gallery, Miyake’s innovative pleated clothes, developed in the 1990s, have realised his aim of creating practical, modern clothes that are beyond trends. Similarly, his current preoccupation, A-POC, a long tube of stretch fabric that doesn’t require any sewing and is cut by the customer without wasting any material, shows an ongoing commitment to progressive design.

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