Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Issey Miyake, Mao Zedong - spot the odd one out. "Easy," you might think, but actually there’s no odd one out! All four were selected by Time Magazine as among the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th century.
It is a sign of the great international esteem in which Miyake is held that the most established news mag in our fast-spreading global culture is happy to place him in the company of men who fought wars, led revolutions, and, for better or worse, altered the destinies of nations. Is Issey really that important?
His own answer would seem to be a resounding "No." Apparently shunning the glamour and status conferred on fashion designers by our novelty-hungry consumer society, Miyake prefers to be known simply as a "clothes maker." Accordingly, a major exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MCAT) has been given the unassuming name of "Making Things." It is this down-to-earth instinct to stay close to basics and elements, however, that has in fact ensured his success.
Originally held at the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain, Paris, where it attracted a record 100,000 visitors, the exhibition at MCAT illustrates his innovative approach with examples of his work from the last decade while also attempting to lift the veil on clothing of the future.
Indeed, for a designer who has made costumes for the original Starman, David Bowie, is obsessed with high-tech fibers, and who says, "I just happen to think the present is a bit behind itself," it is only natural to expect something futuristic. Anyone visiting the "Jumping" gallery at MCAT, with exhibits dangling from the ceiling, might think they’ve wandered into a zero gravity zone, while the items on display in the "Starburst" room seem more like spacesuits than anything else. The more practical and wearable is also in evidence, however, in the "Pleats Please Guest Artist Series" section.
A recurring source of inspiration for Miyake has always been his fundamental concept of "One Piece of Cloth," a springboard to which he has often returned. The A-POC pieces at the exhibition reveal recent interpretations on this theme. There is something a little eerie, even ghostly, about the garments in the "A-POC King & Queen" section. Made from one piece of cloth, they spill from the feet of the mannequins yet also stretch up to the ceiling as if the human form itself were melting. Is it possible that one source of inspiration for the artist was the atomic bomb that devastated his Hiroshima hometown as the 7-year-old Issey was riding his bicycle to school? It seems unlikely for such objects of beauty, but then Miyake has always been inspired by raw elemental forces – the wind, the rain, and fire.
In its eulogy, Time Magazine said, "With the future as his guide and nature as his inspiration, the path-breaking Japanese designer has created clothing with enduring global appeal." If he has indeed subsumed the single most horrific act of the 20th century into his creative consciousness, then, alongside his relevance for the future, he more than deserves his place in history.