Issey Miyake (1938–2022)

Issey Miyake, 1998. Photo: Denis Dailleux/Agence VU/Redux.

THOUGH I DIDN’T CRY FOR BOWIE, I cried for Issey the way I cried for Leonard Cohen. My best friend wore Issey’s perfume, which bottled the sensation of water on skin. I have a few of his Pleats Please garments, harvested from eBay, and there is a thrifted, asymmetrical, gray ribbed heavy wool pullover sweater that I still regret giving away. It was from the early ’80s, like the raw silk, pleated madder-red smock I still treasure for its color and drape. His garments tend to stay with you. My ninety-six-year-old Parisian mother-in-law recalls an Issey jacket she bought decades ago. It was a green wool—the color of a traveling cloak, she says—unlined, light but warm, with a quality she describes as enveloping, raising her hands as she says this as if to grasp a generous collar to shelter her neck and face against a piercing wind, or an unwelcome glance. This feeling of envelopment, both calming and freeing, is at the heart of Issey Miyake’s oeuvre. You experience the garment as shelter at the same time as its interiority liberates an emotional and expressive pleasure. My mother-in-law’s gestural enactment of her remembered Issey jacket defines the designer’s paradoxical lyricism. His garments wrap you in lightness. There is a kind of phantom smock hidden in everything he made.

The capacity of textiles to remember is called shape-memory. Heat activates or releases the morphological intelligence of some fibers so that crease patterns become permanent forms. Human hair, for example, has shape memory. Issey Miyake advanced this technology for his Pleats Please line of garments. I recall a popular 1970s textile treatment called Permapress, which exploited this technology, but to prevent creasing. It meant that women could iron less: Shape memory can also free the wearer from oppressively repetitive kinds of labor and convention. Issey’s innovations in memory demonstrate this thoroughly and with joyous tact.

It is said that the jeweler and restauranteur Tina Chow habitually carried a crumpled Issey Miyake dress in her handbag. Chow died in 1992 and Pleats Please launched in 1993. I like to think the line was his tribute to her. Miyake began to explore the technology of pleating in the 1980s, and I’ve also wondered whether his research was influenced by the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in 1985 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The bridge-garment’s synthetic textile, in my memory, shares the fine, elastic, irregular, and lightly enveloping qualities of the Pleats Please garments. The wrapped bridge became, temporarily, an insouciant nightclub, even during the day; Issey’s new liquid apparel celebrated the ordinary beauty of mobile human bodies.

Baudelaire often wore ordinary blue workers’ smocks, brand-new and flaunting the ironed-in fold marks. Nadar said that once in the street on Ile de la Cité, he saw the young Baudelaire in such a blue smock, with a magenta feather boa of the sort then worn by bohemian actresses, and impeccable pink kid gloves. This seems, to me, very Issey. Baudelaire’s combination of a traditional protective garment with accessories of delicious frivolity and levity expresses an attitude about modern sartorial beauty deeply explored by Miyake, a lifelong student of vernacular lightness. Beauty must be modern, the poet said—both eternal and temporary.

Lisa Robertson’s recent books include the novel The Baudelaire Fractal and the poetry collection Boat, both from Coach House Books, as well as Anemones, a translation and study of Simone Weil published by If I Can’t Dance, in Amsterdam. She lives in France.