PRINT November 1988


THE JAPANESE TERM IMAMEKASHI, which might be translated “of the moment,” was coined in the Heian court of the tenth century. It was a term of currency, emphasizing the present, and it was applied by a culture aware that it inhabited a transient world. The early Japanese novelist Lady Murasaki, observing the ritual of the Heian court, would describe every delicacy of the color or cut of cloth in esthetic terms. She filled her prose with the implications of imamekashi as astutely as any contemporary fashion journalist. This concentration on the present, the fleeting moment, is related to and exemplified in Eastern meditative discipline, and is the antithesis of the Western religious mode of suffering through the present to achieve redemption in the hereafter. The pronounced Western fascination with Japan over the last two decades has something to do with an attraction to or hunger for an opposite pole, another world where there is continual emphasis on the present moment, which provides constancy through historical transformation. Maybe it is as simple as our desire to draw a circle.

Referring to the Japanese designer Issey Miyake, Andy Warhol once quoted a complex remark about “man’s . . . nebulous circumnavigation,” then reduced it simply to “East meets West and I like that because I’ve always liked circles more than squares. I like to watch people going around in circles.” Miyake’s book East Meets West, published in Tokyo in 1978 with an essay by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, and a brief tribute from the former New York Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, signaled the emerging force of Japanese fashion, which was to become so dominant in the ’80s. Vigorously overturning the constrictions of Japanese society, the book also undermined our own Eurocentered perspective. Isozaki’s essay placed Miyake’s creativity firmly in the context of the revolutionary late ’60s and, simultaneously, at the heart of Japanese tradition. It balanced his present moment between a new, volatile audacity and the archaic sources of his native culture. Miyake’s innovation did not contradict tradition but reasserted it. He was an agent of fusion, ripe for both East and West. Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Miyake’s rise to become the figurehead of the now-international Japanese fashion industry, are both examples from the last decade of the dialogue between East and West, examples of the fulfillment of the circle.

East Meets West was a publishing prototype. The photographs, representing work from 1970 to 1977, were laid out with a sense of breathless pace, and were superbly printed by Nissha in Kyoto. The design broke down a convention of uniform photographic representation. The models were black, white, and Japanese, old and young. Eiko by Eiko, 1983, a book on the career of the art director Eiko Ishioka, was the approximate sequel to East Meets West. And Ishioka and Miyake, who are of the same generation, represent a new breed of Japanese artist. They are international. They have exploded out of their native insularity to absorb a host of influences from Asia and Africa as well as the West. Yet Tokyo has remained their axis, and the whole world becomes potentially Japanized through their eyes.

Both Ishioka and Miyake were stimulated by Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba. They were not inhibited by the European sense of the history of the last fifty years, or by Riefenstahl’s role in it, or by the way her photography functioned; they saw the Nuba as magnificent specimens, wonderful human surfaces, as abstract as these African tribespeople’s body designs. For a culture living close to the present, such abstraction was attractive. History had erupted for the Japanese in 1945; Miyake had actually witnessed the Hiroshima explosion. History is an emotionally volatile arena for the generation that grew out of the postwar years. The present, with economic prosperity supplying a platform on which to be innovative, is the favored dimension when the past contains such terrible ghosts. “I love watches,” says Miyake, “I own many. Not for the time, but for the way they look. Why do I need to know the right time?” If your imagination inhabits the moment, you are always at the right time.

The latest publication in the hybrid literature between the West and Japan is Issey Miyake: Photographs by Irving Penn. A collaboration between the Japanese designer and the Western photographer, the book, printed again by Nissha in Kyoto, was published to coincide with an exhibition of Miyake designs currently on view in Paris. Miyake has established an archive of his output, from which, after an initial selection, three tons of ’80s clothes were shipped to New York, where Penn made his own choices. The poles of Miyake and Penn were in harmony.

Irving Penn employs an art of reduction. His fashion photographs are emptied to allow the geometry of the clothes to be the sole, uncluttered force; the clothes are reproduced like specimens in a taxonomic catalogue. Even his portraits may drive the subject into an empty corner, at the concentrated point of focus. His still lifes reduce foodstuffs to blocks of color; he can present cigarette butts as elegantly as flowers. Penn’s photographs are contextless, the subject without its surround. (“Why do I need to know the right time?”) He is the perfect mediator for Miyake, whose culture’s art historically favors simplification, deriving images from a process of reduction rather than construction. Whether it be a landscape painting or the architecture of a temple, the Japanese traditionally concentrate the image through bare, unadorned elements. Their esthetics are calculated to guide the eye to the point of focus.

In Issey Miyake Penn takes his reduction to the limit. He photographs the clothes in white nothingness. Even though the lighting casts deep shadows in the folds of cloth, the images are flattened, near abstracted, in their isolation. These pages begin predominantly in black and white, then turn to an unraveled knot of blue, coral, and ocher sashes unfurling like one of Penn’s photographs of flowers. The model—Jun Kano appears throughout—adopts the sculptural postures of a mannequin. Even in poses of motion, there is no vivacity; the clothes follow their distinct lines across the page, disclosing nothing of the muscular tension of the flesh beneath. Sexuality is often ambiguous, with the shape of the body concealed beneath layers or loose wraps of cloth. Extended arms show the full width of the fabrics, which fall into abstract squares or ovals.

The model is also neutral in her face, which shows minimal expression. Her variety of personae spring from her makeup, the different stylings of the hair, and of course her clothes. Occasionally she wears a mask, a mask of herself—like another layer of skin. In several images her face or even her head is concealed behind hats, veils, and fans, or beneath the collar of a white suit, which appears to stand disembodied, headless and armless, with only the feet emerging as the supportive base. The eyes may be hidden by dark glasses. Her hands too are frequently invisible, heightening the sense of the cloth as empty flesh.

In a brief closing note, Penn refers to Miyake’s inspiration from the natural forms of shell, seaweed, and stone. He lists the materials of the clothes: silk, cotton, paper, bamboo, and the occasional surprising plastic. As Miyake says himself, too much good taste is ultimately stultifying. His traditional sensibility for natural elements is balanced by the synthetic, by silicone and polyurethane. A tunic and stole inspired by wakame, or seaweed, is woven from an unevenly plated synthetic and metallic yarn. Miyake is a fabric specialist. “There are no boundaries for what can be fabric, for what clothes can be made from. Anything can be clothing,” he says. The oil-soaked paper used so commonly in the traditional Japanese umbrella is reemployed to form a translucent coat. The model glows in blurred outline through this golden paper skin, like an insect set in amber. In contrast, a cocoon cape of acid-treated alpaca forms contours like the forested landscape of the Japanese mountains seen from the air.

Miyake’s design draws on parallels with architecture. His structures in bamboo recall samurai armor, a rigid house for the body. These constructions exemplify ideas of the body moving within a space beneath an outer surface. They appear as representative expressions of a fundamental concept rather than designs for common dress. But Miyake, influenced by the ’20s-and-’30s French designer Madeleine Vionnet, also explores the relationship between cloth and body in movement, so that the design follows the contours of the mobile body without constricting it. Whereas in Western tailoring the fabric is cut to fit, the Japanese use its measure, allowing its width to determine the proportions of the garment with minimal cutting, draping rather than encasing the human form. The design allows a tenuous separation between the body and the cloth, which the body inhabits like an outer skin. Miyake sometimes peels away the layers of cloth to create a second skin, or body mold. The images of samurai armor now recur in his work in shredded leather, pliable as new flesh.

One of Miyake’s most innovative images is found in the bark of a tree. The body can move inside a tube of fabric as if in a caterpillar skin. “Did you know there’s a tree in Africa where the bark comes off completely?” asks Miyake. “It’s round, just like a tube of jersey. I wanted to make something woven that was warped like African bark.” Isozaki once wrote about the “hollow loom,” the utsuhata, on which were woven the seamless Japanese sacred garments for the gods—the prototype of clothing, perhaps the polar equivalent to the shroud of Turin. The hollow garment is archetypal dress, a universal, seamless, circular form.

Penn’s Miyake project is appropriately sequential to his own body of work. Its style is reminiscent of his book Inventive Paris Clothes 1909–1939,1977, in which he used mannequins instead of models, sat them against a neutral backdrop, yet was able to encapsulate the flavor of a whole historical sequence. From his early series “The Small Trades: London, Paris, New York,” 1950, to the book Worlds in a Small Room, 1974, he has attempted to enclose diverse social strata, on a global scale, within his photography. His collaboration with Miyake displays his ultimate refinement as a fashion photographer, perfectly of the moment—imamekashi—as he encloses a contemporary Japanese imagination, of the most fertile kind, in emptiness.

“My generation in Japan lived in limbo. We were the first really raised with Hollywood movies and Hershey bars, the first who had to look in another direction for a new identity. We dreamed between two worlds,” Miyake has said. This book bridges the two worlds. Miyake’s work is completed only when he sees it worn, entering the currency of the street, in action. At that stage it becomes of the moment, completing the cycle of fashion. Penn’s photographs, then, don’t constitute a book about Issey Miyake. They are an extension of the work itself.

Mark Holborn is a writer and editor who currently lives in London.

The clothes pictured here were designed by Issey Miyake and photographed by Irving Penn. The images and the accompanying descriptions are included in Issey Miyake: Photographs by Irving Penn.

Issey Miyake: Photographs by Irving Penn, edited by Nicholas Callaway, is published in America and in the United Kingdom by the New York Graphic Society (Little, Brown and Company) in association with Callaway Editions. French and Swiss editions are published by Edipresse-Livrcs SA, German by Edition Stemmle, and Japanese by Libro Port Publishing Co., Ltd. The exhibition that the book accompanies, “Issey Miyake A UN,” can be seen at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, until December 31.