Dead People Rule
On Issey Miyake (1938–2022)
At every fashion job I’ve ever had there’s been a certain brand or designer or aesthetic that everyone adopts, no matter their taste or preference, for good reason: it’s good. At my last job, people would wear it with sneakers on our hikes up the mountain, or brush nonexistent dust off it after sitting down on the subway, and there was always a moment of eye contact at the coffee shop between two customers who noticed they were dressed in identical pants. The first time I went to a new dentist, recommended by a colleague, I was wearing my Pleats Please pants. The dentist looked me up and down above his clipboard, and rather than ask who referred me, he gestured at my outfit.
“SSENSE,” he said, like a statement.
“Yes,” I said, holding the delicate material with a pinch.
Some clichés never stop earning their status. We are all, it’s true, cut from the same cloth. But that cloth is different when it’s an Issey Miyake cloth. In her Miyake obituary for Curbed, Diana Budds wisely wrote there is “a stereotype that the design world’s uniform is anything black. But more aspirationally, it’s anything Issey Miyake.”
When Miyake passed away on August 5, at 84 years old, the condolences were as effusive as any compliments he received in his lifetime: a testament to how beloved he was throughout his long career, that the eulogies matched the historical record. He once told the fashion writer Tim Blanks that “clothes are not abstract like architecture or graphic design, they’re a public reflection of people’s joys and hopes.” That sentiment is embodied in the devotion so many people will forever have to what he made.
As a young designer Miyake studied at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and later worked for Hubert de Givenchy, visiting the most traditional of ateliers. Soon after he worked for Geoffrey Beene in New York and felt for himself the revolutionary promise of students marching in blue jeans. Though he often said he didn’t want to be known as a fashion designer, he was an excellent defender of and representative for fashion’s place in art. When the World Design Conference came to Japan in 1960 and no one was chosen to represent fashion, Miyake, still a graphic design student, directly challenged the organizer’s decision. Later, Ingrid Sischy would famously put a Miyake dress on a cover of Artforum, sending the message that his work was as important as anything in another medium. Miyake was the master of turning something that could feel old — cut from the same cloth — into something truer and newer. His love for clothes was the kind of constructive sleight of hand that makes genius feel as natural as nudity.
Miyake had wanted to be a dancer as a child, and in 1991, he made the costumes for William Forsythe’s ballet The Loss of Small Detail. It was an early attempt at shaping pleating around the body’s movements. The puzzle of how different materials could be incorporated into a collaborative effort subsequently became his life’s work. In Rachel Tashjian’s words, he “thought obsessively, happily, about freedom, about what experimentation and even rebellion could invite.”
A famous anecdote: in 1981, Miyake designed uniforms for Sony as part of a tribute for their thirty-fifth anniversary, consisting of a jacket made of ripstop nylon that easily converted into a vest. When Steve Jobs visited the factory, he liked the look of the uniforms so much that he tried to commission Miyake to make a vest for Apple employees, who really didn’t want to wear them. Their loss. Jobs relented, but kept the idea for himself. Miyake’s black turtlenecks became Jobs’s personal uniform. When he passed away, in 2011, his closet had “like a hundred of them” — enough, Jobs once poignantly said, “to last for the rest of my life.” Miyake stopped producing the turtlenecks after Jobs died.
Miyake maintained professional and personal relationships with all sorts of people. He made dresses for ballerinas, technocrats, architects, and assistants. He designed uniforms for the Lithuanian Olympic team in 1992, shortly after they declared independence from the Soviet Union. His line 132 5., a range of two-dimensional items that unfolded to be three-dimensional when worn, was influenced by Jun Mitani, a professor at the University of Tsukuba who specializes in crafting geometric modeling and origami with computer software. For the Guest Artist series that ran between 1996 and 1998, Miyake invited contemporary artists to work with Pleats Please as if it were any other material. Miyake saw everything as a collaboration: nothing was done until it was worn. “When I make something, it’s only half-finished,” he explained. “When people use it — for years and years — then it is finished.”
At the beginning of his career Miyake dressed Fusae Ichikawa, a preeminent feminist leader and activist in Japan who was one of the country’s major figures of women’s suffrage. The acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid (called the “Queen of the Curve” by the Guardian) wore Miyake in her portrait shot by Irving Penn, and once told an interviewer that she loved the “crinkling” of his early works, buying them as presents for her friends and painting on them “like a canvas, raw linen.” Miyake loved the ceramicist Lucie Rie and made her a custom design when she was in her eighties; she was too little to wear anything off the rack. He asked Liliane Lijn, a pioneer of kinetic text, to model for his series of portraits of creative women. Thirty years later, she told Hettie Judah that she still remembered the human warmth of his designs. His clothes “didn’t subscribe to the conventional notions of what a woman should look like.”
You are always looking at photos of yourself from not too long ago, shaking your head, preparing to say the phrase we use to distance ourselves from who we once were: What was I thinking? In Miyake’s clothes, though, we can be saved from this embarrassment.Tweet
I am, like so many others, most enamored with the line Pleats Please. Every item is composed of a series of pleats so fine they resemble blades of grass, a plissé technique made perfect with a heat press. The pleats were inspired by the Fortuny gowns of the early 1900s, sometimes called Delphos gowns after the statue Charioteer of Delphi, lending mythological meaning to what became for some an everyday item. Most astoundingly, the clothes could be machine washed. After decades in which advanced domestic technology was kept far away from objects of value — i.e., never putting your favorite pants in the washing machine — Pleats Please garments proved to be the rare item that could be special without being fragile.
In 1998, Miyake said that the present was “a bit behind.” It’s a fair assessment. Contemporary fashion often seems to be in mourning for itself, even as there is a relentless churn between romanticizing the old and reifying the new. The only counter to the cynicism of today’s luxury market is a good sense of humor, which is to say, a certain stamina for constant ego death. You are always looking at photos of yourself from not too long ago, shaking your head, preparing to say the phrase we use to distance ourselves from who we once were: What was I thinking? In Miyake’s clothes, though, we can be saved from this embarrassment. It’s hard to explain why some trends come and go while others remain as elemental as Pleats Please. I can only cite another cliché with a slight variation: we know it when we wear it.
I bought my first pair of Pleats Please pants after many, many discussions with my peers who were better versed in the sizing than I was. When they arrived in the mail I touched them as carefully as I would anything precious, then wore them to go grocery shopping. I now own two shirts as well, and a skirt will follow as soon as I have the money. These items are not what most people would consider affordable, but they are what anyone can recognize as valuable. They are not exactly practical, but they are worn so easily. They are a marvel.
— Haley Mlotek
Once, in the last months of high school, my local paper published headshots of various award winners, including me, for some honor I can no longer remember (probably not attendance). Before the issue went to press, my mother’s friend, an editor at the paper, saw my photo and felt it best to call. The portrait wasn’t lewd, or even sullen, but it was very unflattering. On the phone my mother reassured her friend that no, it wasn’t a prank, and yes, she should print the photo. I had submitted that photo myself, she explained, and the selection was made in earnest. All I ever wanted in that town — and still do — was to get as far away as I could from the deep-down wish to be really, really pretty.
I suppose it is unremarkable to feel this way about one’s appearance — to find it at once oppressive and worthy of careful consideration, like the insides of a complicated relationship. We live in a world far too happy to repackage and sell our anxieties back to us, and yet I know that getting dressed is a kind of intelligence, if an intelligence sometimes difficult to defend. Style — no matter how subjective the vagaries of taste — is almost always an act of communication, a bid for approval. If you don’t face this, then the most you manage to say is I want you to think I am beautiful, or failing that I want you to think I am rich, or even worse I don’t care what I look like, which no one believes anyway.
Issey Miyake helped me reconcile myself to the hypocrisy and compromise that form around caring how you look. His designs allowed me to love clothes, and love them to a fault, without feeling like I had to capitulate to something that had nothing really to say. Miyake’s clothes, in other words, do not make your butt look good.
In a more recent photo, one my high school self would approve of, I am wearing a peaked-shoulder blouse tucked into elastic-waist shorts, both by Issey Miyake. Some beloved friends and I were posing together in a plaza, and I remember how afterward the two of them sat huddled over a smartphone, professionally chic women in uncharacteristic concern. They were having trouble editing the photo so that I wouldn’t look so lumpy. Here again was love as protection. Though no one has ever complimented how I look while wearing Issey Miyake, they do sometimes compliment the clothes. Once it was a long yellow gown with a half dome attached to the back, resembling a bubble or maybe an exaggerated wart made of corrugated athletic mesh. When I wore it, it was not yet vintage — more like fifteen seasons past-current, usually a low point in a garment’s life — but the editorial director of Vogue still looked at it carefully before asking me who I was wearing.
Miyake designed clothes that do something other than make you feel beautiful. They do not worry about their wearer’s physical particularities. Consider his poorly named Plantation line: launched in 1981 with a collection of big nylon wind jackets, it was marketed as genderless, ageless, and sizeless, and mostly involved sacks with sleeves. Or my first Miyake piece — a neon green Pleats Please plissé scarf that collapsed like a paper lantern on the table but formed spikes around the neck — which I bought with my grandmother at a mall in Tokyo when I was 12. I don’t remember much about adolescence except the lingering confusion of not knowing what type of idealized body I wanted or was even supposed to want. But while I had been taught to distrust liking myself, I feared disappearing even more. I wanted to exist without having to be pleasing. And in Miyake’s designs, I sensed I might be honest about caring about what I wore — even to the point of showing off — without also having to care about being pretty. This was the punk imperative, too, though it pains me a bit to look back and realize it was possible to be unattractive in Issey Miyake and not offend anyone. (That was the true brilliance of his work, which made it easier to keep wearing it as I grew up.) Wearing his clothes, we are like snails lending a shell its ostensible purpose but not its lustrous form, or weights holding a sail of fabric against the wind.
Miyake apparently once said that he made “clothes,” not “fashion,” and I think it’s important to recognize that his work was not simply concept or art: it took a resounding physical form, and that mattered. Its gestures were assured, not ironic jokes. And if his designs were not useful in the way a push-up bra is useful, it was to challenge the conception of design that centers what we want from things rather than how things can use us. Miyake’s clothes, in their billows and points and general ill-fittingness — as well as in their material investigations — leave a legacy of us not looking our best. Instead, they suggest what fashion can do beyond flattery, as well as what desires are worth falling for.
— Su Wu
I started collecting Pleats, if you can believe it, before I was living in New York. I remember Elizabeth coming to tell me she had gotten herself a present and arriving wearing simply the most stunning and unusual pants I had ever seen. They were simultaneously overstated and minimal, with bouncing crenulated flows that dipped and repeated a black-and-white pattern and curlicued into a perfectly elegant silhouette. “What,” I asked. “Pleats Please,” she replied.
Gender transition is different for different people, but part of my experience was frequently asking: How can my strange body feel good in a given article of clothing? I borrowed Elizabeth’s Pleats pants over and over, coveting them. I learned they were expensive, but there was an aftermarket for them. A friend told me about a website — the “Japanese eBay,” they called it — where, through a proxy server, you could shop for inexpensive Pleats from Japan. They would get mailed to a warehouse in Japan and then shipped by air or by sea to America. Shipping was a rather high flat rate, so it made sense to buy more items and pool orders with friends. Browsing this website, often in Google-translated English, became my new hobby.
Issey Miyake started producing the Pleats Please collection in 1988, the year I was born, but it only became its own diffusion line in 1993. The clothes are situated on a wavering ridge between casual and formal, elegant and cozy. Pleats Please is luxury-coded, but only if you recognize it; in this way, it’s less attention-seeking than other kinds of couture, or perhaps more selectively attention-seeking. The designs have been copied and proliferated such that if you’re not attuned to the thing, the clothes appear almost nondescript. (For instance: google popcorn shirt.)
This kind of coded, if-you-know-you-know disclosure also abounds in both trans and Jewish experience. Once, a therapist of mine thought I was assigned female at birth — when I mentioned taking estrogen and T-blockers to try to gently come out to him, he still didn’t clock me. Not everyone gets the message. But like a fancy-girl mezuzah, the Pleats make a quiet statement. The humiliation of transphobia — of publicly performing what can any day feel like a shoddy simulacrum of femininity — was offset by feeling hot and cool in the precise way one does when each movement of your body creates tectonic echoes in the cascading plications draping your form. Pleats made me feel good.
Because I wasn’t living in New York when I became fixated on Pleats, I didn’t totally understand what it meant to the people, often of a certain class, to whom it signified. When I eventually returned to the city, having collected lots of Pleats, people — especially women — taught me what wearing it meant culturally. I remember going to a RISD acquaintance’s fashion show my first month back where the grouchiest-looking man I’d ever seen sat in the VIP in head-to-toe layered Pleats. When Emily and I first saw each other after five years apart, we were both wearing black Pleats pants; she shared with me an article she had written about the designs, which perfectly captured the idea of Issey Miyake and especially Pleats as arriving as close to timelessness as one can in fashion, a uniform without being repetitive. Mari gave me a copy of the large-format Taschen book about Pleats. Sam sent me countless photos of celebs wearing Pleats and memes about the clothes (an image of a piece of printer paper folded into thirds, the caption “i love your top is it issey”). Sarah gave me the Issey Miyake Body Works book and lent me and styled me in so many Issey Miyake pieces.
I was told that everyone looked good in Pleats. I was told that I wouldn’t look good in Pleats after my boob job because only slender frames looked good in Pleats. I was told that nipples often show through Pleats tops and that some people like that and some people don’t. I was told it was the sweatsuit of the art world. I was told that Pleats were originally designed for businesswomen who traveled because, unlike other dress clothes, you could fold them in a suitcase and then immediately wear them without steaming or ironing. I had entered the cult because of aesthetics; the cultural loading came later. But as I learned what the brand meant to other people, I only fell more deeply in love.
When Kiki and I met, they taught me about the threat to human well-being posed by petroleum-based plastics. They refused to drink out of water bottles that sat in hot cars, wouldn’t microwave takeout containers, and encouraged me to wear natural fibers. I began to learn about plastic. Polyester clothing, I learned, is made from a plastic endearingly named PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is formed in little pellets and then melted down and extruded to make fibers that are then woven, dyed, in some cases heated and pleated, sewn, and shipped to clothing retailers. PET is used to make plastic water bottles, salad-dressing containers, soda bottles, shampoo bottles, and other containers for household products. It is reinforced with glass fiber to make car parts, surfboards, wind turbines, furniture innards, circuit boards, and many other more or less esoteric objects. It is also used to make Pleats.
The red-pilled among us might argue that the Pleats themselves made me trans.Tweet
PET is renowned for being durable and pliable (imagine squeezing an empty two-liter soda bottle versus a more brittle plastic). This combination of qualities means it can be used to create highly structural fabric. Polyester garments will hold their pleating through repeated washing (though the heat of drying will sometimes slightly soften creases) and PET-based fabrics are often wrinkle-resistant. The endurance of the Pleats themselves, as well as the other kinds of structure associated with Issey designs (pointed shoulders, flanged hips, swaying buttresses that trail the ankles when you walk) can be attributed to the material qualities of PET-based fabrics.
It follows that clothing resembling architecture would persist longer than other kinds of fabric, that the suggestion of structure would evince a more basic durability of form. That said, it is unlikely that Issey Miyake or his creative teams understood, when pioneering the experimental uses of polyester in the ’70s, the undesirable consequences of the proliferation of these petroleum-based materials. Washing polyester in a washing machine sheds endless quantities of tiny fibers that are likely quite toxic (though people argue to what extent, seemingly depending on whether they stand to make money from the sale of plastic-based textiles or the sale of some alternative fabric). These tiny fibers also absorb other toxins, leach into waterways, and build up inside small animals that are eaten by larger animals until they are eaten by us. Yesterday’s Pleats are in tomorrow’s seafood (microplastics, it seems, tend to concentrate in mollusks like scallops, mussels, and oysters, fancy-girl food and treif alike). Of all the myriad toxicities of microplastics, I was most tickled to learn that they are estrogenic and can lower sperm count; the red-pilled among us might argue that the Pleats themselves made me trans.
Thich Nhat Hanh famously urged disciples to consider that reincarnation is quite literal. A recurring image in his writing and speech is how a cloud never really dies, it turns to rain. He says that this is true of people as well, that after they stop living they continue on in a different form. I turned this idea over and over again in my mind when TNH died earlier this year, meditating on how he lives on in my thinking. And I thought about it again when Issey Miyake died, since, more than any other person’s, his clothes, or the clothes made by companies associated with his name, constitute what I wear every day. The things people make and do persist in teachings and materials and traces — not just abstractly but concretely, binding us to history, and enabling us to enact the imagination and wishes of those who came before us. The things we crave and put in and on our bodies have social and material records. A failure to grasp the total interconnected reality is a symptom of being consumed oneself by fear or desire, or both.
I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea of social change through individual consumer activism, partly because it fails to see totality, instead reasserting that personal choice, rather than collective and systemic action, is the primary building block of meaning. I also think it just doesn’t work that well. Despite the proliferation of images — of microplastics, plastic islands, aquatic birds with guts full of household containers — to raise consumer awareness, consumerism itself may be the ill, rather than the means of change: we won’t shop our way out of this one. Petroleum companies also reportedly plan to increase plastic production in the coming decades to keep profits stable, anticipating a dwindling demand for gasoline. It’s also worth noting that recycled PET (the basis for the admittedly stunning Issey Miyake 132 5. line launched in 2010) and bioPET (made from plants rather than petroleum) are no less toxic than standard PET.
In defense of my collection, I will say that the polyester-based Issey Miyake pieces last forever, especially if you take care of them. The way they age, as they shed more and more microplastic, is special: first they become scratchier, then eventually softer, holding their shape still but becoming more delicate, wispier. I hold onto the clothes like any treasured material thing, because they offer me a promise of coherence, the sense of a relation between something as abstract as the self and as undeniably concrete as the world. Is there a physical object closer to dharma than an article of clothing designed to be comfortable and elegant when worn by someone with any sort of body? Pleats are a thing I love, in part because they made me feel lovable and in part because they were made by someone who had a deep reverence for the power and meaning of things. The obsolescence — and toxicity — of their material is one of several strange truths about them.
Eventually we will all be dead and the things we held on to will leach out into the world. The Pleats also don’t literally last forever; PET is estimated to take between two hundred and five hundred years to break down passively. In an auspicious turn, in 2016, Japanese researchers discovered bacteria that eat soft PET in up to three weeks. They break plastic down into its component chemical parts, which can eventually be processed into carbon dioxide. This is just one of various microorganisms recently discovered to perform such feats of decomposition. These bacteria may cause problems (if materials previously believed to resist biodegradation can now be eaten, our cars and soda bottles might leak) but will inevitably solve problems as well. As those tending toward the political left perennially insist, the forces that seem most destabilizing to the current order may also be the ones that redeem us. When I die, bury me in Issey, with a colony of plastic-eating bacteria.
— hannah baer
In the movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, four teenage girls — all different heights, weights, and shapes — find a pair of jeans in a thrift shop that magically fits each of them perfectly. They come out of the dressing room in quick succession, marveling at their luck. “It’s scientifically impossible,” they gasp. It is, hence the magic of the pants: a unifying force, still somehow tailored to each girl’s individuality.
I loved The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but that scene couldn’t have been further from my own teenage experience of buying jeans. My body seemed to repel denim. I’d go to the Gap every so often with hopes that my luck might change, but the outcome was always the same: an hour in a dressing room trying on pair after pair of ill-fitting pants, nearing tears and leaving empty-handed. I spent years avoiding jeans, and really pants in general, so that I wouldn’t have to repeat the dressing room experience. I hated the way they made me feel — out of shape, and out of place.
But I still loved clothes. I turned to thrifting, where size tags didn’t matter. I learned to sew and made dresses and blouses and skirts tailored to my own body and its quirks. Freed from the constraints of contemporary fast fashion, I began to dress outlandishly, playing with colors and patterns and textures that made me stand out from the other girls at school. I spent years painstakingly curating a wardrobe — a collection of clothing that made me feel like myself. Pants were few and far between.
And then, at some point in the past few years, getting dressed started to lose its luster. When I moved from Los Angeles to New York, I shipped nearly all my thrifted and handmade clothing in a single cardboard box, which the USPS lost forever. I grew away from the loud clothes I had loved as a teen and found myself needing more “practical” garments that I could wear for a long day of office work. During the pandemic, I began to grow out of what I still loved to wear and suddenly felt uncomfortable in the pieces that had once made me feel empowered. Garments I’d dug out of thrift store bins and held on to for years went back to thrift store bins. Clothes I’d sewn to perfectly fit my body now felt alien. My wardrobe withered. The excitement I used to feel opening my closet mutated into a kind of small dread. Finally my shrinking clothing collection pushed me, for the first time in years, to go shopping at non-thrift stores. Though I hated to admit it, I needed basics: pieces I could throw on without worry; garments fit to my 25-year-old body instead of my 18-year-old one.
I didn’t dare try anything on, in case I fell for a pair of pants that cost nearly half my rent. Instead, I lingered.Tweet
In desperation, I spent a weekend in SoHo and perused a half-dozen fast-fashion stores, all of which left me feeling frustrated, disappointed, or even worse, bored. But on my way out of the neighborhood, I passed by a Pleats Please. I hesitated before going in (I couldn’t afford anything in the store, and I was embarrassed to be wearing a sweat-stained T-shirt and shorts). But when I opened the door and stepped inside, two beautiful people in Miyake’s signature pleats greeted me warmly and gestured to the rows of racks.
Although I’ve spent many hours scrolling through Miyake’s designs online for inspiration, I’d never seen any Pleats Please clothing up close. In person, the garments are both organic and futuristic, silky and structured in a mesmerizing way. There’s not much color, but they still draw your eye. I felt joyful, falling in love with the novelty of these pieces, their fun and their ease. Flipping through hangers, I was reminded of what my closet felt like many years ago: full of excitement and possibility. Everything in the store — the clothes, the accessories, the people — appeared to be ageless and genderless. I didn’t dare try anything on, in case I fell for a pair of pants that cost nearly half my rent. Instead, I lingered. I listened as a woman with an angular bob asked one of the cashiers if the dress she was holding was available in a size three instead of the size two. “We only have the one, unfortunately,” she was told, “but the difference between a two and a three is only half an inch in length.” Satisfied, she walked to a dressing room (the Pleats Please sizing, apparently, is based largely on height instead of width). At the same time, another cashier delivered a lecture on care for a Pleats Please purchase: everything is machine washable, foldable, packable, durable. “I’ve been washing and wearing these pants for years,” they declared. “They’re easy.”
At home several hours later, I opened Depop to look for Pleats Please pants at a discount. Nothing available was in my budget, but I clicked around anyway. I hearted a vintage pink-and-orange two-piece suit going for $495. “Absolutely magical set that can fit most sizes,” the description read. “I’m 6 foot and it fits me and my girlfriend who is 5’3″.” I regretted not trying anything on earlier to feel the comfort and construction against my skin. I resolved to go back, though, maybe bring three friends with me. Miyake’s pants will fit each of us — adjusting, magically, to our styles and bodies just like the Sisterhood jeans. Split four ways, maybe we can even afford them.