by Amy Katoh
Issey Miyake has been journeying to Japan’s northeastern Tohoku district since before he began his world famous design studio over 40 years ago. There he found energy, power, materials and craftsmanship that spoke to him. It made him want to work with the local craftsmen and women who could pfft/poof !!; transform available materials into wondrous pieces of cloth or hearty sheets of washi paper. He instinctively wanted to bring to life the magic he felt there into his design and the craftsmanship of his work; and, he did it. Over the years, as if by magic, he has continuously created timeless jackets and prototypes for pleating that has made his clothing irresistibly addictive “Pleats Please”. “I’ll have another . . . and another . . . “ say many of his customers as they acknowledge through their wallets something inexplicably special in his clothing and paper forms. Not only do they look good, but they feel special. By Issey's own admission, it is the relationship between him and the craftsmen of Tohoku that has produced this magic. The craftsmen of Tohoku can virtually do anything with their hands and the materials locally available. Issey guides them in new paths of fashion and design and utilitarianism; and, they respond with the splendid clothing Issey Miyake has become famous for. The combination of his vision and the local inhabitants' innate talents made sparks. Neither could make the journey of excellence in creating unique clothing and origami without the other.
This combustion engine of Issey's vision combined with Tohoku magic fingers has been causing sensations for 40 years. The recent exhibition, “Tohoku no Sokojikara”, is Issey Miyake's tribute to the hidden power of Tohoku. For six pulsing days at his Tadao Ando designed folded concrete origami-like museum, 21_21 Designsight in Tokyo Midtown in the heart of Roppongi, there was an exhibit like no other to salute the miracle making hands and steadfast patience of the craftspeople of Tohoku. Issey credits them with providing the heart and soul and magic to his wondrous fashions. It had been a secret until the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster. To his credit, Issey decided he must disclose his secret affair with the people of Tohoku to show the "miracle making" their hidden power has been in his work and how their talents have empowered Issey Miyake Designs.
Ed—this is a caption for an image that is on its way: Karamushi (bast fiber) hanten (jacket), early 20th century?
In the space of one month, Issey decided to mount the exhibit, just before closing the museum for the month of August in an energy saving act of gaman (endurance, self-denial) perhaps learned from the stoic people of Tohoku. He sent the staff of 21_21 Design Site up to Tohoku to meet the makers, see their work, learn their story, take photos. They went through storage places and closets and workrooms and ateliers to find materials that would tell the world of the remarkable ingenuity of Tohoku. They wanted to show the pluck and strength of purpose to wrest cloth from the gampi plant (Lychnis coronate), mulberry bushes and mitsumata (Oriental paper bush), to weave cloth of bird feathers and fern fluff. They had to figure out how to show the process of making the fibers, bast and otherwise: to smash and boil and soften elm bark to make kimono, to weave paper kimono of old ledgers with business records written on them in calligraphy, creating a subtle white/grey effect with an occasional hint of red. There are no archival photos. A long row of dynamic images of materials and makers and place stretched down one wall were taken during their trips to Fukushima and Sendai. They give gladness when you realize that they are all Tohoku now. The work is going on today. The magic prevails. In mounting this exhibit, it is clear that Issey is doing all he can to perpetuate the tradition.
The exhibit starts off with a powerful pleated jacket with a huge red rising sun on the back and JAPAN running around the collar, of the Japanese Olympic team uniform in 1994. (Next to the pleated uniforms, he volunteered to make for the Lithuanian team that had no money to pay him at the time). Part of the magic is the incredible heart shown by both the people of Tohoku and Issey Miyake himself. They clearly fed on each other.
Ed—this is a caption for an image that is on its way: : Pleats Please forms embedded in paper in the making
In the next room, Issey’s edgy archival fashions are worn by energetic looking models who are Washi fashion hunting or running or jumping wearing wild clothes produced by different ateliers in Tohoku. Credits are given to knitting companies, and paper companies and all who have contributed to Issey’s own magic styles. The process of producing his pleated clothes is shown midstream. Colorful polyester shapes are embedded in layers of paper that receive the imprint pleats and pass them to the polyester fabrics buried between them. Magic indeed. Tohoku magic. Issey Miyake miracles.
The exhibit gives a significant salute to the magic of washi paper. Tools for making it are displayed, and big clumps of kozo and mitsumata and gampi branches used to make paper are displayed, along with other bast fibre materials. The process is so long and arduous that it takes the inner power of Tohoku workers to make magic out of local trees and vines. A pure white paper kimono worn by the priests of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto for their water drawing ceremony is on display, along with a kimono made of woven strips of ledger paper and an incredible paper crepe kimono with a warp of indigo silk worn by the lord of the area in the 19th century, as well as kimono woven of fern fluff and bird feathers – Magic – nothing less. Resilience – nothing more. An unforgettable tribute by Issey Miyake and the staff of 21_21 Design Site to the SokoJikara of Tohoku ! The powerful spirit of Tohoku.
Ed—this is a caption for an image that is on its way: Handmade paper – Washi made and folded in Tohoku as prototypes for Issey Miyake's Pleats
Ed—this is a caption for an image that is on its way: Hunters' Style. 19th century ceremonial cloak and Bandori, straw and rags and feathers, back pack from the collection of the Japan Folk Craft Museum
Ed—this is a caption for an image that is on its way: Paper crepe kimono of the Lord of Shiroishi, Miyagi, Edo period
- Global Textile Nomads in Amami Oshima by Nancy Craft
- My conversation with John Gauntner