The Architects at Work: Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto

At times many have asked why fashion continues to be a respectable and relevant choice of career or study. Sceptics have complained that fashion has merely serves to decorate, creating a world of conspicuous consumption and image-orientated offspring. To give one reason of the hundreds that exist in order to destroy these beliefs, is that much of couture is meticulously created by hand. These are real works of art simply worn instead of being hung on the wall of a gallery or museum. However – when looking past the creativity, the skill, quality materials and status appeal of these luxurious garments, some designers have succeeded in pushing the boundaries to the point where the confines between fashion and art are blurred beyond all definition.

japanese designers yamamoto 1991

2010.396a, b. Yohji Yamamoto wooden dress. c1991-1992. Wood, cotton and metal materials. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection, New York.

Three designers: Japanese by their ethnicity, but undefinable by style, have transformed fashion throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. They are Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto, who regard the construction of clothing, as the most essential and valued part of any garment.

japanese designers issey miyake

Photograph of The Work of Issey Miyake exhibition, National Art Gallery, Tokyo. c2016. Masaya Yoshimura.

Miyake, Kawakubo, and Yamamoto are often referred to as The Big Three. Their clothing is described as conceptual and deconstructed. But what do these words mean?

In straightforward terms, these words are used to describe clothing that communicates an idea or a concept. Garments such as these transmit meaning and messages beyond being pieces created for fashionable consumption.

When fashion is referred to as deconstructed, this usually means that clothing can be ripped, with exposed seams and zips, torn and manufactured in such a way that they look damaged or unfinished. There can be many meanings to a garment. These may only reveal themselves through various and different interpretations of the object. People may look at the garment in different ways – it is up to the individual to decide what they believe the garment represents or communicates.

japanese designers kawakubo 1983

2007.436. Yohji Yamamoto S/S dress. c1983. Cotton, synthetic coating, shell. National Gallery of Victoria Online Collection, Melbourne.

Miyake, Kawakubo, and Yamamoto have all abandoned conventional codes surrounding gendered dressing. Their style cannot be described as neither Western nor Eastern; it is something else. They are extremely avant-garde.

Miyake established the Miyake Design Studio in 1970. He was not the first Japanese designer to begin debuting their collections in Paris, his predecessors Madame Mori and Kenzo had already achieved this. However, Miyake made fashion fun, clothes full of colour and emphasising movement and freedom. You cannot miss his designs – they are bright, bold, and beautifully created through the manipulation of pleated fabrics – produced in extraordinary ways that define traditional textile design and creation. He has taken inspiration from farmers, kimonos, and Japanese fabrics that are so expertly created throughout his home country, yet he utilises these motifs in such a way that his designs are projected into the future. He is most famous for his A-POC collections (A-Piece of Cloth), and his Pleats Please range.

japanese designers miyake 1994

1994.603.1. Issey Miyake Design Studio “Flying Saucer” dress. c1994. Coloured polyester. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection, New York.

japanese designes pleats please

Miyake Pleats Please advertisement, date unknown (poss 2008).

Miyake has always stated that his designs were never meant to be held in the museum space. Yet Miyake has been regarded as an artist, and his works have been shown throughout many international art galleries. His studio strives for innovation and transformation; reducing waste fabrics and experimenting with new synthetic materials, such as recyclable objects and perishable goods. He even created the classic style of the black roll-neck jumpers that Steve Jobs swore by; creating a whole wardrobe of these signature garments for Jobs to wear.

Kawakubo is a mysterious character who rarely gives interviews, never bows on the catwalk after her catwalk collections, and is extremely cautious as to the circulation of her images. Trained in graphic design and advertising, she is extremely iconoclastic and conceptual. Inspirations for her designs come from pillows or crushed pieces of paper, and her brand Comme des Garçons is famed for its advertising and conceptual garments, that for those outside of the industry, could be deemed as simply outrageous.

japanese designers kawakubo 1983 2

T.168-1985. Comme des Garçons dress designed by Rei Kawakubo. c1983. Cotton. Victoria and Albert Museum Online Collection, London.

Kawakubo is a savvy businesswoman who debuted her collections in Paris with her counterpart, Yamamoto in 1981. Their clothes were shredded, all black, torn, baggy and consisting of an entirely revolutionary silhouette. In contrast to the contoured power dressing which was synonymous with the 1980’s, produced from the the likes of Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier, Kawakubo and Yamamoto’s designs were described as ‘Hiroshima Chic,’ ‘apocalyptic,’ and ‘bombed to shreds.’

japanese designers kawakubo 1983 3

T.168A-1985. Comme des Garçons jumper and skirt ensembles. Designed by Rei Kawakubo. c1983. Hand knitted wool. Victoria and Albert Museum Online Collection, London.

These garments were a turning point in the fashion industry. They produced shock and disarray; turning gender conventions on the head in favour of more postmodern and gender neutral styles. Their work inspired the likes of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Maison Martin Margiela, who have all referenced Kawakubo as a leading figure for conceptual fashion design. (English, 2011: Berg)

japanese designers dress meets body

AC9412 96-32-8A. Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons “Dress meets Body” dress. c1997. White stretch nylon-urethane fabric dress with light blue gingham check print; down pad for Spring/Summer collection. The Kyoto Costume Institute Digital Archives, Kyoto.

Yamamoto on the other hand is a highly skilled tailor who places the cut and finish of his garments at the forefront of his design processes. He has toyed with gender conventions by dressing women in many oversized items of apparel, but donning his male models in skirts, created by traditional Japanese methods of textile creations. He has often used the 19th century bustle back dress in many of his collections.

japanese designers yamamaoto

2011.288. Coat designed by Yohji Yamamoto. c1983. Ripped cotton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection, New York.

Yamamoto has previously expressed his appreciation for the colour black, which he deems as unfussy and intelligent. Both Yamamoto and Kawakubo’s fans have adopted all-black ensembles as their signature style. Both designers have expressed their appreciation for the unfinished and the incomplete, highlighted and reflected through the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi.

So, how can we sum up the work of these three postmodern designers?

Well, these three designers have shown the world that talented designers do not singularly derive from Paris. They have proven that rules, boundaries and conventions can all be broken, and history can be rewritten. They have taken fashion to another level – experimenting with the most unusual materials and construction techniques, choosing to focus their attention on substance over style. Yet these designers also produce marvellously successful and popular garments.

But is fashion art!?

The fashion industry will always require ingenuity, originality, and shock tactics to attract the crowds. For these designers – these traits seem to come naturally. Is fashion art? Who knows. Maybe we should just interpret these garments however we like. And that is the beauty of deconstructed and conceptual fashion. It can be anything.


Bonnie English, Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (London: Berg, 2011) 68.


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