Pleats and treats

Yoshiyuki Miyamae, designer for ISSEY MIYAKE, at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

As can be expected with any meticulous and well-oiled fashion giant, our team is greeted with the fact that we could only take photos of their fashion designer in certain designated spots. We were given a (boring) white wall to work with because ISSEY MIYAKE prefers its image to pertain to clean backgrounds and simplicity, but thankfully, another angle in front of glass doors did not offer too much clutter.

On the occasion of Thailand’s flagship store — the largest in Southeast Asia — celebrating its first anniversary, the brand’s fashion designer Yoshiyuki Miyamae was in town last week to share some of the latest developments and inner workings up the company’s pleated sleeves.

With such a strict protocol, it’s obvious that a brand bible exists — one that new-blood designers must follow in order to maintain the essence of their esteemed fashion house. Miyamae has been working with the brand’s namesake founder, Mr Issey Miyake, since 2001, before he joined the brand’s design team in 2006 and became the chosen designer for the spring/summer collection of ISSEY MIYAKE in 2012. As a graduate of Bunka Fashion College and someone long entrenched in the world of fashion, does Miyamae ever feel limited by working for another brand, when possibilities today are endless, when starting his own label could easily be on the cards?

“It’s actually a good thing to have some framework to work with,” the 41-year-old advised. “It’s easier than doing your own thing, because that would be so wide and you don’t know what your limits are. It’s like with cooking when people say, ‘Cook me anything’, and it immediately becomes so hard. But when they narrow it down with some guidelines, like ‘Cook me something using salt’, it helps me to work easier.”

After the pieces are sewn together, they are steamed to make the pleats appear. photos courtesy of Issey Miyake

The Tokyo-born-and-raised designer has always been handy when it comes to creating. Growing up with parents who worked with art, as a child, Miyamae enjoyed creating his own toys.

“It made me very happy when I brought those toys to play with my friends and they had fun,” he reminisced. As a teenager, his creations started to take a more wearable form.

“When I started high school, I started to make my own clothes. There wasn’t any internet back then so I would learn myself by buying clothes and separating them to see how each piece was tailored. I studied brands that have gone to find success abroad in Paris, such as ISSEY MIYAKE, Commes des Garcons or Yohji Yamamoto, and it made me want to work in fashion.

“Today, when I see women wearing the clothes I’ve designed, it makes me happy still, it’s something that I’ve always felt since I was young.”

Miyamae with models wearing a capsule collection in colours only available in Thailand. Issey Miyake

With 16 years of working with the founding father under his belt, it is no surprise that Miyamae finds Mr Issey Miyake “like another father to him”. Speaking of the legendary designer, Miyamae said: “He is always pushing and supporting us to find new things and to not fear mistakes. When we create something and it goes wrong, he never reprimands, but accepts the mistake and pushes us to find other ways instead. One thing he always said that I feel is very important is that we must always question things. If we don’t, design just ends there and if there are never any problems or questions, we will never move forward.”

What separates Miyamae from other designers, however, is how his job is not only about designing. As a fashion house that is known for its technology-driven apparel, the clothes made by this Japanese label are not only heaven-sent subjects for Boomerang videos — thanks to their merry bounces with the mere movement of the wearer, if not the very avant-garde shapes they flaunt.

The pleats in the clothes — a signature trait of the brand — are becoming more and more ambitious than ever. That it never loses its shape is a minimal basic, as today, the pleats can also come in curves or even in 3D. This is achieved by their latest technology of steam stretch: the textile is woven and programmed in a very particular way and tailored into one piece before it is steamed so it will shrink and pleats appear.

This opposes the usual process of tailoring clothes with a fabric that has already been pleated. Naturally, the painstaking step is in trying to get the cloth to shrink or fold right in these sometimes origami-inspired contraptions. Rigorous testing of getting the perfect fold usually involves 100 samples going through trial and error before a mere 10 pieces come out usable.

Miyamae must work in a team alongside fabric technicians to integrate technology into his pieces.

“Compared to other brands, we produce our own threads and we don’t buy fabric from others,” he said. As one of the few fashion houses that creates its own raw materials (Uniqlo is another), this means the end product is exceptionally original and hard to copy. “We also create our own material to make the Bao Bao bags and it was hard for me to have to know it deep down to the very raw materials.”

But that’s just what the package entails, when you are creating lightweight clothes shaped like origami waffles or seemingly delicate textiles that can be thrown into the washing machine. To put it into cartoon terms, it’s like the Doraemon of fashion, but for adults.

Asked whether he could design something purely based on pleasing aesthetics, he answered: “I don’t think so. It’s so ingrained in me that whatever I make, it needs to be really good, must be practical and have real functions.” A look of worry spread across his face too, as he gave the example of Pleats Please.

The flagship duplex at Siam Discovery. MAHASSANAI

“What if one day the pleats disappear or are gone after a wash? It isn’t right and I don’t want to cause trouble for the customers. There has to be a trait of function that is build in when you are designing, always.”

Keeping it “fun and comfortable” like the ISSEY MIYAKE brand philosophy, Miyamae wore a frill-free black, pleated shirt from the brand and an air of courteousness and approachability. Undoubtedly, that shirt is there because it’s light, does not wrinkle and suits travelling, but the designer suggested the importance of wearing other labels as well.

“I wear other brands too normally, because it’s a way of learning. You get to know what it feels like to wear other well-produced clothes and what touch and feel it offers,” he said.

Yet, for all the technovations and advancement in the fashion world humans may be making, Miyamae makes a grounding point by reminding us that the biggest innovations can stem from homely roots.

“A lot of computers can help out, but people’s imagination is still the most important.” The old has many times offered new stunning creations, as we’ve seen the brand incorporate traditional Japanese culture into the clothes, be it origami folds or Ikko Tanaka graphics. The designer definitely tries to bring in elements such as ancient weaving techniques used for kimonos into his collections, but what to look forward to this fall is an array of duo-toned pieces based on his team’s trip to see the Northern Lights this past October. Again, he drove the importance of form alongside technology home.

“Nature is usually a constant inspiration in my work, because I feel that nature’s beauty is something that man could never create,” Miyamae said.