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Lamenting the loss of my dear friend Issey Miyake!

Cai and Miyake after the explosion Dragon: Explosion on Issey Miyake in Paris, 1998. Photo from Pleats Please published by Taschen Books, 2012.

I was just thinking that I had not heard much from him in a while, and upon the next opportunity to go to Tokyo the two of us must meet again. Alas! With a period of silence, it is often because someone is privately working on something big or, what I fear the most, because they are sick…

The past leaps vividly before my eyes… What remains more precious than our collaborations are what he taught me with his words and the examples he set in the prime years of my growth…I remember Issey would often mention Isaamu Noguchi. The two of them were separated by a gap of 30 years, Issey and I by a gap of 20 years. So many unforgettable things have been passed on over generations…

Throughout his life, Issey was surrounded by people who loved him, helped him, were fond of him, and took care of him. How painful it must be for everyone to lose Issey. Yet, I know everyone’s diligence will keep him alive. 

They told me, as per Issey’s wishes, that there would be no memorial service. Thus I will take the small essay I wrote for his 2016 National Art Center solo exhibition MIYAKE ISSEY EXHIBITION: The Work of Miyake Issey, as a send off for my dear friend…

Freehand Clothing and Affection
Cai Guo-Qiang

I have collaborated with many designers, typically in a “decorative” vein, creating pieces of work for specific sites — a painting to hang on a wall, or public art to fill the empty space in an architectural project. My impression has been that collaboration between artists, or artists and designers, is extremely difficult. Zaha Hadid and I got off to a good start while working on Caressing Zaha with Vodka (The Snow Show, 2004 in Finland), but by the end she had developed certain reservations about working with me — a little unhappy about the fact that I set her ice-architecture on fire with a few tons of vodka, melting it to the ground at the opening ceremony… Looking back at my collaboration with Issey Miyake, it was a joy from start to finish.

Issey Miyake and Cai discussing artwork installation for Dragon: Explosion on Pleats Please Issey Miyake, 2000. Photo courtesy Cai Studio.

Cai in the process of Dragon: Explosion on Issey Miyake Clothing, New York, 1998. Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio.

Issey gave me total freedom straight out of the gate. For a while I thought of creating "clothing with herbs" that would boost the physical and psychological health of the wearer. Then I talked a lot about feng shui clothing to bring the wearer good fortune. In the end my efforts were stymied by practical limitations: for example, clothing must be able to survive being washed. Thus I returned to my old standby, gunpowder. Naturally gunpowder presents problems of its own, since clothing fibers tend to burn easily. I racked my brain for a means to explode the garments without burning away the fabric. The burned holes had turned out to be nearly unavoidable, but it in turn led to an extraordinary breakthrough - we even printed patterns of scorched holes on printed fabrics. Every time I see my artworks - the exploded Issey Miyake garments - not in a museum but worn on the street or at a party, I feel as if I am witnessing art in motion. These "spontaneous works of performance art" bring me an inexplicable sense of excitement!

Pleats Please fashion show in New York, 1998. Image from Pleats Please published by Taschen Books, 2012.

Wen-You Cai and Issey Miyake, Tokyo, 2014. Image Courtesy of Wen-You Cai.

My friendship with Issey has had an enormous impact on my life. Even my daughter Wen-You discusses Issey's influence in her recent book When You Make No Art. At the age of 7 or 8, Wen-You attended one of Issey's shows at a second-story loft in Chelsea. The venue looked nothing special, but my daughter observed that Issey's unique aura had the power to draw all manner of adoring fans, supporters and media. "He chose not to put on an extravagant show at Bryant Park or Lincoln Center for New York Fashion Week... It was unfathomable to me... and helped me to appreciate New York's charm."

This event served as my daughter's inspiration to become a fashion designer, " listen attentively to the voice of beauty within, and share it with the world. I want to design clothes that do more than satisfying the needs of daily life. I want them to be sculptural. I want them to express my point of view... Miyake was delighted to hear that he had inspired a small seedling to take root in the world of fashion... He was always happy to see me when dining with my parents and frequently brought me gifts, I often wore a superbly fitted sweater-vest, and a red hat and scarf to school, all of them from Miyake's label." Later, "I began to think that I should study philosophy or sociology instead of going to fashion school... If I could learn the rules by which society functioned, and gain a deeper understanding of our current predicament, then I could use the medium of fashion design to better the world." My daughter told me that Issey enthusiastically supported this idea. Because of Issey's influence, my daughter's interest in creating art was never directed toward museums. She wanted to release her work into the world, for everyone to share. When she left to pursue her Masters degree in London, she chose a program in Creative & Cultural Entrepreneurship, hoping to understand how art can be more broadly transmitted and applied within our society.

Cai, in a suit designed for him by Miyake, and his wife Hong Hong, wearing a Pleats Please dress, at The 24th Praemium Imperiale Awards Ceremony, 2012. Photo by Hirokazu Miyakawa, courtesy Cai Studio.

Once, as Issey was leaving my home, he took his coat from the coat rack and said, "I think this suits you better than it does me." I put on the coat and found it fit perfectly! But think about my unusually long and lanky frame... This was Issey's indirect and thoroughly Eastern way of giving me a gift, and I felt deeply touched by this unexpected gift and his warm gesture. Nearly every time we see each other, somewhere along our conversation, he would find a way of giving me more clothes. These experiences make me feel as if I were the ancient Chinese literati who met his like-minded friends at the "Orchid Pavilion gathering" to discuss art over the pleasantly lingering headiness brought on by wine.

Installation view of Issey Miyake, Making Things, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 1998

Issey is not just Japanese, or Asian - he belongs more to the world, the methodology and interflow of feeling found in his work reminds us of the existence of a distinctively Eastern beauty and power. Recall that the Yi Ching is the book of changes — Issey's clothing has always been about creating a multitude of options for wearing and matching. He also embodies an Eastern philosophy "with the beginning of each new cycle, all is renewed," which emphasizes a return to our original nature, to universal principles. Within a piece of fabric and a piece of paper, he finds the entire world. The Eastern view of nature manifests in Issey's works as an unassuming modesty, the merging of the individual into the environment. In contrast, the Western fashion designers usually emphasize the contours of human bodies and the aesthetics of form. Issey's work is freehand: the garment and the wearer merge yet remain distinct. Defying form, his works are nonetheless coherent.

Often times we wonder why attempts to convert Eastern philosophy into concrete creations have failed on more than one occasion, devolving into a kind of preachy propaganda, or spiritual self-consolation. But never Issey. He is down-to-earth and self-contained. The Eastern philosophy of the relationship between humanity and nature is not merely a concept of design or aesthetics; it is equally found in the allure of technical manufacture, and in the lifeblood of handicrafts. It begins with the selection of fabrics and the fastidiousness of the cut, and carries through into real-world operations, from marketing to end-consumer participation and use. Issey's concept of the East is best expressed through his persuasive methods and methodology. Japanese aesthetics and traditional craftsmanship played a part in Issey's achievements, but it took Issey's considerable creative talent to assimilate these elements, and send them soaring into the world.

Can an Eastern methodology of understanding and reflecting upon the world induce a methodology of representing the world? The answer always lies in the artists' ability to create as well as in the latter's artistic practices. This is a lesson Issey leaves us with, but of course, while together, he would never have spoken in this way...

Dragon: Explosion on Pleats Please Issey Miyake, 1998. Photo courtesy Cai Studio.

Video of Dragon: Explosion on Issey Miyake, 1998. Videography by Araki Takahisa.

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