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The Japanese fashion designer and the American photographer were a match made in heaven, redefining beauty with a signature aesthetic that injected popular culture with a shot of extremism.
How closely can you work with someone halfway across the globe? The wordless harmony between Japanese designer Issey Miyake and American photographer Irving Penn confounded expectation. It was both myth and magic, ferried through hyper-concentrated, impressionistic imagery. Miyake never attended Penn’s photo sessions. Penn never made a cameo at any of Miyake’s nearly one hundred shows. They were ghosts in each other’s lives. Yet for thirteen years, the two feverishly worked together, a human feedback loop of inspiration and creation in which one’s ideas were a catalyst for the other’s innovation. It was a slow build, adding layer upon layer to their intuitive relationship with every transaction of thought. Who knew this unlikely double act would pioneer fashion collaboration?
Miyake’s architectural designs were given a new dimension through Penn’s lens. Penn’s first encounter with Miyake came in 1983, when he photographed the renowned designer’s clothes for Vogue. When Miyake saw the results, he was blown away by a vision of his clothing presented in a new context. This can be a difficult feat for a designer, who spends countless hours tweaking the same garment.
The clothes were already graphic, with bold shapes that extended beyond the confines of the body. Sleeves that slunk too far, balloon-like inflated silver coats, boiled, melted, pleated: no technique or process was off-limits for a progressive like Miyake. His clothes became an extension of self, a projection of who we could truly be. When photographed in the studio, they became statements of intent, symbols of fashion’s dormant power. They screamed, with their outlandish shapes and architectural structures, daring the viewer to look away. The pair’s collaboration, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more silent—but then, Miyake and Penn never needed words.
Penn’s subjects and the clothes they wore, achieving sculptural feats that could give Beyoncé’s hair fan a run for its money, were often splashed across a stark white background. The focus was the clothing and its shapes, which challenged the amount of movement that could be packed into a single, static photograph. Picture this: a skin-tight bodysuit that looks like tar melting off a body, stretched at extreme angles by the wearer. This is one of Penn’s most famous Miyake images, a paragon of their visual dialogue; words can’t capture its feeling.
“I was looking for one person who could look at my clothing, hear my voice and answer me back through his own creation,” explained Miyake. “Through his eyes, Penn-san reinterprets the clothes, gives them new breath, and presents them to me from a new vantage point. Penn shows me what I do.” In effect, Penn held up a mirror for Miyake to see his own creations from a new perspective. “I have found a strong and sure bond with Penn-san,” Miyake wrote, “and what I receive from him moves me deeply.”
After over 250 images of Miyake’s garments were created, their collaboration would eventually come to an end with Miyake’s Autumn-Winter 1999 collection, as he handed over the reigns to his associate Naoki Takizawa and left fashion to return to research and pioneer new lines.
Although they precipitated extremist beauty with their images, neither Miyake nor Penn could have predicted the meteoric rise in body modification that would follow. Miyake’s clothes were aspirational extremism for consumers to try on for size, but today’s youth, in desperate pursuit of aesthetic melodrama, are taking that notion of beauty to new heights. Girls plea for boob jobs as graduation presents in middle America; earlier this year, teens on social media took drastic measures to emulate the plump lips of Kim Kardashian’s sister, Kylie Jenner, in the strangest trend to light up the feeds of social media: the #kyliejennerchallenge. But the buck doesn’t stop there. In South Korea—a country estimated to be the world’s largest market for cosmetic surgery—social pressures encourage young women to go under the knife in order to match a more Western beauty ideal. Photographer Ji Yeo documented this growing phenomenon of unnecessary surgery in her “Beauty Recovering Room” series.
“I definitely think it’s because everyone wants to look more Western or Caucasian—like having a higher nose and bigger eyes,” Ji told Dazed. “Even though there is a difference between what Western women want and what Korean women want, I think that is the ultimate goal.”
To add to that, cosmetic surgery can be addictive. An eyebrow lift here, a rhinoplasty there: bodily enhancement has been entwined in society for millenia, whether ritualistic or the result of intense outside pressure. After all, who doesn’t want to look their best? And once you’ve experienced the high of achieving your improved self, who’s to tell you to stop seeking that next fix?
Miyake’s designs were an extremist extension of the body, literally enhancing the form through sculptural shapes. As such, they reflect how Miyake and Penn’s notions of beauty extend to cosmetic culture today. Put simply, we want to be more than what our mama gave us; the desire to be more than ourselves now permeates popular culture. So what gives? It could be said that Miyake’s clothes were the closest non-invasive body modification procedure to exist. Today, we’re simply translating that extension of ourselves into more invasive procedures, applying that concept of beauty to our bodies rather than our closets. He was often labeled an innovator—but could even he have foreseen this future?
At the time, Miyake and Penn’s working relationship helped to redefine beauty. Their work was a cease-and-desist letter to commercial fashion. They breached the realms of art with their warped blend of primitivism and modernism, seeking a higher form of expression. The avant-garde, a set described by Miyake as being “beyond time,” bubbled underneath Miyake’s designs and throughout Penn’s images.
Infinitely fascinated by the space between body and garment, Miyake played with geometry and shape, a mode of body modification in itself. These notions of beauty eventually arose in technological innovation. His 1993 Pleats Please collections, for instance, were groundbreaking. The clothes, hand-fed into a heat press to be pleated, emerged with permanent folds in dresses, skirts and trousers. No folding, easily stored, they proffered a different idea: there is beauty in imperfection. A new design concept was born. There was no need to smooth out the wrinkles in clothes. “In the late 1980s, I noticed that my work was faltering,” he says in a rare 1993 documentary about his work, ISSEY MIYAKE MOVES. “I despaired. Working on Pleats helped to lead me out of that state.”
Penn was floored by this concept, and brought it to life in one of his many iconic images made during their collaborative heyday. Its symbol became a red poppy flower, which Penn work created by mimicking a pleated piece by Miyake. “It symbolizes blossoming thoughts and creativity,” Midori Kitamura, Miyake’s associate, explained to Time.
The back-and-forth between these two powerhouses midwifed a stunning epoch of creativity in fashion. It may not be a direct result of their influence on visual culture, but the idea of cosmetic enhancement, that ultimate desire to go beyond oneself, was embedded in both Miyake’s design and Penn’s interpretation of it. Together, they laid claim to a signature aesthetic that injected popular culture with a shot of extremism. One could argue that we’ve taken this extremist aesthetic a step too far, rearranging our bodies like a Picasso painting. The point remains, however, that regardless of how—or even if—Penn’s images of Miyake’s work represent some sort of benchmark in how we can communicate through fashion, its reverberating waves are still felt—not least so in the fashion world.
Today, fashion is rife with creative duos. Marc Jacobs’ campaigns get a gritty, anti-establishment treatment from photographer Juergen Teller; Hedi Slimane has long distilled fashion into simplistic, yet powerful black-and-white shots; Helmut Newton gave Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking” a darker, seductive edge. So where does that leave Miyake and Penn? These two weren’t simple arbiters of beauty—they were trailblazers of fashionable discourse, bringing the avant-garde to the masses. More importantly, they constantly remodeled each other’s work in their own image. They taught us what it means to reach beyond ourselves—and that simple aspiration is, in the end, the true definition of beauty.
Issey Miyake (Japanese, b. 1938) is a fashion designer known for his innovations with fabric and use of technology. Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) was a portrait and fashion photographer. Their decades-long collaboration was documented by the exhibition “Irving Penn and Issey Miyake: Visual Dialogue” held at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, Tokyo, in 2011.
Trey Taylor is a London-based writer and film editor at Dazed.
Images: ISSEY MIYAKE Collection Poster, Spring/Summer 1994, Poster design and typography by Ikko Tanaka. Photograph by Irving Penn © The Irving Penn Foundation