Innovation & Design

Case Study: Issey Miyake, the Dream Weaver


The fashion innovator responsible for no-sew clothing is joining with other avant-garde designers to create wearable chairs and reversible jeans

Issey Miyake takes the concept of "cutting-edge design" literally. The Japanese fashion designer's latest innovations, to debut in fall, 2006, promise to slice across design-world boundaries and into two new markets: home furnishings and jeans. His new experiments build on the groundbreaking computer-driven manufacturing process he first developed, with design engineer Dai Fujiwara, nearly 10 years ago.

In 1997, the duo invented a means of knitting or weaving entire pieces of clothing -- no sewing needed. Thread goes into the loom, and tops, skirts, and pants come out. To be specific, a wide-flattened tube of cloth emerged, with embedded "seams" that looked like a faint outline. Each piece of clothing could be cut out of the swath of fabric, as you might separate a paper doll's dress from the page along the perforated line.

Because the process produced material that wouldn't fray, wearers could then customize the clothes as they saw fit. Miyake calls the ever-evolving process, and the line of avant-garde clothing made with it, A-POC. It's an acronym for "a piece of cloth."

UNCHARTED TERRITORY.

Never ones to stop pushing design to its most distant edges, Miyake and Fujiwara have been tinkering with the recipe for the fabric. "When we started A-POC we had no idea what its potential might be. It was a new way to make things using a new process. We have grown with the A-POC process," Miyake writes via e-mail from Japan. "Today, we feel that the potential for its applications can extend into many different areas of design. The challenge is to find materials that are suited to the process."

Fujiwara makes it clear that from the beginning of A-POC the creative duo was also simply looking for new ways to experiment with software programming. "Computer technology from the United States was a wave in the 1990s. And Issey is typhoon," says Fujiwara, who speaks in concise, nearly haiku-like sentences. "We wanted to make a new solution for making soft materials with computer technology. Hard materials have seen lots of new solutions."

Originally the prototypical A-POC fabric was a knit combination of wool, nylon, and polyurethane. In later incarnations, Miyake and Fujiwara created a more complex weave made of 100% cotton. The team later added elastic for flexibility, woven in layers to lend stretch.

CHAIR WEAR.

Today, Miyake and Fujiwara are pushing the patented A-POC process in increasingly complex directions that could potentially revolutionize the way mass-market goods like upholstered home furnishings and jeans are manufactured. And at least in theory, because no sewing is involved, A-POC technology might eventually eliminate the use of sweatshops and lower costs in both fields. (In fact, the A-POC line is already lower-priced than Miyake's other lines.)

Before the end of 2006, Miyake will offer consumers a product co-designed with hip London-based furniture maker/architect Ron Arad that blurs the edges between designer clothing and designer chairs. Called Gemini, it's a streamlined, body-cushioning seat pillow, made of A-POC fabric, which morphs into an elegant, body-hugging jacket.

Around the same time, Miyake and Fujiwara will debut the world's first line of reversible jeans. The new product will position Miyake to tap into the growing premium-jeans market -- which accounted for 18% of 2005 women's denim sales in U.S. department stores, up from 12% in 2004, according to research from NPD Group.

CREATING RIPPLES.

How and why did Miyake decide to make the foray into furnishings? When A-POC made its retail debut in 2000, Miyake designed a chair using the fabric. But then last year he was approached by Arad, who was long inspired by Miyake's inventive approach to creating new materials and processes. Arad points out that his curvaceous plastic Ripple chair, produced by Italian manufacturer Moroso, features what looks a lot like sculpted versions of Miyake's signature pleats.

"I did the Ripple chair, rather than do normal upholstery. And I have to say, when anyone does anything with ripples, it makes you think of Issey Miyake's work!" Arad says enthusiastically, the exclamation points palpable in his speech. "The design influence was there before we collaborated, so I thought, why not call A-POC? And what a go it was!"

HUMAN ELEMENT.

The collaboration was a natural one. Arad and Miyake, both luminaries of avant-garde design, were already friends. Yet they had never crossed the boundaries of fashion and industrial design to collaborate on a single consumer product. Arad was intrigued by several aspects of Miyake's concept. "I thought A-POC was a very exciting way to make garments and fabrics that are so individual and amazingly adaptable by the end user. The idea is in contrast with the computer-controlled, industrial-machine process of making them," says Arad.

He also was turned off by the thought of chair coverings sewn in possibly exploitative factories. "Working for the furniture industry and researching upholstery, I saw rows and rows of sewing machines and sweatshops. And I thought, why can't we harness A-POC's knowledge and inventiveness to our field as well?" Arad adds.

And Miyake thought Arad's use of a streamlined industrial process used to mold and manufacture the Ripple chair illustrated that the two designers were working on parallel tracks, despite their different disciplines. "Ron was experimenting making furniture using the single process technique. That's how we make A-POC. The two concepts were an ideal fit," writes Miyake via e-mail.

"LIKE BREAD OR WATER."

The chair, unveiled on the trade-show circuit at Milan's International Furniture Fair in April (see BW Online, 4/11/06, "Milan: A Fresh Look at Furniture"), will make its retail debut in mid-fall. The A-POC Gemini chair cover costs $1,360, and the Ripple chair sells for $400. Both will be available in limited quantities at the Issey Miyake boutique in Manhattan's trendy TriBeCa neighborhood.

Just as a comfortable seat and jackets are essential to contemporary life, so too are comfortable jeans. The everyday-ness of jeans inspired Miyake and Fujiwara to take on the denim market. "Jeans are like bread or water for human clothing. Everyone wears them every day. But sometimes it's boring. This is the gate of entrance for us. We are thinking of something general to make new," explains Fujiwara.

Ever open to design challenges, Miyake and Fujiwara realized denim -- a very thick weave, one that, by today's often-complicated jean styles, usually includes intentional fraying or distressed fabric -- would be hard to tackle using the A-POC model. And Miyake and Fujiwara didn't want to make yet another pair of look-alike designer dungarees to add to an already-crowded marketplace. So they decided to try something even more unusual than merely jeans woven from a single thread. They decided to create reversible jeans.

NO LIMITS.

The high-concept, high-end dungarees, called "Jupiter," will debut in a new exhibition "Skin and Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture," at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Opening on Sept. 24, the show addresses the crossover between cutting-edge fashion and cutting-edge design. Jupiter will be shown alongside the Gemini chair cover and Ripple chair. The jeans will hit stores soon thereafter.

What's next for A-POC? As the Jupiter and Gemini branding of the latest A-POC products implies, the sky is the limit. As Fujiwara says, A-POC is "Very laboratory! Like jellyfish arms. Issey moves in so many directions…he has so much energy and touches everything."


Later, Baby
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