When I arrived at the Cincinnati Art Museum, I was welcomed with a downpour of rain and an outside gloom that unconsciously soured my mood. I greeted my coworkers from Idlewild (a clothing boutique located in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, and in my undoubtedly biased opinion, the best local resource for accessible high-end fashion) at the back security entrance, shaking our umbrellas out and tending to our respective nerves. The occasion was a private tour of the museum’s fashion archives and its extensive collection of pieces from Issey Miyake, an existence of which I, and presumably most other residents in the greater Cincinnati area, was totally unaware of. I’d always been impressed by the museum’s permanent collection, one which is fascinating considering the rather infamously guarded nature of Cincinnati’s cultural presence. Furthermore, the idea of real, in-the-cloth, not-viewed-through-a-screen designer clothing is totally foreign to my understanding of the city.
Despite my previous remark on Cincinnati’s cultural participance, there is undoubtedly an energy that’s permeated the city, a rejuvenated sense of purpose among the populace in its offerings and reputation. Particularly with fashion. This newfound pride in the medium of textiles likely stems from the dramatic growth in recent years of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Architecture, Arts, and Planning. DAAP for short. Idlewild’s store director, Tessa Clark, is a graduate of DAAP and found fame as a participant on season 17 of Project Runway. Her presence in the city, along with a legion of high-performing students and professionals that have spread across the nation, has earned Cincinnati and its namesake university’s design school a great deal of respect.
This September, Idlewild will be introducing select pieces from the Issey Miyake Fall/Winter 2021 collection to their repertoire of brands. While the store has consistently offered garments from Pleats Please, a diffusion brand under the Miyake Maison (others include Homme Plisse, Bao Bao, and A-POC; quite the empire), presenting the runway collection is new territory- for both for the store and the city. The museum’s tremendous collection of Miyake’s work is owed to the passion of Otto Charles Thieme, the former Curator of Costume and Textiles at the museum. Thieme fell in love with the beauty of Japanese clothing, and this devotion was passed to the museum’s current curator, Cynthia Amnéus. Though Issey Miyake may not need much introduction, it’s certainly worth mentioning his history and outstanding impact on contemporary fashion.
Born in Hiroshima, Japan, old enough to remember the bombing and young enough for the profundity of the cataclysmic event to last a lifetime, Miyake’s design perspective carries soulful weight. A seer of sorts, his approach to fashion blended the Eastern and Western mindsets, the former based on the principles of fabric and the latter centered on the body as the foundation for clothing. Launching his design studio in 1970, presenting his first collection in New York in 1971 and later debuting in Paris in 1973, Issey Miyake was one of the first Japanese designers to infiltrate the highly guarded Parisian scene, paving the way for many other influential Japanese creatives to approach and further disrupt the fashion capital. In the late 1980’s, Miyake began to experiment with his now iconic (and patented) pleating technique. Many pleated garments are made with fabric that is pleated before assembling the pieces. Miyake reversed this process, sewing the clothes together before the process of pleating. In 1994 the house launched Pleats Please, Miyake’s brand that specializes in this method of pleating. The garments released from Pleats Please are architectural and often incorporate unconventional silhouettes, yet the master’s uncompromising pragmatism affords the clothes their comfort and wearability. Throughout Miyake’s 50-year career he’s continued to push the technological boundaries of fashion and investigate clothing’s relationship with the human form, abiding by his famous mantra, “design is not for philosophy, but for life.”
In the most recent fall collection, with some pieces available at Idlewild, Miyake’s brand looked towards the “integration of nature,” and the augmentation of its elements “through the technology, the idea, and the ingenuity,” as described by the house’s current designer, Satoshi Kondo. Several garments utilized the ancient technique of suminagashi, a method of dye-dropping where ink is dispersed onto a thin layer of water. The ink, which spreads organically across the surface, is absorbed by a piece of cloth laid on top. The final prints come to resemble washed stones in a riverbed- a beautiful blend of technique and elemental references. Other prints are created by a complicated technique of removing select threads from a woven fabric, with their subsequent reintegration resulting in a hazy illusion meant to evoke the imagery of flowers glowing against the backdrop of moonlight.
On our tour of the archives, Cynthia and fellow colleague Megan Nauer navigated the museum’s subterranean maze of corridors. After a series of left and right turns across different levels, we arrived in the chamber of fashion. Upon entering we were ushered down a hallway adjacent to 10-15 large motorized closets. Contents included historical costume from the 19th century, clothes by Christian Dior, seminal Japanese fashion from Comme Des Garçon and Yohji Yamamoto, and of course Issey Miyake (the total number of garments housed in the museum’s archive is likely staggering). Prior to our arrival, Cynthia neatly prepared some of the museum’s best pieces from Miyake. Our group circled around a large table upon which laid about seven or eight garments. An all-black ensemble from 1989 featured some of his earliest pleated work, the jacket and pants pieced together in an almost medieval armor-like fashion. A nylon jacket in a muted shade of saffron from 1996 wore sleeves with protruding forms of a deep crimson, accompanied by a heightened collar that altogether looked appropriate for a venture into space. Perhaps the garment most emblematic of Miyake’s ethos as a designer was from 1990, named the “Rhythm Pleats Dress.” Laid flat, the dress is a perfect circle with the only identifiable features being a neck hole and two sleeves. Subjected to gravity, the shape falls into a perfectly wearable evening garment.
A quiet yearning for runway-level creations has plagued fashion fans in Cincinnati who believe they must escape to the major fashion capitals of the world or forgo an opportunity to witness such art. This collection of clothes was less than 10 minutes from my apartment. It’s here. Now of course, the art museum isn’t offering tours of its archive to the public; that would be a bit counterintuitive. But it doesn’t only exist in the discreet museum archives. Cincinnati is no longer simply a spectator. The city has become an active participant in fashion as an art-form. Idlewild stocks contemporary runway fashion that you can touch and wear. When I first found interest in fashion a few years ago, and up until I recently returned to the city, there’s no chance I’d have thought Cincinnati was home to renowned designer clothing. This newfound presence, particularly of Idlewild’s offering of Issey Miyake collections, generates a great creative energy for the city’s inspired individuals. I feel proud to be in place where fashion is no longer a fevered fantasy. It is reality.