How Miyake was the first global ambassador of khadi and Make in India

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Many may not have known that Japanese avant-garde designer Issey Miyake loved India’s textile heritage and was fascinated by khadi. He was completely taken in by its simplicity and purity, a minimalist philosophy that echoed his own and its light and airy quality. Not only that, he had backroom production hubs in and around Ahmedabad. Recalls Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) chief Sunil Sethi, “I remember visiting one of my vendors in the city way back in 2004 and finding that a lot of apparel for Issey Miyake was being produced there by our craftspeople. I felt proud that his finesse was being crafted here. He has got to be one of our earliest international ambassadors of khadi, even before we woke up to the fabric’s many possibilities.”

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In fact, in 2019, Miyake held an exhibition on khadi at the Tribeca store in New York, titled, “Khadi: Indian Craftsmanship.” The connection deepened following his interactions with textile revivalist Martand Singh. In fact, Makiko Minagawa, who was earlier the textile director of the Miyake Design Studio, had worked with Martand Singh and Asha Sarabhai in creating a natural and simple line called ASHA. Minagawa later became the creative director of HaaT, a line produced by Miyake and named after our concept of a village market. She was greatly influenced by Martand Singh. “In fact, when Singh passed away, Miyake organised a homage and a khadi exhibit in Kyoto, too,” adds Sethi.

While Sethi had a ringside view, designer Rakesh Thakore (of Abraham and Thakore fame) worked briefly with Miyake while putting together a collection as part of the cultural dialogue during the Festival of India series. “I was completely taken over by his design sensibility and purity, the discipline that evolved organically rather than seeming like an imposition…all of this left an imprint on my work. He loved India’s textile journey and developed fabrics in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. And he didn’t become a slave to technology but rather used it to recast, reinvent and refine traditional textiles. I was fortunate to travel with him to Ladakh and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and realised how grounded he was, how he was taken in by India’s geographical and cultural sweep.”

Perhaps Miyake, who had seen the destruction of Hiroshima (he was just seven years old when the bomb dropped on his town and his mother died of radiation exposure three years later) found peace here. “When I close my eyes, I still see things no one should ever experience,” the designer wrote in The New York Times in 2009, adding that he prefers to think of things “that can be created, not destroyed, and that bring beauty and joy.”

Perhaps, that’s one of the reasons why he always moulded the materiality and ephemerality of the finite fabric by bending and warping it with his creativity. In the 1980s, he was celebrated for using materials ranging from plastic to metal and paper.

By 1995, Miyake had developed a new way of pleating fabric, wrapping it in between layers of paper and applying a heat press on them. He ran several tests before he was sure that the pleats stayed in place and didn’t wrinkle. That led to his signature “Pleats, Please” line, avant-garde but practical, wearable and timeless. It was distinctive enough to impress a young NIFT student called Samant Chauhan, who chose Miyake for a final year project. “He has greatly influenced my work and I have no shame in admitting that I have picked up the idea of pleats and colour palette from him. I learnt my best lesson in fashion while studying him, that conceiving a simple design is the most complicated work of art. There are many followers of the Japanese philosophy of elegant minimalism but it took Miyake to enlighten Paris and get accepted by fashionistas there,” says Chauhan, who internalised black solids as his colour, be it in his wardrobe or his collection. “Little wonder then that Steve Jobs fell for his black turtlenecks. That has been my comfortwear too, for long. I am packing my bags for Mumbai even as I speak and I am seeing only blacks. Come to think of it, he used Black models much before Black Lives Matter became a hashtag. That’s how deep his philosophy runs within me, pushing the envelope quietly and consistently,” adds Chauhan.

It was while walking through Miyake’s store in Hong Kong that Chauhan realised why Miyake spoke a global language. “I was amazed by how an entire range could be created by pleats, proof that minimalism was not just about limiting yourself but expanding possibilities. He used style in a very funky and classy way. It has a timeless feel. That’s why he appealed to both the old and youth, breaking the elitism of high fashion and venturing into streetwear. The Bao bao bags with resin geometric triangles were modish but smartly functional. There’s a reason why his perfume, L’Eau d’Issey (1992), was rumoured to sell every 14 seconds. It again is simple, drawn from nature and without a complexity of blends for the sake of human artistry. And much before sustainability was a conscious choice, his A-POC (A Piece of Clothing) line used a special weaving machine that made outfits out of one continuous tube of fabric.” Perhaps somewhere, Miyake distilled the essence of our Oriental philosophy the best and made it tactile and palpable.

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