How Satoshi Kondo, New Head Designer Of Issey Miyake, Steers The Brand In A New Direction
Satoshi Kondo began to draw with a red pencil. He scratched lightly on the back of a press release, illustrating an outline of the final look from his latest collection—one garment comprised of several knitted tops that were connected by their sleeves. His interpreter and I stared in silence at this unexpected gesture from a designer who, after commanding the fashion world’s attention with his debut collection for Issey Miyake last September, remains somewhat elusive.
“This look is called ‘Hand in Hand’,” says Kondo. “It’s one continuous knit with various fabrics fused together so that there is always a piece of the previous garment in the next.” He then flipped the pencil over and with its end poked around the page. “We didn’t express this explicitly at the show but, based on my sketches, each piece should have been the same size, but because of the property of the material—wool or polyester might shrink or cotton might expand—the finished products varied. Some turned out smaller, some larger. With this ‘Whole Garment’ method, you never know what you’re going to get.”
We were chatting in Paris on a drizzly March afternoon, the day after he showed his second collection as artistic director and head designer for the house. An assistant came to serve hojicha and biscuits, offering a touch of Japanese hospitality in an otherwise sterile studio on Place des Vosges. The young designer’s tent dresses and stretchy knits comprised the only vibrant colours splashed on rails and rails of clothing on the first floor where we were seated.
Ties That Bind
Kondo says he wanted to convey notions of unity and connectedness throughout the final act of his fall show, which featured models of various ages, ethnicities and sizes joined together by the trailing strands of fabric from the shoulder or hip, creating an extensive human chain. The interpreter was unable to precisely translate its construction, so Kondo picked up the pencil to explain exactly what he intended.
“And what you also may not know just by looking is that each coloured piece is made from leftover yarn from Japanese factories merged with fresh, new yarn,” he continues to explain.
In a way, Kondo himself is the fresh yarn currently being woven carefully and seamlessly into the 50 years of the existing tapestry of Issey Miyake. Since founding the design studio in 1970, Miyake—who still sits atop an empire comprised of the Issey Miyake collection in addition to its spinoff Homme Plissé menswear, Pleats Please label, Bao Bao handbags and the L’Eau d’Issey fragrance, among others—was one of the first Asian designers to storm the Paris runways in the ’70s. The brand has since become synonymous with Miyake’s dedication to technological fabric innovations balanced with a respect for traditional craftsmanship.
His is an intimidating legacy well understood by Kondo—who still shows his work to Miyake and calls him “sensei”. The pressure can be seen seeping through Kondo’s posture. When asked to comment on Miyake or the brand as a whole, Kondo—who’s wearing a black sweater and trousers and small, round spectacles—hunches forward and rubs his near-shaven head, as if he’d been asked a confounding philosophical question. He was searching for the right words, or at least avoiding the wrong ones.
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Taking Up The Mantle
Issey Miyake himself is famously private, once proclaiming that a designer should not be in the spotlight, that his clothes should speak for themselves. Kondo, taciturn about all things related to his personal life, has also asked to only focus on his work and creative process. He revealed only that as a child he was always fascinated with making things with his bare hands, which prompted him to sew clothes for himself and then for others. He discovered the world of Issey Miyake when he first considered fashion as a potential occupation, but beyond the clothes, he was most touched by the striking imagery associated with them.
“I admired Mr Miyake’s ability to bring people wonder and surprise through fashion,” he says. Indeed, half a decade later, Irving Penn’s powerful images of models creating alien shapes with Miyake’s architectural frocks continue to be widely referenced, and the Miyake name lingers on the lips of budding designers like Huishan Zhang and more mature ones like Jonathan Anderson. Taking on the mantle, then, was no small feat.
“I was nervous, of course, and determined to give it my all,” he says. “But I told myself if I could offer one new thing during my time, it would be to get a younger generation and wider audience to appreciate the brand.”
After graduating from Ueda College of Fashion, Kondo applied to and was accepted into the Pleats Please team, where Issey Miyake’s pioneering technique of heat-pressed pleating was so commercially successful, it became a sub-line in 1994. In the last 13 years, Kondo became well-versed in other aspects of the brand, learning Miyake’s A-POC method wherein garments are made from a single piece of thread. He later also took on the Homme Plissé projects.
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Making A Comeback
Though the label maintained its steady, quiet presence for decades, in the last five years, Issey Miyake has undergone a resurgence in popularity. Kondo says he’s seen the flagship store in Tokyo attract a more diverse clientele than ever before, including customers who make their pilgrimages from all over the world. The wrinkle-resistant Pleats Please pieces have never seemed more relevant, and in a time when fashion houses are struggling to create the next conspicuous “It” bag, Issey Miyake’s geometric Bao Bao tote has soared back into the spotlight, spawning a retail expansion unlike any other contemporary accessories brand.
Kondo, with his youthful worldview and years of training, became the obvious successor to previous creative director Dai Fujiwara. To further capture this generation’s attention, Kondo has already been making alterations to the tapestry, starting with the brand’s first ever logo print, which was unveiled this season, and mouldable jewellery that at first glance looks like discarded strips of metal but can be contorted into bracelets or rings in many shapes.
Kondo is also keen to carry forward some of the brand’s enduring principles.
“To not waste fabric and to use it to its full potential is something that’s deeply ingrained in me by the company, as is the importance of making people feel happy and comfortable in their clothes,” says Kondo. “There’s this oversized jumper I designed that might be a bit quirky but it’s actually made so that two people can wear it together. I hope that idea brings joy.”
Where he and Miyake are most alike may be in their poetic interpretation of fashion, always starting with a narrative or story. As he demonstrated, every single garment from Kondo’s collections could be accompanied by a compendium of notes on its meaning and inspiration. When we switched to talking about his work, Kondo relaxed and became far more loquacious, elaborating on how his latest collection,
“Making Speaking, Speaking Making,” was derived from the childlike joy of creating by hand. A string of Japanese onomatopoeic words was his starting point. “Kone kone,” which is the sound of kneading clay or dough, manifested into a knit dress with giant, blotchy dots in primary hues. “Shing shing,” or the sound of gentle snowfall on a silent winterscape, birthed gauzy frocks of various whites and grey hues, in tessellated, origami patterns. During the show, an evolving soundtrack of natural sounds, created by a music director specifically for this collection, reflected each thematic series, while models, too, moved to emphasise the clothes—swerving, dipping and gliding down the catwalk.
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Kondo’s first show last September was also a playful spectacle. Skateboarders sailed across the runway in parachute parkas and lampshade tent dresses descended onto models from the ceiling. When the dancers began frolicking in the buoyant, rainbow-pleated dresses for the finale, it was clear that the collection would be met with resounding success. “I think internally we knew what we’d planned was a good idea, but I was so surprised by the public’s warm reaction,” says Kondo. “It went viral on social media, which I didn’t expect at all.”
Compared to Miyake’s time, social media has come to play a larger role for Kondo’s generation. For a long time, Miyake was reluctant to engage in any form of online marketing, fearful that he could not control the digital real estate surrounding his products. Only after three years of negotiations was his Hong Kong office allowed to open an Instagram account, and even then, every image had to be screened by headquarters. Finally, in February 2020, an official Issey Miyake Instagram account was created by the Japan team.
His first collection, he says, was inspired by the idea of “habits”. So at the end of an hour-long conversation, I asked if Kondo had any pre-show customs of his own. As his assistant began collecting the papers now strewn about between the plates, Kondo brought his fingers to his stubbled chin to ponder. “Well, I don’t have anything I do for good luck, but I did realise yesterday that I was wearing the same pair of floral socks as the day of my first show.” He let out a soft laugh. “I guess it’ll have to be my new tradition.”
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As the Japanese house celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, we take a look back at its illustrious history:
50 Years Of Issey Miyake
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