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How Irving Penn and Issey Miyake Redefined the Fashion Photograph

Updated: May 28

The creative exchange between two titans gave clothing a voice of its own.

The late Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake held a rare appreciation for the role of image-making in design creativity. His longstanding working relationship with the photographer Irving Penn, whom he called Penn-san, is testament to Miyake’s understanding of how he could regard his work anew, by looking at it through the creative eye of another. 

When Miyake saw how Penn had photographed his clothes for an American Vogue editorial in 1983, he exclaimed, “Wow! I never thought of looking at clothes in that way! The clothes have been given a voice of their own!” On one page a model held out the wide-cut legs of a drawstring jumpsuit she wore, drawing attention to the volume of fabric and accentuating the garment’s graphic shape. 

The pair met in Tokyo over dinner, after an introduction by a mutual friend, the publisher Nicholas Callaway. In 1986 Penn started to shoot Miyake’s seasonal collections in New York, resulting in advertising campaigns, exhibitions, and publications. But these outputs were not the principal intention; they were the mere fruits of a long-distance creative exchange between the two. 

To look at the photographs is to see how Penn essentializes Miyake’s designs, bestowing them with a graphic clarity and a highly dynamic sense of how they can be worn.

Miyake insisted on Penn being unhindered, so he always absented himself from the New York shoots. Instead, Penn was supported by representatives from Miyake’s team, makeup artist and photographer Tyen, and hairstylist John Sahag. Penn would sit at a table with a pencil and paper and sketch as models wearing the designs were directed. Polaroids were then taken in preparation for the main shoot. Following a session, Penn would then send the complete run of transparencies generated to Miyake in Tokyo, who would use them to review his design work and as the springboard for new design directions.

A comprehensive set of images from their work together is reproduced in the photobook Irving Penn Regards the Work of Issey Miyake, published in 1999 and edited by Mark Holborn. To look at the photographs is to see how Penn essentializes Miyake’s designs, bestowing them with a graphic clarity and a highly dynamic sense of how they can be worn. The visual directness affirms the precise and calibrated way Miyake’s garments are designed and made, which is magnified by how Penn takes photographs. They possess a visual style that is highly readable, like animation or hieroglyphs. And this clarity arises, according to Holborn, in how “the work of one provides a mirror for the work of the other.”  

In an essay for the 1997 exhibition catalogue Irving Penn: A Career in Photography, Miyake reflected, “Through his eyes Penn-san reinterprets the clothes, gives them new breath, and presents them to me from a new vantage point—one that I may not have been aware of, but had been subconsciously trying to capture. Without Penn-san’s guidance, I probably could not have continued to find new themes with which to challenge myself, nor could I have arrived at new solutions.” He ends by crediting Penn’s influence on his invention of permanently pleated garments, known as Pleats Please. 

In the obituaries published recently in honor of Miyake, many commented on the black mock turtleneck that the fashion designer made for Steve Jobs as his personal uniform. (Jobs ordered over one hundred.) Observers saw this as evidence of the relationship between fashion and technology and the idea of a garment as a kind of machine for living. Penn wore a similar kind of everyday uniform: blue jeans, sneakers, and a shirt with a collar band designed for him by Miyake. It’s an outfit that speaks with great understatement about the relationship between fashion and photography, about the inventiveness and imagination shared between practitioners from adjacent visual fields, and about the need for critical distance and critical friends. It’s an outfit that materializes Miyake’s principle that we all should continue to live by: “One always needs someone who can look over one’s shoulder and evaluate one’s work from a detached and objective point of view—someone who can act as a sounding board.”

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