Liz Brown talks to Issey Miyake and Dai Fujiwara about their revolutionary clothing collection

You could describe Issey Miyake’s A-POC clothing collections – the title is an acronym for ‘A Piece Of Cloth’ – as the fashion equivalent of calling a spade a spade. Yet calling A-POC ‘fashion’ rather misses its point and uses a term that Miyake has rejected as a means of describing himself and his work. In fact, the creation of A-POC begins several stages earlier than traditional fashion design, and ultimately extends far beyond it. ‘A-POC making starts from garment making, which begins with fibre making’, Miyake and his design partner, the textiles expert Dai Fujiwara, explain. And their work reveals just how intricate and complex a piece of cloth can be.

In 2000, Miyake entrusted the design of the ISSEY MIYAKE lines to his long-time protégé Naoki Takizawa (Miyake, however, oversees the overall direction of all lines created by his company) and, as he puts it, ‘took off on an adventure’. The result, A-POC, is a line of clothing rooted in research and tradition, and fuelled by technology.

Miyake makes it very clear that A-POC is an ensemble piece rather than his own line, and refuses to allow the collection to carry his name. The creative partnership between Miyake and Fujiwara is one of absolute equality, and there is a team of designers, technicians, textile experts, and crafts people on whom the creation of A-POC also relies.

As well as being an acronym, A-POC is also a near homonym of ‘epoch’. This is no accident; indeed it is perfectly accurate given that Miyake and Fujiwara are essentially developing a new way of thinking about, creating, and wearing clothes. And although there have now been 12 collections – A-POC 11 (there is an A-POC 0) was launched in November 2003 – the emphasis remains very much on research. Even Miyake and Fujiwara are unsure where the A-POC path will take them: ‘In the process of making things, we find there is no method in making things. A-POC finds the new method of making. It is not that we wanted to be different, but [it] became inevitable.’

Miyake was born in Hiroshima in 1938. He studied graphic design at Tama Art University in Tokyo and then went to Paris to attend the Syndical de la Couture. Fujiwara graduated from the same Tokyo university in 1995 with a degree in textile design and joined the Issey Miyake Paris Collection staff that same year. Their research into what was to become A-POC began formally in 1997 with a group called ‘Just Before’. But Miyake had never wanted to be part of the orthodox fashion world anyway, and the ideals that underpin A-POC can be traced a long way back, including to his 1978 book Issey Miyake East Meets West.

The process by which A-POC collections are made is something of a technological revolution in itself (patents pending), and often uses specially developed materials. The A-POC knits are made on industrial knitting machines from the 1930s and ’40s. Fujiwara spent five years developing this machinery to suit the needs of A-POC as well as the computer software that is now used to program them. The thread patterns they produce look a little like a chessboard from an Escher drawing and nothing at all like the piece of clothing they will eventually become. Nevertheless, they still use the same logic as traditional looms, which, at their most basic, direct threads over or under one another, and at their most complex become A-POC. Fujiwara explains the process in his essay for the Vitra Design Museum’s catalogue for the 2001 A-POC Making exhibition: ‘Analysing A-POC clothing, one finds a set of dots. If one is to consider these dots to be like genes in a human body, each A-POC dress may consist of as many as 200 million “genes”.’

A-POC technology has potential beyond its current employment, and Miyake and Fujiwara actively encourage new applications. Fujiwara, for example, recently gave a lecture on fabric structure at the Harvard School of Design that also proved to be of interest to architecture students. The latest A-POC development uses braiding techniques, a project that also involves one of Japan’s two remaining braiding companies and a mathematical construction concept developed by an American university.

The A-POC ‘genes’ also programme three-dimensional garment shapes and seams into the cloth, so there is often no need to sew separate pieces. One jacket, called ‘Hard Stitch’ is composed of 27 sections all of which are woven into the same piece of fabric. As a result, there is very little wasted material.

The garments are produced as enormous bolts of cloth, so that in a reversal of traditional fashion practice, in which designs are cut out and must then be sewn together, A-POC clothes are often fully made and then need only be cut out. In more recent collections, the sets must simply be separated from one another. In 1999, Fujiwara and another member of the A-POC team cut out the ‘King and Queen’ A-POC group in a live demonstration on the catwalk. The two of them quietly scissored out a succession of various skirt, top, trouser, and hood shapes on model Alex Wek’s body before the audience’s eyes.

Away from the catwalk, collections are shown on mannequins or as cutouts with the imprint of human form, but mostly without a shape, image or poster boy (or girl) to define their identity or restrict their use. The emphasis is on possibility, inclusion and encouraging appropriation, rather than on the garment being a conclusion into which the wearer must mould him or herself. A-POC garments exist for and with the help of the wearer; the ‘Baguette’ collection in particular is intended to feel like a second skin. And all of the A-POC fabrics stretch to fit the wearer – ‘Spider’, for example, is a sweater that can be worn as a small, medium or large size, and afterwards, with a simple tug, pings back to its original size.

Collections and garments are presented as artworks, photographs and things to be played with, as well as items of clothing. There have been two exhibitions based purely on A-POC, which have included display design by Tokujin Yoshioka. In A-POC Making (2001), long rolls of A-POC cloth dropped from the high ceilings, ‘pouring’ themselves onto the mannequins below, before being poured away again.
A much broader exhibition, Issey Miyake Making Things, (which toured internationally between 1998 and 2000 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, the Ace Gallery in New York, and the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art) included a section from the ‘Just Before’ group, in addition to Miyake’s work from the last ten years. An enormous roll of cloth lay at one end of a room with one end spilling out onto the floor and onto a line of mannequins. Each was connected to the one before her by cloth, and wearing a slightly different permutation of a single dress, they were, as one commentator put it, like a chain of paper dolls contained within the one roll of cloth.

Most recently, the three-week-long exhibition at the Axis Gallery in Tokyo during September and October last year celebrated A-POCs 0 to 10. And as the title, Nannano?, Japanese for ‘What is it?’, suggests, it was as much an opportunity for exploration as celebration, as are the many creative collaborations between Miyake, Fujiwara and the artists, designers, photographers, and architects who are regularly invited to participate. As a result of these collaborations, new A-POC forms are inspired: ‘By preparing and adding pieces for the AXIS gallery exhibition, this turned into the development of A-POC 11’, Fujiwara explains.

Miyake and Fujiwara also say that they ‘learned new perspectives and gained an overwhelming result’ from the graphic designer Taku Satoh’s involvement in the exhibition. It added another dimension both to the event and to their vision for A-POC. Satoh’s contribution was to create an A-POC version of his Anatomy of Design series, where the anatomised subject is broken down into its constituent parts. Every single element of A-POC was put on show, and a whole room at the gallery was filled with dyes, fibres (which visitors could look at under microscopes), design drawings, sketches, and hugely magnified models of threads.

Anatomy of Design dissected the ‘Baguette’ collection. Here, as well as cutting out each Baguette set from the bolts of cloth created by the knitting machines, the wearer also has a choice of designs, and can cut lengths and sizes according to their individual requirements. In fact, Miyake and Fujiwara force the wearer’s engagement by giving no guidelines for prescribed sleeve, neckline or sweater/dress shape, so the wearer must decide. ‘As the garment’s name is derived from the French bread, one has his/her way of enjoying the shape and size of bread when eating. There is nothing sadder than not getting any comments on a dish that has been fixed with one’s full effort.’

Miyake and Fujiwara also gauge public reaction to their work at such events, to its unconventionality and the occasional odd shapes – items in one A-POC collection, called ‘Zoo’ are named ‘Turtle’, ‘Octopus’ and ‘Monkey’, and, laid flat, the clothes really do look like them. But at the Axis show, they found that the public shared their perspective, ‘waiting for a new challenge’, and that is something Miyake and Fujiwara are happy to provide. Twelve thousand visitors attended the exhibition, the largest number the Gallery has recorded for a single event. (Over 100,000 people visited Making Things at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. A respected figure in the artworld, Miyake will also be one of the judges at the first Artes Mundi this Spring. The Cardiff-based international prize is one of the largest in the world, with a prize of £40,000 awarded to the winner.)

Miyake was an early exponent of the flagship store idea (but again, on his own terms). There are two A-POC stores, one in Tokyo (designed in 2000 by Tokujin Yoshioka) and the other in Paris (designed the same year by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec); the New York store is the first to carry all the labels under the Miyake ‘umbrella’ and is by Gordon Kipping, with ‘kibitzing’ and design by Frank O. Gehry. The Tokyo space looks like a cross between a bar and a science lab, and encompasses commercial and studio spaces (shoppers can watch A-POC technicians through a glass wall). The Bouroullecs’ store looks like an art gallery. Even if you haven’t visited, I’m sure you can imagine what Gehry’s looks like. But, as different as they are individually, each fits perfectly with the overall A-POC aesthetic.

The next step for A-POC includes development of the ‘double structure’ process featured for the first time in A-POC 11. Here, the front and back of the fabric have different threads, weaving structures, colours, and textures. A-POC Archive is also being introduced, and features some earlier Miyake pieces that are reinterpreted and redeveloped with A-POC technology.

In person, Miyake has the demeanour of a man confident in his work, patiently waiting while everyone else comes around to his way of thinking. He questions things at their essence, changing what they mean and what they are, rather than how they look on the surface: ‘It is not the shape or the colour of the garment, but it is one’s internal attitude that seems to be radical.’

Liz Brown is Design Editor for contemporary