(Wired) When the runway started to seem like a treadmill, Issey Miyake left Paris for good. The 65-year-old Japanese designer had shown nearly 100 collections and won almost every fashion award in existence. Long admired for his innovation, Miyake had boiled and melted fabric and played with bamboo and ultrasound. He had invented the science of wrinkling and perfected the art of surprise. But Miyake no longer wanted a designer label; he wanted a design lab. Before turning his eponymous line over to a prot?g?, he sent one final zinger down the runway: 23 models wearing a single dress. Not 23 dresses sewn together, but a single banner of fabric embedded with 23 dresses – connected like a chain of paper dolls.
Photos by Stan Musilek
1. A piece of cloth, 2. a simple cut, 3. no sewing required, 4. the new face of ready-to-wear.
It was both a grand finale and a preview: Miyake was leaving to focus on A-POC, an experiment he began in the mid-’90s and turned into an independent line in 1999. An acronym for “a piece of cloth,” A-POC refers to both the fashion label and the manufacturing process behind it. That process breaks one of the fundamental laws of fashion physics: cut and sew. Normally, clothes are made by weaving thread or yarn into fabric, which is then snipped and stitched to create, say, a dress. The A-POC method requires no sewing. Thread goes into the loom, the dress comes out. Specifically, a flattened tube of material emerges that contains the finished shirt, skirt, or pants, which need only to be cut out along the faint outline already woven or knit into the fabric. Moreover, the material can be snipped anywhere without unraveling, a feature that allows for complete customization. A pair of scissors and a flirtatious spirit can turn a turtleneck into a plunging V-neck.
Miyake has so far kept the patent-pending process a closely guarded secret. But fashion insiders recognize that the technology behind A-POC – the process of melding thread into clothing, seamlessly – represents an entirely new way of making clothes, one that has less to do with the needles and bobbins of a garment factory than with rapid prototyping methods used in manufacturing. The real effect of A-POC has yet to be felt.
Textile manufacturing has a long history of sparking social and technological change. Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s automatic loom, introduced in 1801, caused riots among the hand-weavers it began to displace, and later inspired Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and Herman Hollerith’s punch cards. Likewise, the demise of cut-and-sew could have significant impact, allowing manufacturers to save time and money by eliminating work usually done by skilled laborers. “Miyake is weaving garments that don’t need to be sewn,” says Jack Lenor Larsen, an internationally renowned textile designer, “and that is the wave of the future.”
But A-POC isn’t just a new way to make clothes – it’s a process that can be used to create all kinds of goods. Any material that can be turned into a fiber can work in the A-POC process, which gives Miyake the opportunity to produce anything from shoes to portable shelters. The A-POC team already has developed a series of colorful beanbag-like chairs and sofas that will come to market this year. The studio is also interested in a new corn-based fiber that could be used to construct other types of furniture, and it recently developed a resin-linen blend that a University of Tokyo lab found to be as strong as steel. To branch out, Miyake is looking into partnerships or licensing agreements.
Toshiko Mori, an architect and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, sees A-POC as a prototype for the future of design and fabrication. “I think we can make houses and building components with this technique in a way that will be both economical and offer enormous design possibilities,” she says. “It’s a high tech, high design, low-cost solution.”
On a hot afternoon in September, Issey Miyake is overseeing the final installation of an exhibition of A-POC clothing at the Axis Gallery in Tokyo. Since leaving the runway, the designer has ignored the inflexible calendar of the fashion world, which demands a new collection be shown every spring and fall in Paris or New York. Instead, Miyake has debuted his 11 A-POC collections whenever he wants, at museums and galleries like this one.
Miyake has always been a maverick. He started the Miyake Design Studio in 1970 with the mission of finding new ways of making things. That has included everything from laser-printed fabric patterns to reinterpretations of traditional Japanese textile crafts. Such experimentation is unusual in the fashion business, where most people make their money by imitating. Many mass manufacturers say they’re innovative, but that’s mostly talk. “It’s the smaller companies like Miyake that have done most of the research,” says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Take Miyake’s Pleats Please line, a fashion case study. After five years of R&D, he launched a collection in 1993 featuring pleats so thin the material looked more crinkled than creased. The technique was quickly copied, and Miyake’s pleats rippled through Saks and beyond.
For all his innovation, Miyake didn’t attempt to move beyond cutting and sewing until 1995, when Dai Fujiwara arrived at the studio. Now A-POC’s design engineer, the 36-year-old Fujiwara offers a counterpoint to his mentor’s easy charm. He is quiet and serious, with a moonlike face and velvety eyebrows. Miyake is, at heart, an artist moved by the beauty of the human form and the clothes that enfold it, while Fujiwara is a born tinkerer: A-POC’s single-form creation process sprang from his mind.
On the lower level of the Axis Gallery, the anatomy of that process is laid bare with structural diagrams, yarn samples on view beneath microscopes, and a 3-foot-long plasticine model of threads, all created by graphic designer Taku Satoh. The stockinglike tube is made of double-knit fabric whose yarns are linked in a fine mesh of chain stitches. If the fabric is cut, the stretchier fibers in the bottom layer shrink, tightening the chain-stitch mesh and preventing the fabric from unraveling. A second model displays what Miyake calls the union – where the top and bottom of the tube are knit together, forming what are essentially seams.
Had this exhibit been staged in New York or Paris during the shows, Calvin Klein would have been elbowing Stella McCartney for a closer look. But here the crowd lingers upstairs near the cocktails and the noise, where Miyake denizens in Pleats Please or A-POC Baguettes mix with hip designers wearing telltale black and extreme eyeware – all unconcerned with the innovation on display downstairs.
Makita Shoten, one of four manufacturers turning out the A-POC line, occupies a cluttered, unremarkable building in Minamitsuru, a small town at the base of Mt. Fuji. Makita was founded in 1869 to make silk for kimonos. But as the small weavers of this region gave way to IT companies, Makita brought its looms into the digital age.
The Miyake studio has been working with this family-owned company for five years to refine the A-POC process, though it has never publicly mentioned the factory by name. So this is a first for Makita textile designer Chiemi Tamura: showing an outsider how the clothes are made. Most of Makita’s business involves producing fabric that’s sent elsewhere to be sewn into garments or products like umbrellas. A-POC represents just 10 percent of Makita’s volume, Tamura tells me, and 120 percent of its angst. “Every time Dai and Issey-san asked ‘Could we do X?’ and we said ‘yes,’ they’d say ‘Oh, so can you also do Y?'” She laughs. “You never know what will come next.”
Photo by Charles Pertwee
Issey Miyake prepares for a show at the Axis Gallery in Tokyo.
By now Tamura does know enough to expect what she calls “the notorious yarn attack,” when Fujiwara sends Makita the newest yarns to be tested. The Miyake design team searches out fibers and filaments the way other designers hunt for new fabrics. Nearly all of their findings end up in Makita’s test swatches. The good, the bad, and the truly bizarre results (polyurethane gauze, anyone?) are returned to the studio, where they serve as a springboard for the next generation of A-POC clothing that will spill out of Makita’s hulking Sta?bli loom.
The machine itself is amazing: Computer-controlled levers move the warp threads into the up or down position according to the digitized pattern instructions, and an automated shuttle pulls the weft thread through a dizzying 200 times a minute. Your eyes can hardly follow the shuttles as they fly back and forth, accompanied by the pounding of an army of needles. Brilliant yellow and pink threads – 12,280 strands – run from an oversize spool toward the needles, which bob up and down like marionettes. And Miyake has figured out how to use it to weave finished clothes instead of fabric. The key to the whole process is the digital Jacquard machine overhead, a loom attachment that automates the weaving of patterns. Instead of using the machine as it was intended, the A-POC team co-opted it to create the embedded seams that make its clothing possible.
In addition, the Miyake studio employs the Jacquard to produce more complex designs and experiment radically with all of the possible variables: the thickness of the thread, the density of the weave, the shape of the garment. The designers are able to specify the placement of every yarn – to make, say, the cuffs of a shirt more elastic than the neck. These details are specified in the pattern data Miyake sends to Makita, where the 0s and 1s become Miyake’s patented creations.
“Clothing has been called intimate architecture,” Miyake says. “We want to go beyond that.” Meaning furniture and building components. That A-POC aims to blur the distinction between fashion line and industrial product surprises few who know him. “He is a true design pioneer,” says Sherri Geldin, director of the Columbus, Ohio, Wexner Center for the Arts, which just awarded Miyake its prestigious Wexner Prize in recognition of his impact across creative fields. “I don’t think of him as a fashion designer,” says Richard Koshalek, the president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “He functions on a very high level with regard to new ideas. A-POC has the potential to transform many design disciplines.”
Photo by Charles Pertwee
A-POC jackets roll off the loom at the Makita Shoten factory near Mt. Fuji.
Miyake Design Studio is eagerly pursuing opportunities in furniture and architectural design. Early last year, the Japanese VC firm Taurus approached the studio about the Iso Truss, a patented grid structure to which Taurus had exclusive rights. The Iso Truss, which looks like a woven helix, has a remarkably high strength-to-weight ratio, offering a lightweight, low-cost alternative to traditional building components like wood, steel, and aluminum. The Miyake designers see the Iso Truss as a way to take A-POC’s weaving technology to an architectural scale. The studio hopes the results can be used in the construction of pillars, walls, and furniture.
Last spring, Harvard’s Toshiko Mori invited Fujiwara to the university to talk about these possibilities. His lecture and student workshop – attended by such design heavyweights as Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli and Tate Modern architect Pierre de Mueron – explored a range of ideas, from clothing as a form of micro-architecture to the potential of weaving techniques to create refugee shelters, boats, and other structures.
Meanwhile, technologists are interested in weaving computational devices. Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe ponders a day when the patterned circuitry of computing devices might be woven from flexible, high tech fibers, instead of etched on rigid substrates. He wrote in a recent InfoWorld column, “Why not sprinkle nanocomputers – smart sand – on substrates of woven power filaments and communication fibers? Imagine a yarn conducting on one side and insulating on the other.”
The concept hinges on the ability to precisely control the properties and placement of each thread – something that sounds a lot like the A-POC method. For now, though, Miyake is content to explore new, more efficient ways of making furniture and clothing. But if those experiments are successful, we may see A-POC weaving its way through a broader range of manufacturing.