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User Experience: Issey Miyake Kyoto

Oct 26 2019

Between Ancient Tradition and Future Aesthetics

I set out for Issey Miyake Kyoto—the brand’s new flagship in Japan’s ancient capital—on a brutally hot, sticky summer day. Turning the corner of Yanaginobanba street, I see the store. It’s housed in a traditional Machiya—Kyoto’s signature townhouse. It’s a rare architectural jewel: a traditional low-slung, blackwood townhouse, the kind that used to dominate the city, but became an oddity after the war as a blight of concrete took over the cities. The store is sandwiched between two of those brutalist monstrosities—four-stories, functional and ugly—a fact carefully edited out of the publicity shots.

As you approach, you first notice the immaculate noren—a traditional Japanese entrance curtain—with a straight line across it: the Japanese character for the number one, which doubles as the first character in “Issey” (一生), and as a key brand motif. I quietly slide the front door with both hands and slip into the shop.

Inside, designer Naoto Fukasawa has filled the store with a faint gray light, which filters into the house through a lattice window: a characteristic architectural feature of Kyoto’s traditional townhouses. It feels ethereally cool. In an instant, the unrelenting sun and the thick, sticky humidity seem a distant memory for reasons AC alone can’t account for. The designer darkness gives it all the feel of a cave. The shade of gray picked for the walls is called "sumi:” the color of China ink diluted with water on rice paper. Immediately, the title of Junichiro Tanizaki’s acclaimed essay floats to mind: "In Praise of Shadows.” Tanizaki argued that shadows are the quintessence of Japanese aesthetics, and this shop has deliberately set out to embody that quintessence, down to the most remote detail. (It is not a coincidence that Issey Miyake’s line of light fixtures is named IN-EI—”shadow” in Japanese.)

The store has two stories: the first floor has Issey Miyake Men, Homme Plissé Issey Miyake, me Issey Miyake and BAO BAO Issey Miyake. Up on the second floor, there is Pleats Please Issey Miyake and the Ikko Tanaka Issey Miyake collection featuring graphic designer Ikko Tanaka's work. On the main floor I see the brand’s ubiquitous, signature BAO BAO bags glittering against a wall painted in deep shades of sumi. They come in striking pink, light chemical blue, metallic white: vivid colors that are the complete opposite of the Japanese traditional wabi-sabi aesthetic. And yet, their elaborate, folding, geometric structure makes them a good match for the classic Kyoto atmosphere. Under a glass table, colorful bags and shirts, watches, and books are evenly spaced and impeccably displayed. The silence is complete. The shop has a reverential feel that situates it closer to the shrines or temples you visit as a tourist in Kyoto than to a boutique. "Please feel free to touch the bag," a voice tells me, as if to reassure me this is not a museum.

But a courtyard behind the main townhouse does host a gallery space, KURA, in a repurposed historic storehouse. The current exhibition focuses on : Kyoto’s traditional hand-held fan. The right wall of the gallery brims with uchiwa featuring the signature "one"/straight line motif; on the other side, elaborately decorated uchiwa fans created by Aiba, a Kyoto firm which, founded in 1689, has been producing these perfectly structured and finely decorated paper-and-bamboo crafts for centuries. On a video screen in the exhibit, a master craftsman explains the philosophy of Japanese artisanry. Or, rather, its ideology. His authenticity cannot be argued: he is the 10th generation owner of a family enterprise, sitting bolt upright on his folded knees, holding forth in Kyoto’s elegantly-accented Japanese. His fans are made by hand, one at a time, in an intricate display of practiced perfection. This marriage of contemporary sensibility and ancient craftsmanship resonates in Issey Miyake’s design philosophy, where the designer sees his task as bringing the elegance of Japanese craftwork to modern Western fashion. The collaboration feels natural, even necessary. One corner of a flyer of the KURA exhibition reads, in tiny print, "the size of the exhibition space is as big as 20 sheets of this flyer at the length and breadth." Probably no one cares about this recondite detail, but it’s this obsessive approach that embodies the ethos of artisanship, and of this store. It’s art. It’s also, I think, a little over the top.

I return to the main shop and go to the second floor. The stairs are narrow and, again, a deep gray. The exposed beams feel close enough to touch. These beams remind me of the artwork of Hidetoshi Nagasawa, the Japanese contemporary sculptor of the Arte Povera school, who used to raid old houses for beams to put in his works. There’s a whole air of Arte Povera to this store. The structure is intricately beautiful. Looking down from upstairs, products downstairs feel even more luminescent against the austere sumi grey. The colorful pleated dresses on the rack shine like sculptures under the light.Sitting on a bench of perfectly smooth wood, I notice another young female clerk step into the space, then bow. "Excuse me." The sense of hyper-polite surveillance makes me uneasy. I go downstairs to avoid her gaze. I find new customers have arrived. A mother and her teenage son are looking carefully through all the items in the shop. Then abruptly two women come in. They don't waste time looking at other items or enjoying the atmosphere, they head straight to the BAO BAO bags. They handle them for a second and ask questions to the store staff in English, with a few Japanese words mixed in. I’m trying to put my finger on the source of the weirdness here. Everything, down to the smallest detail, is written both in English and Japanese. This isn’t normal in Japan—not unless a place is specifically conceived for foreigners. I realize that the only Japanese people I’ve seen here, other than staff, are two old Kyoto ladies I saw when I first came in. Most of the customers here are foreign tourists.I try to think of other spots in town where foreigners are this thick on the ground. A handful come to mind: Ryōan-ji, the famous stone garden Zen temple. Or the Golden Pavilion. Can’t-miss places in every tourist’s itinerary, a fantasy Japan of Tanizaki aesthetics, a world defined by master craftsmen handing down the secrets of ancient Kyoto. You can’t call these places “fake,” they’re the opposite of fake: hyper-authentic crafts genuinely indebted to Kyoto’s thousand-year history. And yet it feels nothing at all like the work-a-day Japan of convenience stores and stripmalls where I grew up. It's too perfect, too removed from “real life” to feel entirely real. It seems Issey Miyake Kyoto overshoots reality, landing instead in the realm of hyperreal, in a very Japanese sort of uncanny valley of beauty. The ancient is often just as unfathomable as the future.