It’s expected to see a clothing designer attempt to bring their vision to a new medium within the Arts, whether it’s Helmut Lang becoming a sculptor or Rick Owens making furniture. What’s less common is seeing a designer practice their principles outside of artistry and imbue them into a broader infrastructure. This larger cultural integration is what Michiyo Inaba has systematically been working towards for the past twenty-five years. There is a dense timeline to move through to understand Michiyo Inaba’s motives and actions, so in this article I will provide a brief analysis of the nine collections that led up to the departure of the designer from the runway, and in my following piece I will explore her larger impact on various levels of Japanese society.
Michiyo Inaba began her career after graduating from Vantan Design Institute, a vocational school in Shibuya. She moved to Yokohama to open her first showroom, and by 1997 had created three collections. It was in May of that year that she appeared on TVK, a local station in Kanagawa Prefecture that plays niche music videos, anime, and invites artists like Michiyo on to discuss their work. Her recognition expanded, and she appeared on several other channels and discussion panels within the next year. She debuted her first large scale runway show for the Spring/Summer 1999 season in Tokyo, titled “GUILTY”, drawing immediate acclaim from her contemporaries. It was in this show that Michiyo suggested that Japan should feel guilty for their abandonment of nature and unflinching embrace of technology. Michiyo predicted that the rapidly expanding access to “culture” via the internet coupled with the overreliance on economic growth based around modern technologies would be the driving forces in societal change for Japan post-turn of the century. To Michiyo, this phenomenon was reminiscent of the Edo period, a period that brought with it much of the core concepts Japan exists on today, including business centering in major cities, and more defined structures of bureaucracy and education. The distinction Michiyo highlighted through “GUILTY” between the Edo period and modern day was the unsustainable acceleration of technology, whereas in the Edo period growth was not able to snowball as quickly. Michiyo would eventually be proven correct, as by the end of the first decade of the twenty first century Japan was experiencing mass unemployment as much of the older generation’s skills were now obsolete in comparison to what a machine could do or a younger person could learn to do, and many were forced into lower paying service jobs for massive corporations.
It is understandable that after the poor economic climate of the nineties, Japan could get carried away with the new opportunities that technology brought to their industries, ultimately resulting in a net-negative for the country. Michiyo Inaba predicted this Sisyphus-esque scenario, and concluded very early in the development of her design language that “technology” in the modern sense of the word, would severely stagnate Japan’s long term growth if used ineffectively. An abrasion to modern technology and a yearning for establishing systems that would lead to the betterment of Japan would become the cornerstones Michiyo Inaba would explore in subsequent collections and her work post runway.
In Autumn-Winter 99/00 “FEELER” Michiyo created a fantastical story of earthlings fading away, replaced by aliens who mourn our greatest downfall: our lack of feeling. Michiyo said in a description for her collection “Enjoying life is the most important thing in this era, but if you don’t value the sense of touch (edge, luck, feeling, love) like them, will it perish again?” With “FEELER” Michiyo suggests enjoyment of life comes simply through living within the moment. Michiyo is saying that disregard for what is tactile in favor of the unquenchable search for hypothetical betterment through consumption and unreliable innovation will be the ultimate downfall of humanity. Michiyo Inaba hopes the world will practice conscious consumption, not simply blunder in any direction they might believe is “forward”.
SS 00 “TSUKI” was a comparably lighter show, with the main inspiration being, expectedly, the moon. Michiyo Inaba recognized the moon for being a truly “analog” satellite of earth, as more and more “digital” satellites began to populate our orbit as well. Michiyo comments on how long the moon has been referenced by humans throughout history in her show notes, which, if you’ve been paying attention, reflects a worldview she considers almost everything through. Michiyo Inaba views scenarios through very wide scopes and hopes to convey commentary through her work that is applicable to longer stretches of time then simply the season the collection is shown in.
This comparison of analog and digital explored in “TSUKI” would become a dichotomy in AW 00/01“MELT”. If “TSUKI” celebrated the moon as a representation of analog, “MELT” celebrated the concept of analog itself. The collection hopes to remind society that analog objects remain necessary in our day to day lives, and the value they have had on humanity since its inception can never be replaced by “better” technologies. For instance, in one pair of trousers, Michiyo placed a cell phone in one leg and a ballpoint pen in the other. In a simple sense, this gesture plays with the idea of balance. It’s clear that Michiyo believes Japan heavily weighs new technology over fundamental, traditional technologies that have historically worked well. Perhaps through these trousers Michiyo is hoping to show that only these two ideas working in balance with one another can carry Japan forward. Yet even in this, there is an inference that the cell phone and pen have unbalanced functions and responsibilities given what tasks they are capable of performing, meaning that what Michiyo truly desires isn’t equality between the pen and the cell phone, but equity.
SS 01 “YURAGI” was a collaboration between Michiyo Inaba and Komatsu Textile Industry Cooperative that experimented with a jointly developed silk material that could be easily maintained in the home of the consumer and would retain shape and character. As we look further into the work of Michiyo Inaba we will discover her interest in silk persists throughout her future projects. This collection was a thematic departure from her past shows, but ties into her hope for establishing lasting industries in Japan that rely on historically successful endeavors.
You’ll notice that Michiyo elected to skip the AW 01/02 season as she grew more interested in experimentation and less focused on running a traditional fashion brand. It was at this point that these runway shows became less of a priority as other aspects of Michiyo’s professional life grew more prominent, aspects we will explore in the second part of this article. Michiyo Inaba would return to the runway a year later with SS 02 “MAGNETIC”, utilizing a refined version of the silk developed in her previous collection. Michiyo looked back on the beginning of our universe, and how energy was drawn together to create what we have now. Through presenting this collection and receiving feedback, Michiyo hoped to gain insight into how to gather popular support for her idealistic goals in a naturally magnetic way, detached from the usual marketing strategies of corporate brands. In this sense, this show was an experiment, just as “YURAGI” was.
AW 02/03 “TERRA” was a very elemental collection again inspired from the natural world. Michiyo compares the natural ecosystem that covers the earth with what we elect to build on it, representing once again the analog, or natural, versus the digital, or manmade. To bring this idea onto the runway, Michiyo imagines each human as their own complex world, with natural coverings of hair and skin mixed with manmade coverings of clothing, both coming together to encompass your true self, your soul. You’ll notice that at this point, Michiyo has increased her scope so wide that she directly coorales the clothing of a human to the very planet that human exists on.
SS 03 “PERIGEE” was a fairly direct sequel to “TSUKI”, though it should be clear by now that each collection builds off the others, though not linearly, but rather in the shape of a web to represent Michiyo’s ever expanding reference view. “PERIGEE” examines the point in which the moon and our satellites revolve closest to the surface of Earth. This is a rare optimistic collection, describing a scenario where humanity can bring the “analog” and “digital” together, an idea previously explored in “MELT”. Through this considerate use of technology and respect for nature we can finally move forward. However, it seems Michiyo accepts that a perfect cohesion can never happen, instead electing to appreciate the push and pull of the forces, for this sway is natural in our world already.
Another year would pass until Michiyo Inaba unveiled SS 04 “LADIDA”, a far less optimistic view on humanity’s potential. “LADIDA” is about disconnection, the purposeful rejection of balance. The collection is made for a faction of people unbothered by the realities of the world, existing only within themselves. The show features bowlingual bags, a whimsical modern technology at the time that supposedly allows one to communicate with their dog. This to Michiyo, is a perfect example of a technology that only distracts Japan from true reform and eventual progress. The bag doesn’t offer communication, it offers separation, as for one, they do not allow you to actually communicate with dogs, but they detract from opportunities to communicate with other human beings. There is no balance in a technology that is simply amusing to one party and incomprehensible to the other. Michiyo is showing a satirical example of people being too engrossed in their technology to make a natural connection, an issue that would become a disturbing reality in years to come.
Michiyo Inaba would end her runway shows here, and move fully into the next stage of her career. Michiyo’s runway shows made for an incredible sandbox for the designer to visually develop her thoughts on nature versus technology, and Japan’s direction. Above all, they were succinct, a quality on the runway that very few designers can embody. Part two will explore the side projects Michiyo worked on during this period, and how she was able to bring her ideas from the art world into the broader cultural infrastructure of Kanagawa.