Takahiro Miyashita has been designing clothing for two decades now, but despite his tenure, his collections still capture the essence of teen spirit. This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store.
Despite his 20-year tenure as a fashion designer, it’s hard to think of Takahiro Miyashita as one of the “old guard”. His clothes, whether for his iconic Number (N)ine label that made waves in the ’90s and the ’00s, or for his current TAKAHIROMIYASHITATheSoloist. label, remain perennially young. His obsession with youth culture is so ingrained into his psyche that it is impossible to imagine him designing anything other than clothes infused with references to Kurt Cobain, Gus Van Sant and David Bowie; and that’s only scratching the surface.
A lesser designer would have already tired himself out through repetition, but Miyashita’s frenetic mind finds ingenious new ways of rendering old themes in new forms, season after season. Sometimes Miyashita is not exactly sure whether his mind and him are one. In one of our prior interviews, when I asked him where his inspiration comes from, he said, “I don’t know, ask my brain.” In an answer to another question, he told me that when he sometimes looks at some of his old garments, he does not remember designing them.
Along with his friend Jun Takahashi of UNDERCOVER, Miyashita became one of the defining designers of the “new” Japanese wave that has grown up in the ’90s in the shadow of success of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo’s COMME des GARÇONS. But, unlike Yamamoto and Kawakubo, both of whom went straight for the couture crown, UNDERCOVER and Number (N)ine drew inspiration firmly from Tokyo’s streets. And though that milieu was thoroughly steeped into Western youth culture, it was filtered through a Tokyo lens. As a matter of fact, you’d be hard pressed to find much that’s “Japanese” in their work, nor would they want you to. What matters is the filter of their singular minds. Coincidentally, both designers also make music—Miyashita has done music for UNDERCOVER shows.
When I first encountered Number (N)ine in 2005, the clothes were a revelation. They were at once familiar and alien. They were not simply an elevated version of the rock ’n’ roll gear I wore as a teenager; there was a transcendental quality in Miyashita’s work, whether in the way he mixed materials, added details or reshaped the garments, like when he made a cape modeled after the Schott’s Perfecto motorcycle jacket.
Karlo Steel, who bought Number (N)ine for his iconic menswear boutique Atelier, had a similar experience. “Often Taka used the color black as a foundation for beautification. And as someone who sharpened his aesthetic sensibilities in the ’80s on a diet of COMME, Yohji and Grace Jones, this was something I connected with,” he says. “I also liked how he used items we were already familiar with, like skinny jeans and combat boots, and put his own spin on them, making them seem fresh and desirable.”
Number (N)ine’s short-lived New York boutique, located in the then still industrial corner of TriBeCa and closed on Tuesdays (as I found out the hard way), became one of my favorite destinations, to which I sneaked out during my office lunch breaks. It was different than other stores—dimly lit, raw, with unfinished furniture and old TVs playing N(N) shows and rock music videos. You had to be committed in order to find it, but that desire to stand apart from other stores did not strike me as pretentious.
Miyashita started designing while working at Nepenthes, a store in Harajuku, in the mid ’90s. Currently the company is known for its Japanese-tinged Americana line, Engineered Garments and Needles, the brainchild of Nepenthes founder Keizo Shimizu. Needles’ 1970s lilt has found a new audience today, and its track pants have attracted a new breed of celebrity clientele like A$AP Rocky.
He’s not a classically trained designer by any means. Miyashita didn’t go to fashion school, but had a natural taste for what constitutes “good” clothing. But he also admits that same lens could have been applied to other creative platforms, like music or architecture. He was in his late teens when he began working for Nepenthes, which solidified his desire to pursue a career in fashion.
“By the time I met the owner of Nepenthes, my mind about working in the fashion industry was made up,” he says.
The store’s owner had a mind to do his own line, and he tapped Miyashita, who was already in the habit of deconstructing and reconstructing clothes for himself, to design 20 styles.
“My previous boss is not an outspoken type of person, so he didn’t explain or show me what to do step by step,” Miyashita says. “Instead, he expected me to learn from watching his job. He’d say: ‘Be free. Do what feels right for you.’”
That first collection came out well, and Miyashita began thinking of his own line. In 1997 he launched Number (N)ine. The name was inspired by The Beatles experimental track, “Revolution 9.” The cacophonous, atonal track’s only lyrics are “number nine” on repeat. At Number (N)ine, Miyashita decided that his direction would be applying that multidisciplinary creative ‘lens’ by manifesting youth culture in fashion design. He quickly began developing a reputation for putting out quirky mashups of references from alternative rock to indie films. At some point, Jun Takahashi, who was curious about Miyashita, knocked on the door of his studio. UNDERCOVER was already one of the hottest brands in Tokyo at the time, and Miyashita, who is quite shy by nature, remembers being frozen with awkwardness. He simply said hi to Takahashi and dashed out the door. But Takahashi returned and the two since have become close friends.
After building his reputation in Japan, Miyashita decided to take Number (N)ine to Paris. The first collection he showed there was for A/W 2004 called “Give Peace a Chance.” Hits like the Spring/Summer 2005 “Night Crawlers” and the Fall/Winter 2006 “Noir” followed, in which Miyashita offered a unique point of view on rock music and goth subculture.
“The first show I attended by Number (N)ine was ‘Night Crawlers,’ and it made a massive impact on me,” says Steel. “It was all about the excitement, and possible danger, that went with rock ‘n’ roll nightclubbing; that spiky allure of youthful abandonment in the moonlight. Some of those collections were oddly ahead of their time, and not unlike what Hedi Slimane did at Dior by combining the casual, the street, and music culture in a youthful and energetic way.”
In retrospect, Steel notes, those Number (N)ine collections have aged remarkably well, and still remain as youthful as ever. Perhaps the most iconic example of combining the elements Steel mentions was the Fall/Winter 2005 collection, called “The High Streets,” set to an aggressive Nirvana soundtrack, in which Miyashita mixed plaid and denim with tuxedo jackets and tailored coats. This was a continuation of a revolution started in the late ’90s by Raf Simons, which is so familiar to us by now that we take it for granted. But back then it was only beginning to be acceptable to see these things on the runway. What spoke to me as a fashion fan was the continuous negation of all that was bourgeois about designer fashion. Miyashita showed that you could wear a tailored coat with a hoodie and give both completely new meaning by subverting the context of one and elevating the other.
But the shows weren’t only about darkness, and Miyashita’s later references hewed closer to the shabby style of alternative music, the West Coast of the U.S., Portland youth and Gus Van Sant. These were reflected in shows like “My Own Private Portland” and “About a Boy.” Like Kurt Cobain, the label also burnt out in its prime.
Number (N)ine’s last show, Fall/Winter 2009’s “A Closed Feeling,” was the first Paris fashion show I ever attended. As the veiled models came out, walking slowly to Beth Gibbons’s gut-wrenching soundtrack in what looked like pirate jackets intricately constructed from repurposed upholstery fabrics, an elegiac mood took over the room. Little did we know that the elegy was real and that we were witnessing the end of Number (N)ine.
“The Soloist is more personal for me. What feels right for me at the moment is to express what’s closer and more private.”
After Miyashita finally extricated himself from Number (N)ine, he spent a year soul-searching and building up to his new line, TheSoloist. The name symbolized his desire to create with complete and newfound freedom. While Number (N)ine has become a company in which Miyashita had to contend with other parties, just as band members do, at TheSoloist he would do exactly as he pleased. “The Soloist is more personal for me. What feels right for me at the moment is to express what’s closer and more private,” he says.
Sometimes when I look at Miyashita’s complicatedly constructed clothes in sumptuous fabrics I wonder at his ability to be free from commercial constraints. In a sense, he seems like one of the last auteurs in fashion, meaning that he does whatever he wants, practical considerations be damned. Double-faced cashmere coats with leather piping that will retail for over $10,000? Why not? Miyashita is not out to cater to everyone.
“I’m a type of person who desires a true appreciation from one person, instead of nine people out of ten,” he says. Having learned his lesson at Number (N)ine, at TheSoloist Miyashita runs a skeleton crew. He designs everything himself, without a single assistant. What would carry over from the Number (N)ine days were the youth culture references that for Miyashita always stay fresh.
“My relationship and understanding of the things that inspire me has not changed over the years,” Miyashita says. “It might be different from the initial encounter, but inspiration from those musicians or artists are certainly not fading.”
Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” in his 1994 suicide note, writing: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” For Miyashita, those eerie words ring true. In some ways, the spirits of the artists that inspire him live on inside his head, and his relationships with them are only reinforced over time. You can see this in the latest collection Miyashita presented in Paris, in which hoodies were embroidered with notes from the Johnny Cash cover of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails single, and T-shirts that featured a hand-drawn portrait of the recently deceased Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden and Audioslave singer.
Miyashita would be hard pressed to draw a parallel, say from Kurt Cobain to Johnny Cash, except that they all have had an effect on him that he has thoroughly internalized. When I ask him whether it is rebellion or romanticism that unites his heroes, or their originality, he answers, “I rarely use the word ‘rebel,’ because those icons of mine are only slightly off-track. Are they romantic? Maybe. It’s important to be romantic. Original? I can never be, because everything has been done.”
Like Jack Kerouac, the only people for Takahiro Miyashita are the mad ones. He describes Kurt Cobain as someone who “was only slightly abnormal,” though not quite an outlaw. He goes on to say that Cobain is a perfect example of who he is—just a few degrees removed from mainstream conformity, and surreptitiously subversive. But Miyashita’s multitudes are not so clearly defined, as he also says he could easily identify with someone like Katherine Hepburn.
Perhaps by now a hint of nostalgia also affects him. The current wave of nostalgia is caught up in the ’90s, as the generation of kids who grew up in that decade now hold many key posts in the creative industries.
“I do think there is a nostalgic feeling in my work,” Miyashita says. “The clothes I was wearing back when Nirvana came out were not so different from what Kurt was wearing. I saw the similarity. Levi’s, Converse. Without knowing how Nirvana looked, its music felt almost like heavy metal. Though the looks were what made me realize that they are different. And that was exactly where I was at. I was only slightly different from others.”
This sounded spot on to me, since I have lately been revisiting the early Smashing Pumpkins records, and I realized that some of the songs sounded pretty much like heavy metal, the genre which alternative rock opposed, but also which it learned from. How they looked mattered greatly to those musicians’ ethos. As Frank Zappa once said, “No change in musical style will survive unless it is accompanied by a change in clothing style.”
I wondered whether the old references that drive Miyashita are there because he has found no new ones. As you get older, it sometimes becomes harder to relate to contemporary culture, and going back to some of the old cultural markers feels natural. Newness no longer holds the same appeal. Perhaps when so much has already been done, it becomes difficult for the next generation to make an impact. At least that’s what I thought on my last two visits to Japan, where the work of the generation of designers that came after Miyashita and Takahashi has left me largely unimpressed. I was struck by the formulaic uniformity of what was on offer. It looked as if someone sat down and said, “Okay, we need a bomber jacket here, a pair of sweatpants there, and a Perfecto to boot. Perhaps we make different zippers.”
Miyashita sounds more optimistic. “The young designers could seem uninspiring at the moment, but the same impression was also true for us back then,” he tells me, also referring to UNDERCOVER. “I would say that just like today, our time was also full of mistakes. It may not sound nice to say that young designers have less imagination, but perhaps they are better at making clothes.”
Modern designers have access to more help and skilled staffs. In Miyashita’s early days, he didn’t have as wide a variety of materials to choose from, and that forced him to be more creative in his designs. He describes his process as “creating freely based on misunderstandings and mistakes.” In some ways, he thinks clothing feels a little too immaculate now. In an age where we have remastered editions of seminal studio albums, the crackles and imperfections that gave the original recordings character are sorely missed.
“What I see is that young designers don’t seem to try harder or go beyond what they know,” says Miyashita. “They decide that what they know is enough. Meanwhile, you see that designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo are still aiming higher.”
Perhaps it is hard for young designers to follow in the footsteps of those giants. Or on the contrary, easier, since they have brought Japanese fashion to global attention.
“All those great designers, who we call pioneers and originals, made it easy for us,” says Miyashita. “We are fortunate to use this chance to create something amazing. There’s clearly a path we can follow.”
And yet to create something new in our thoroughly postmodern world has become increasingly difficult. The intractable march of the casualization of fashion has gone from being revolutionary in the Number (N)ine days to cringe-worthy today, when everyone seems to make the same basic stuff only with different logos on it. TheSoloist also has a line of “basics,” only they are anything but that—you can clearly see the deliberate thought process Miyashita has put into designing contemporary menswear wardrobe staples like a hoodie or an MA-1 jacket.
“It’s been too long since anybody did anything genuinely new, so I believe it’s about time somebody did something. I can feel it. There could be a new Kurt Cobain.”
Miyashita, for one, is ready for something new. “The clear difference between the new generation and us is that we have tried to create something freely while being not so free, solutions from mistakes, whereas people nowadays do the opposite,” he says. “It’s been too long since anybody did anything genuinely new, so I believe it’s about time somebody did something. I can feel it. There could be a new Kurt Cobain.”
Towards the end of our interview, I mention to Miyashita that he is considered by some a veteran of fashion. He is surprised.
“I’ve never been called a veteran,” he says. “I’m no different from a designer who only started yesterday. My curiosity towards fashion and clothes-making has not changed since I was 19. It’s over when you’re called a veteran.”
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.