Lifestyle Skinning Left, pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: Lifestyle Skinning Left for Specific Article, pagematch: 1, sectionmatch:
Lifestyle Features - Modern Living ( Leaderboard Top ), pagematch: , sectionmatch: 1

Eiko Ishioka: timeless, revolutionary and original

Julia Roberts as The Evil Queen in Mirror, Mirror where some of her gowns reached 8 feet in diameter and 60 lbs. in weight.

The costumes will be the sets!” declared Francis Ford Coppola when briefing Eiko Ishioka about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film they were about to embark on. A very tall order for a costume designer, specially coming from a most esteemed, multiawarded director. But Coppola was confident that Eiko could deliver, and in fact she ended up winning the 1993 Academy Award for her work in the film. Who can forget Gary Oldman’s entrance as Dracula with an ominous heart-shaped Gibson hairdo and a red satin coat, the train of which spanned the whole length of the wide screen? Or his armor of sinewy red musculature straight out of an anatomical drawing? A bride was never so imperiously resplendent in lace as Lucy Westenra played by Sadie Frost. Rising from the tomb as a vampire, her wide, multi-tiered Elizabethan collar gave her the appearance of a menacing frilled dragon ready to pounce.

To think this was her first real foray into costume design, according to Eiko: “When I told Coppola that I considered myself more a production designer, he joked, ‘I want Eiko, who is NOT a costume designer to design the costumes for my film.’ What I created for Bram Stoker’s Dracula ended up breaking a lot of conventions in the film and costume design worlds because the concept of trends and fashion design did not really enter into my creative process. After I won the Academy Award, I heard from various sources that my designs had heavily influenced the European fashion collections of that same year.”

But before getting into production design, she actually started as a graphic designer in Tokyo in the 70s.

Jennifer Lopez, trapped within the mind of a serial killer in The Cell, wearing one of Eiko’s costumes which she requested Eiko to make more comfortable but to which the designer replied, “ No, you’re supposed to be tortured.”

Eiko would relate that during her 20s and 30s she was interested in the fashions of the times, but when she came into her own as a professional she just lost interest and stopped incorporating them into her work. She even stopped buying fashion and design magazines and books about what was cool at the moment. “I became more and more convinced that following trends was a meaningless path. Since then, I have concentrated my creative energies on expressing through design the messages I feel are meaningful and personally reflective, much as a writer or filmmaker would do.”

Ironically, one of the most notable periods of her career is her work for the PARCO chain of department stores which was primarily involved in fashion sales. Of course, in true Eiko style, none of the store’s merchandise was featured in the advertising materials. Posters featured faceless Moroccan Berber women completely shrouded in their indigenous handwoven fabrics and jewelry, with the headline “ I Have Come Thousands of Miles in Search of You”; A Masai mother and child captioned as “My Dear Superstar.”; and Indian Rajasthani women in saris with the copy, “Ah, Our Roots!”

“For me, fashion was really about human life, so I wanted the campaign to reflect a larger sense of the role it played in human society. In reality I had no interest in the trends that the fashion world was abuzz over. I leaned much more toward architecture and industrial design in my sensibilities.  I had zero interest in the kinds of subject matter that would make a Vogue editor or other fashion journalist go aflutter.”

Lifestyle Feature ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch:

And yet she unwittingly attracted these editors and journalists when she commissioned Faye Dunaway , the hot Hollywood star at the time, to star in Parco’s TV commercial: Dunaway was featured in an all black outfit against a black background, cryptically peeling and eating an immaculately white egg. For a print campaign, the actress was transformed into a majestic Kwannon, the goddess of mercy, wearing an Issey Miyake draped robe and a winged headdress, enveloping Eiko’s two little nieces as the doji who serve Buddha in a temple. The tagline was “Can West Wear East?, “presaging the age of hybrid cultures and globalization.

The ball scene in Mirror, Mirror featuring Eiko’s surreal costumes inspired by different animals.

Growing up in the Yamanote area of Tokyo, East and West always melded naturally for Eiko. Although her mother would play the shamisen and sing ancient songs in the only tatami room of their home, her father who was also a graphic designer lived a very Western style of life and built a modern home and garden, the only one of its kind in an otherwise traditional neighborhood. But as was typical at the time, her chosen career was not one that women would get into. Graphic design which was inextricably linked to the sharp-elbowed world of advertising was very much a man’s game in Japan. Even her father warned that she would have a much easier life designing things like shoes or dolls.

Women, in fact, were practically portrayed as dolls in advertising, according to Eiko: “They never looked into the camera and walked three steps behind men. I wanted a woman who looked healthy, who could look a man in the eye, who had power, who had the confidence to live alone.”

Needless to say, when she came into the scene, she faced a lot of resistance and outrage, not to mention discrimination from that male-dominated world. But this only strengthened her resolve to persevere, producing work that was avant-garde, eclectic, and highly original. Eiko’s print ads, for example, showed naked models which were rarely seen in Japanese advertising then. “That was extremely shocking,” says Maggie Kinser Saiki, author of the book 12 Japanese Masters. “And yet she did it in a way that made you drawn to the beauty of it, and then you realize you’re looking at nipples.”

Eiko’s costumes for Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Gary Oldman as Dracula in embroidered red silk and Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra in bridal lace.

“To make a good ad, you have to approach people’s minds and bodies,” the designer said once. “Eroticism is very important in attracting people’s souls, but it was not my intention to use naked bodies just to shock or be eye-catching. Actually, when I was 25, I won a prize in a competition to design a poster for a symposium. It was all geometric shapes and yet people said that even that was erotic!”

 Her persistence got her the plum prize of advertising: The Nissenbi Prize which was never given to a woman before. It got her a lot of media attention but also a huge amount of envy and jealousy from the men in her field who felt she was only getting all the attention because she was a woman. This was probably the turning point in her career when she vowed that she would become a world-class designer, judged for her talent and work regardless of her gender.

By 1980, at the top of her game, she did the unthinkable by closing her phenomenally successful studio. She said she was basically unfulfilled and in retrospect, graphic design “really held no special mystery” for her. She resolved to start from a blank slate. Going on a sabbatical in New York, she luckily met the right people to catapult her to the pinnacle of the next phase in her career: Callaway Editions, the publishers who wanted to produce a book about her. When Eiko by Eiko was released in 1983, everything changed for her: “It ushered a completely new period in my creative work. The transition from creating works intended solely for a Japanese audience to those that would reach an international, worldwide one was like extending the sails on a ship.”

The book brought her to the attention of creative and influential people in various fields from fashion to advertising, music, theatre and film. One of them was Paul Schrader who was directing a film about the doomed Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. He called her and asked her to be the production designer. Not having any previous experience, she was reluctant at first but was assured that it was her innovative concepts and ideas that matter and resource people will be there to handle the technical details. True enough, she came up with surreal sets never before seen in the cinema: A golden Japanese pavilion that splits in the middle. Emerald planks simulating a walkway against a gilded sky with airbrushed mountains. Boudoirs with voluptuous, hot pink walls. The final verdict? A Special Jury Prize was bestowed for Artistic Achievement in art direction at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.

Set for “Kyoko House” segment of Mishima, the film which won the 1985 Award for Artistic Contribution at the 38th Cannes Film Festival.

With her rising fame in America, it was not long before other offers came in, as well as corresponding awards. For Miles Davis’ album, Tutu she received a Grammy Award for best album package and for the production design of Rip Van Winkle, directed by Francis Ford Coppola for television, she won an ACE Award. She also made her debut on Broadway when John Dexter asked her to do both sets and costume design for M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. The sets she designed were simple but dramatic, with bold strokes of blood red and black and a sweeping spiral runway in bleached white maple. The costumes were colorful, intricate kimonos specially made in Japan.

Her painstaking approach in creation met some opposition, with many of the crew wondering why she was so anal about the details. They were always telling her “If it isn’t visible, why are we spending time and money on it?” But for her, “The invisible part is visible. Philosophically this is so important. The lining for the kimono, where it’s hidden from view, the back of the table, all must be finished perfectly as the front. The parts in the shadows should be perfect. A perfect job inside and on the surface creates a strong tension on stage.” Eiko knew only too well that if you subscribe to the idea that the audience will not see the details and scrimp on the execution, the performers will feel this as well, negatively affecting their performance. But when they are performing with impeccably finished sets and costumes, they can easily escape from the real world to bring to life the imaginary world being portrayed on stage.

“Can West Wear East?” poster for Parco with an Issey Miyake-clad Faye Dunaway as goddess of mercy and Eiko’s nieces playing Buddhist temple doji (1979)

This philosophy in design as well as her innovative, revolutionary ideas attracted many kindred spirits in the world of theatre including the exalted realm of opera. For the Philip Glass opera, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, Eiko made outer space ancient and mythical instead of employing the usual futuristic clichés. Shigeaki Saegusa’s Chushingura, directed by Werner Herzog had very innovative sets like the use of a raked stage with a minimalist grid utilizing light from within and above to create spatial divisions instead of using traditional screens and tatami mats as devices. Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen directed by Pierre Audi at the Netherlands Opera House also benefited from Eiko’s treatment with some of the most imaginative costumes ever seen on the opera stage.

But even more mainstream productions like the magician David Copperfield’s Dreams and Nightmares show utilized Eiko’s genius as visual director. She also did an experimental multimedia staging of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1923 silent film, L’Inhumaine together with Issey Miyake and Shiro Kuramata. Her work actually crossed over to many other fields like music and film. One of Bjork’s most memorable MTVs is Cocoon as directed by Eiko who had red threads coming out of the singer’s nipples and spinning a cocoon around her.

But perhaps the project that crossed the most boundaries for her was Varekai for Cirque du Soleil, collaborating with people from all over the world, conquering theatre, dance, music, the limits of physicality and global communication. “They were costumes that were functional in the highest sense while still telling a story and adding to the drama,” she said in an interview after a premiere of the show.

Ubiquitous as her work may have been, it always remained distinct and definitely not mainstream. Just take a look at her costumes for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing or Grace Jones’ comeback Hurricane concert tour of 2009. Although you may suspect it’s her work, it’s never that predictable or limited to a particular style. Design, she says, was never about creating a surface visual style. “It is about pursuing meaning and effectively visualizing that meaning. Design without meaning produces mere eye candy, and fails to move the spirits and hearts of its audience.”

For her, design should never stray too far from its fundamental purpose, otherwise it can be too frivolous and superficial. She once criticized the tendency of Japanese design to go in that direction: “While the American aesthetic is rough and pragmatic, the sensitivity of the Japanese can go wrong so that it produces a shiny, brittle result, exposing the meager soul of the designer. “ She also related how she once left a party in a huff because the hosts were such “slaves to design” that they had forgotten how to be hospitable to their guests!

The opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with costumes by Ishioka

But Eiko had also been very critical of her own work, judging it harshly so as to sharpen her form of expression and narrowing her definition of good work to three words: Timeless, Revolutionary and Original. “These words have always been my self- imposed litmus test for the quality of the work I was producing. Was my work able to withstand the test of time? Was my work fresh and creatively original? Was it expressing a new way of thinking and looking at things, revolutionary in its own way and not a regurgitation of someone else’s idea?”

One can definitely say that she met all these requirements all the way up to the last days before she died from pancreatic cancer in January of this year. Working on “Mirror, Mirror” with director Tarsem Singh whom she also collaborated with on his previous films The Cell (2000), The Fall (2006) and The Immortals (2011), Eiko created surreal costumes that could only be a product of an imagination as wild as hers, but tempered with her rigorous discipline. Even while undergoing chemotherapy during filming, Eiko was very productive, according to Singh: “She only had two speeds. Full throttle and stop. We never had to wait for costumes.” To think there were about 400 costumes made for the movie, including the intricate, handmade gowns of Julia Roberts’ Evil Queen and Lilly Collins’ Snow White which measured from 6 to 8 feet in diameter and weighed up to 60 lbs. Another 600 costumes had to be rented and altered plus matching masks, jewelry, hats and other accessories had to be created.

Sadly, Ishioka never saw the finished film. “But she was seeing all of her incredible creations in one scene and it must have been so amazing and thrilling, “ recalls Lilly Collins who was watching Eiko gaze at the monitor during the filming of the ball scene. “But she was always so humble. All she did was smile.”

Lifestyle Feature ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch:
  • Follow Us:
Lifestyle Skinning Right, pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: Lifestyle Skinning Right for Specific Article, pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: