Architecture: A masterpiece of the light touch

When architects Alan Stanton and Paul Williams asked for designer Issey Miyake's ideas for his new store in London, he just gave them one of his jackets and told them to get on with it.
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The new Issey Miyake shop, which opened on Friday in London's West End, breaks out of the mould of the hungry high-street stores along Regent Street and the gold-plated designer labels of Bond Street. Corner shops seldom open their doors on the corner itself, but Issey Miyake's shop entrance is snipped out diagonally where Conduit Street meets staid Savile Row.

The glazed street doors of the architect duo Alan Stanton and Paul Williams soar 3.5 metres high, with no more than a travertine skirting-board at street level. Apart from two languorous mannequins, there is nothing in them. It is less shop window than aquarium; deep inside the fluid and luminous space are the clothes, all visible on tables and rails.

Demonstrations of the new collection are given on tailors' tables. With all the colour, action and lights, it could be a movie location, or performance art, as Pleats Please crinolines, bustles, ruffs and capes restructured for the 21st century beckon. The clothes show invites participation.

Twelve years ago Stanton and Williams, designers of Compton Verney and the Millennium Seed Bank for Kew, as well as exhibitions including Yves Klein at the Hayward Gallery, went to Paris to meet the designer. He gave them their brief to design his first menswear shop in Knightsbridge: a jacket from his collection. That's all. The unlined jacket was in charcoal wool, sensuous, shot with other colours.

Many architects would draw the line at a brief so open to interpretation, but Stanton Williams went straight to the drawing-board. "Like Issey Miyake, we were interested in the spaces in between the body and its envelope," said Williams. (Most architects own at least one item of Issey Miyake clothing; the structure appeals to them.)

There are similarities between the ways of working of the architects and Miyake himself. "When we look at a detail, we always ask ourselves whether it is 'Visually not necessary'," Paul Williams says. That negative indicates the attitude that prunes away extraneous clutter.

In the new shop in a Fifties building, the dimensions on site were unfashionably XL: a forest of columns supporting five storeys. Hiding these columns in a wraparound floor-to-ceiling installation, they imposed a rhythmically smooth grid upon the space to make it harmonious.

Taking the materials of the modern shopfitter - steel, opaque and clear glass, plaster and cement - Stanton/ Williams shows what can be done to transform materials. Grey cement floors, smooth as silk, are like polished pewter. Plastered ivory walls, textured with hand-crafted finishes, reflect daylight from the glazed facade. Shafts of light play on the walls, moving with the sun,.

Architects often interpret light in bland, overlit interiors as if it were the same, unchanging diurnally or seasonally. Kinetic light at the end of the 20th century has become more like Jean-Michel Jarre's laser concerts than something as straightforward as the changing light of day. Stanton/ Williams is so light-sensitive that where white walls meet, it changes surface textures. Walls facing the glazed facade, and the most natural light, are burnished with marble dust rubbed into the surface so that they shimmer. When these walls turn corners the ivory finish is deliberately dulled to a chalky matt. Where the light strikes these planes it changes colour. Light plays upon the only colour the architects introduced - shocking pink across the changing-room doors, the same colour that Diana Vreeland, who launched Issey Miyake in American Vogue in the Seventies, called "the navy blue of India". The floor is navy blue to mark a clear boundary between the shop and dressing-rooms.

"I hope that it's not too subliminal," Paul Williams says. In fact, it is subliminal. Visitors to the shop may not notice any obvious fashion or architectural statement, but the harmonious atmosphere adds to the feel-good factor of this space. Recognising that, this century's greatest lighting designer, Ingo Maurer, who met Issey Miyake through the Fondation Cartier in Paris and was asked to design a light fitting for the shop, decided to make an installation without an artificial light source. "My intention for his new shop was to take risks to find new ways for light solutions, rather than the hi-tech look."

Inside the silver mesh snake that Issey Miyake calls the "dragon", 12 golden fans shiver with thousands of silver-paper leaves, refracting available light. Ingo Maurer likes the play of light and shade, which he sees as "a sympathetic spirit or ghost which sometimes plays tricks on us. It reflects the philosophy of Issey's work." Part artist, part designer of mass-produced light fittings, Ingo Maurer had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York earlier this year and later opened his first lighting shop in the States.

It's not just the lights that are kinetic. Everything within was designed by the architects to be moved and leave no trace. Fittings can disappear without trace. Felt covers on cantilevered benches in the dressing-rooms are Velcro-ed for quick changes. The shop can evolve with its revolutionary fashion designer. "Miyake clothes are all about movement; we could not have a static shop," says Williams.

There's a palpable energy within, the same kind of dynamism with which Miyake makes his clothes come alive. On one of his rare appearances in public, invited to give a lecture at Central St Martins in 1990, Issey Miyake gave the students who crowded the theatre a magician's show upon a darkened stage. A long, thin conjuror's table was covered in tightly twisted pieces of cloth. Unravelling these fabric twists at random and excitedly asking "What is this?" he flung them into the air. Floating as light as feathers all around, they turned into colourful tunics and dresses, shirts and bags, jackets and trousers. Pulling students on to the stage, Miyake made them slip the garments over jeans and trainers - they stretch to any size. The students loved it.

"Western clothing is already perfect. Nothing can be done to improve it. Kimono is a tradition frozen in time. It doesn't belong in contemporary life," Miyake told them. "My challenge as a clothing designer is to create something different. Not traditional Japanese, not purely Western. A new genre of clothing." This new genre was Pleats Please.

Miyake's A-pok collection marks an epoch in fashion design. Miyake has fashioned an entire wardrobe from a tube of fabric. He allows the DIY designer to snip out and shape with scissors their own wardrobe, which fits like a second skin. From pounds 450 a tube, the roll turns into a bra and pants, hat and gloves, a scarf, a bag or a long dress. Long sleeves snipped off become three-quarters, or short, or sleeveless. Turtle necks turn into decollete, long skirts turn into minis. The techno fabric never unravels or tears.

His new space makes shopping, like wearing his clothes, effortless. It makes a mockery of those temples to consumer ism with which heavy-handed architects have throttled London's West End in marble and gilt, mahogany and monumentalism. In Issey Miyake's space that marble has been ground up into dust and fed as a pigment into all the hard surfaces, for our illumination.