Eiko Ishioka, designer for 'Bram Stoker's Dracula,' dies at 73

Eiko Ishioka, one of Japan’s foremost costume designers and art directors, died of pancreatic cancer Jan. 21. She was 73.

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(The top video shows Eiko Ishioka in an interview about the 3D fantasy film Immortals)

Ishioka won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Costume Design for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a 1986 Grammy Award for her cover design of Miles Davis’ album Tutu, the 1985 Cannes Film Festival Award for Artistic Contribution for her work on the Paul Schrader film Mishima, as well as numerous Japanese awards.

Museums all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have Ishida’s work in their permanent collections.

She is probably best known for the costumes she designed for the Broadway Rock musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai. Ishioka was also the director of costume design for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and directed Björk’s music video Cocoon.

Born in Tokyo on July 12, 1938, Eiko Ishioka graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts in 1961. When she announced that she wanted to become a graphic artist, even her graphic artist father believed that the graphic art world, still a man’s world in those days, was too tough for a woman. He told her that she’d have a much easier life designing things like shoes or dolls.

Thankfully, Ishioka ignored her father’s advice and started working at the advertising division of Shiseido, Japan’s largest cosmetics company. Not satisfied to promote an age old stereo-type of women as quiet and submissive, she introduced a drastically different view of women. “I wanted someone vigorous, with a big body, big expression, big everything, big, big, big.”

In the early 1970s, she opened her own design studio. One of her clients was Parco, a Japanese chain of trendy department stores. For more than a decade she created advertising and promotional materials for Parco that caught the nation’s attention and established the chain as edgy and cool. Ishioka’s work for Parco was eclectic, avant-garde and highly sensual. She didn’t shy away from using partially naked models, something almost unknown in Japan at the time.

In a radical departure from traditional advertising, Ishioka avoided showing any actual merchandise. She didn’t sell products. She sold moods, emotions, attitude. In one stark Parco TV commercial, actress Faye Dunaway is dressed in black seated in a dark studio. You watch her slowly and sensually peeling a hard-boiled egg before eating it. During the 90 second duration of the ad she doesn’t utter a single word. It climaxes with a close-up of her face. The ad is absorbing, arresting and surprisingly erotic; you can’t take your eyes off the American actress. “Eroticism,” said Ishioka, “is a very important factor in attracting people’s souls.”

Over the years, Ishioka developed and established herself as Japan’s foremost art director. Her work helped Japan transform itself from a traditional culture into a modern consumer society which became a powerful player on the global economic and cultural stage. But she did it without selling her soul.

In the foreword to her book Eiko by Eiko, sculptor Isamu Noguchi wrote: “Commercial work’s purpose is to sell merchandise, but Eiko used it to fight a battle, to move a message into society — to subvert consumerism.”

By the closing of the 1970s, Ishioka started working on international projects. Learning to see Japan as an outsider, traditional Japanese culture started to look fresh. It unchained her from the burden she had felt when she first started with Shiseido and allowed her to more thoroughly synthesize Western culture with her own Japanese roots. “I want to express hybrid culture, which is East meets West,” she’d later say.

Ishioka’s work is pervaded with a deeply stylized sensual surrealism. It takes you into an unknown world so thoroughly different from what you’re used to that you don’t know what to expect. She drops you in new territory, and leaves you there to figure it out for yourself.

For Bram Stoker’s Dracula for example, she designed costumes that blurred the line between human and beast. “Dracula has a very cliche style built [during a] long long film history,” she explained during an interview. “Francis [Coppola] and I wanted to completely throw away this cliche look to create our own vision, which does not look like a man, a woman, or old, or young, beast or human. What is this one?”

Newness was a religion for her. “I suppose you could say I’m obsessed with creating work that has never been seen before,” she told the New Zealand Herald in 2007. “When I design, I repeat it to myself often, like a mantra.”

Ishioka’s work was not rational. It didn’t have a political or philosophical message. It was emotional. It overwhelmed the senses. On the site of Cirque du Soleil, Ishioka is quoted as saying, “One of my objectives at Cirque du Soleil is to design costumes that will accentuate and even reinforce the visual and emotional impact of the risks taken by the artists, while ensuring their complete safety.”

Although Ishioka’s childhood was a time when Japan battled the world, Ishioka matured into a person who embraced the world. “The world is my studio and everything on earth is my motif,” she once said. “In order to help communicate my message, I have looked for talented people in various fields. I have worked with these people to broadcast our messages throughout the media. Television, stage, posters, newspapers, and books have been my canvas, and my collaborators have been most precious paint.”

Ishioka’s work has been compiled in the books Eiko on Stage, Eiko By Eiko and Coppola and Eiko on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Eiko Ishioka

Interview with Ishioka about the costumes for Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The film was released in 1992.

Ishioka designed the costumes for the 2006 adventure fantasy film The Fall

Miles Davis - Tutu
Ishioka’s visual glorification of jazz musician Miles Davis for his album Tutu, released in 1986. Photography by Irving Penn.

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony
2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

Watashi Design Eiko Ishioka
The cover of Ishioka’s book Watashi Design

Eiko on Stage
Eiko on Stage

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka

Kjeld Duits About the Author

Inspired by the stunningly creative street fashion that exploded on the streets of Tokyo and Osaka in the late 1990’s, photo-journalist Kjeld Duits launched JAPANESE STREETS in 2002. This makes JS one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the very first to cover Japanese street fashion.

Recent articles by Kjeld Duits:

Comment (日本語もOK)

What an amazing talent. Her work is so diverse. All these years I’ve been enjoying so much of it without even realizing it was hers.

Jan 29, 2012 (3471 days ago)

@Melanie: Yes, we probably ignore most people with great talent and are aware only of a few that are regularly highlighted by the media we follow. But better to discover Ishioka late than never, right! ^^

Kjeld Duits (author)
Jan 29, 2012 (3471 days ago)

So much vision and influence.. I know and love her work from the Björk video, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the huge photo book, Eiko by Eiko.. She will be missed.

Jan 29, 2012 (3471 days ago)

I haven’t known her work very well but she must be the one made the world of play more fun and unique…I’m deeply impressed by her taste and work. Too bad now we are no longer able to have her..Thanks for your info, JS!

Jan 29, 2012 (3470 days ago)

@Courtney & LaurajuheeK: Thank you. We will all miss her.

Kjeld Duits (author)
Jan 30, 2012 (3470 days ago)

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