My visit to the iconic Yokohama International Terminal in Japan by Foreign Office Architects reminds me all over again of how much fashion has influenced architecture.

Structural Folds at Yokohama International Terminal, Yokohama, Japan

Throughout the history of human existence, fashion and architecture have always been inter-related and, up to a certain extent, inter-dependent of each other.  When we talk about clothing, for example, the first thing that comes to mind would be its functionality aspect because clothing was originally invented for a primary purpose of protecting our bodies from environmental hazards.  People who live in the North Pole, for example, need to be protected from the severely cold weather by wearing thermal insulated clothing, such as jackets lined with Aerogel to provide them with extra insulation.  Clothing therefore, can be regarded as a form of mobile shelter because it offers our bodies protection in the same way that a building protects us from the rain, the snow or the cold wind.  The main difference between fashion and architecture, in this respect, would be the notion of scale.  Whilst clothing is intimately related to out bodies in a sense that we can interact with it directly and constantly, architecture relates to our bodies at a much larger scale, and the way we interact with buildings is also much more complex than with clothing.

However, the utility aspect is not the only common ground that fashion and architecture shares.  Cultural theorists and clothing analysts, especially George Sproles – the author of Consumer Behaviour towards Dress (1979) – suggest four functions of clothing: utility, symbolic differentiation, social affiliation and psychological self-enhancement.  Therefore, it comes to no surprise that these four functions of clothing are also strongly reflected in the evolution of architecture itself.

Casting the concept of shelter aside, both clothing and architecture pose strong social implications.  Throughout the age of man, fashion and architecture have always been the tools to communicate and establish one’s social status; a political statement.  In ancient China, for example, the Emperors are always dressed in silk gown with elaborate embroidery of mythical creatures, such as a dragon, to symbolise his absolute authority and power.  the same symbols can be seen throughout the vast palace ground as ornaments carved into the wooden structures of the palace roofs, the stone carved sculptures marking the entrances etc. to signify the prestigious environment and demarcate the spatial boundaries that belong to him.  Similar occurrences can also be seen in western culture, here family crests, carved into the stone walls of the castles are often woven or embroidered into the fabric of the garments worn by its family members, or embossed into the armors or shields of a knight as a symbol of honour and wealth.  Not only does such clothing inform the society of which social group the wearer is affiliated to, the clothing also marks the ownership of the designated spatial boundaries, as well as informing us of the social trend of the time.  Again fashion and architecture seem to be intertwined and are almost inseparable from one another.  They were the earliest tools man learns to use to establish the sense of community and society.  No matter what the social values of the time are, fashion and architecture always reflect the spirit of the ages.

Despite the parallel evolution of social functions of fashion and architecture, it is only very recently, i.e. the past decade, that fashion is making its presence felt in the world of architecture in the form of innovative construction techniques more strongly than ever.  As I have mentioned earlier, although both architecture and fashion are related to human bodies, their constructional rules and material usage are very different from each other, due to the difference in scales, durability and stability.  Buildings are required to cover much larger volume of space than clothing, and they are expected to last for a much longer period of time, whilst the ease of mobility was not particularly a concern as it would have been for clothing.  As a result, although fabric has been used as building material in the past, it was much more preferable to build a building with stone, wood, steel, or concrete, purely because these materials are able to withstand a much wider range of impact from external environment and are much more durable.

In recent years, however, more architects are inspired by traditional dress making techniques as innovative construction strategies for traditional building materials such as steel.  the influence of folding in the form of pleats and darts, traditionally used in dress making over centuries, is now highly acclaimed as the best way of creating mega-structures and fluid surfaces, as can be seen in many other projects throughout the world.

However, I think that the reasons folding is so appealing to architects are much more than its physical benefits in terms of structure, but also the concept of folding is applicable in terms of design strategies and also programmatic organization of the space.  That is what Foreign Office Architects has managed to demonstrate so successfully in their most acclaimed project, the Yokohama International Terminal.  Being inside this stunning folded mega-structure, I am also reminded of how Issey Miyake uses pleating to create internal structures for his garments.  I’m thinking of his “Mutant Pleats” collection in particular, not just his PleatsPlease range, and I know that this collection is like a decade ago now, but for me, his exhibition at the MOMA at the time was one of the most fascinating and inspiring fashion collection to a young architecture student like me, hence, I want to write about it anyway….

Issey Miyake’s Mutant Pleats Exhibition at the MOMA

So, let’s investigate the role of folding in fashion through a study of traditional pattern cutting techniques, and then compare its usage by fashion designers such as Issey Miyake with its architectural usage by studying the Yokohama International Terminal by Foreign Office Architects, in the hope to have a better understanding in terms of the concepts of folding and its relationship between fashion and architecture through the study of its origin.


The human body is the most essential part in dress making because it is the existing form around which the garment revolves.  We know from the earliest recorded examples that those responsible for making clothes were inspired by the body and its interaction with materials to create new forms, or functions as decorative or enhancing body coverings.  In order for the coverings to be effective, comfortable and stay in place, the designers need an understanding of a mobile structure that is the human body – how the muscles are attached to the skeletal structure and how they work in movement with the frame dictates the fabric fits and its movement in harmony or at variance with the body.  It is suffice to say that dress making is very much to ability to perfect the mapping of the body contours, through measuring and then manipulating the information gathered from the body.

When trying to fit a two dimensional object, i.e. the fabric, around a three dimensional object, which is the body, it is inevitable that the fabric will need to be manipulated in order to accurately follow the body contours.  In order to achieve such desired result, folding is often used in a form of darting, gathering and pleating.  Darting being a single fold on a flat pattern cutting, which are then later stitch together in place so that the garment fit smoothly on curved areas such as the bust and hips – static fold; whilst pleating and gathering are an alignment of many folds, which are stitch in place along the seam, allowing the rest of their length to flow freely – dynamic fold.  The traditional roles of both darts and pleats are to enhance the body form by accentuating certain features such as augmenting the breast areas or narrowing the waist, so that the female body appears curvier and more fluid.  In structural term, the act of folding, darting in particular is the internal structure of the dress because the fold is what makes the garment hold its shape, yet it creates an unbroken free flowing surface.  In another word, a garment can be seen as a surface with its own intrinsic structure that encloses the body form.  Since it has structural system of its own, the designers can manipulate or distort the body form at will by simply increasing the static folds or placing them at different locations.  In the end, a fold, a its simplest form, is the act of compressing the surface area of a material into a more compact shape.

Static Folds + Dynamic Folds

On the other hand, dynamic folds such as pleating and gathering are much more than just a technical tool for creating a garment.  the nature of pleating, in particular, gives a garment its dynamic quality because the garment seems to come to life when being worn, due to the movements created by the free end of the pleats, unfolding the excess materials hidden underneath.  this movement of revealing the voids within a continuous surface has very strong spatial quality because of its duality of being a surface and a void at the same time.  This playfulness between the static and the dynamic is explored in greater depth in the work of Issey Miyake’s “Mutant Pleats” collection, where the pleating technique is being used to give a garment its stretchability, yet at the same time the pleats are also the main structure creating a very strong sculptural forms that are totally independent of the human body.  As a result, even when the garments are on display, they seem to have a life of their own as they take a form of Japanese lanterns, or treated almost like paper and being folded again into an origami sculptures.  Then when it is worn by the models, the interplay between the movements of the human body causing the garment to skim over the body contour, yet at the same time maintaining their own form, creates a dynamic dialogue both of the movement of the body and the movement of the garment at the same time.  The mixture of the two entities reveals several layers of duality, first being the void and the surface material at the same time through the unfolding of the pleats, and second being the revealing of the the enclosed space between the body and the garment through the transparency of the fabric.

Issey Miyake’s Mutant Pleats Exhibition at the MOMA
Body Distortion in Issey Miyake’s Mutant Pleats Collection

The effect of the duality between the static and the dynamic, in this case, is achieved by having the pleats woven into the fabric itself, and then later processed by machines to enable them to support themselves in directions perpendicular to the folds.  The process allows a complete garment to be made by folding the fabric into the desired form with minimum amount of stitch work, adding more fluidity to the continuous forms of the garments.

Origami Dress – Distortion of the Body
Close up of the Permanent Pleats in Issey Miyake’s Garments

Miyake’s work shows the use of the fold as an in-between state or a synthesizer for combining several layers of concepts together, creating a continuous flow of ideas which is visible in the fluidity of the garment itself.  His work has inspired many archtiects and engineers, not only because of its ingenuous manufacturing technique, but also its spatial qualities and possibilities applicable in the built environment.


Like Miyake’s work, the role of architects has long been involved with the synthesis of several layers of programs as well as structure and form making.  However, in the past, structures and form making were often a separate issue.  Although many architects tried to combine them together to create a much more fluid environment, the results were not as satisfactory as one would expect due to the nature of constructional techniques, columns and beams are still very much visible, for example.  In the end, architects often try to hide the structures as much as possible.

In the last decade, however, the way in which a building is expected to work has greatly changed.  Since mobile lifestyle has become the norm, a public space is no longer designed to cater one particular program but often a mixture of several programs together.  In order for such spatial condition to work, it is important that each program is integrated seamlessly to ensure a continuity of space within a building.  In the first half of the past decade (around the year 2000-2004), warped surfaces have become more and more popular amongst architects as an ideal solution to the problem of programmatic continuity because it creates a possibility to integrate several surfaces into one fluid entity.  A wall is no longer just a wall but also becomes a floor or ceiling as well.  With such seamless integration, how can such a design be realised without loosing its continuity?

Several design projects have been exploring the possibility of such computer generated forms, but in most cases, the built results are disappointing compared to the computer generated images.  The earliest example of the most successful built project in realising such spatial conditions during this first half of the century would be the Yokohama International Terminal, with its key to success being the ability to integrate the structural elements of the building into the continuous surface itself, preserving its design integrity to the full, a result which can only be achieved through the use of folding as its main structural system.

On a programmatic design level, the Yokohama International terminal, being a transport interchange, has to deal with constant flow of movement and a large number of visitors all the time.  it is crucial that there are varieties of programs within the building to cater for the mass, and that they should be well integrated into the overall scheme.  With their design statement being “…exploring the possibility of a transportation infrastructure that could operate less as a gate, as a limit, and more as a field of movements with no structural orientation“, a warped surface is chosen as the spatial language to realise the concept.

Yokohama Project Programmatic Design Study Diagrams

Given that the project is a large scale public building, it is impossible to achieve a clean span without any visible structural beams or supporting columns.  However, any signs of separate structural elements would completely ruin the effect of continuous surface.  the structural solution, Foreign Office Architects adapted is very much the same principle as how Miyake manages to achieve a permanently formed garment without any external structure at all, through the use of pleating as an intrinsic structural system of the surface.

Study Paper Models of the Folding Structure of the Yokohama International Terminal

It is even more apparent when looking at the Yokohama International terminal how a simple folding system of peaks and troughs can effectively create such a rigid structure, yet at the same time it is also a continuous surface.  The pleats bring surfaces together, yet at the same time, proliferate to organise the space they occupy, resulting in a continuous but non-uniform surface, an new kind of architecture where there is no interior and exterior, no boundaries only fluid continuous space, flexible for hosting any programs.  The structural fold gives a static building an impression of movement, very much the same way that the pleats create movements in a garment.  There have been many writings by philosophers such as Deleuze and Leibniz expressing the relationship between architecture and the visual culture that it not only influences one another but also each field is present in the other.  As observed by Bradley Quinn that “The work of fashion designers embodies and expresses the characteristics of the Deleuzean fold.  their craft is based on the constant draping and folding of fabrics and materials around the human form, itself viewed as a mobile fold,  As human insert themselves into the folds of the garments they wear, they charge static planes with energy, as Liebniz’s imaginary spaces aligned the static ‘seen’ with the dynamic ‘unseen’.  Likewise architectural space unites diverse areas while providing the means to keep them separate.”

The open space inside Yokohama International Terminal in use for a local festival
Architecture Without Interiors & Exteriors : The Exterior of Yokohama International Terminal, Japan by Foreign Office Architects

The relationship of such connection between fashion and architecture is acknowledged by many architects such as Adolf Loos as he once wrote, “It is a correct and logical path to be followed in architecture…  It was in this sequence that man learns how to build.  In the beginning was dressing.”

So if you find my midnight rambling interesting, I recommend the following further readings:

The Fashion of Architecture by Bradley Quinn
Making Things by Issey Miyake
Verb – Processing
The Yokohama Project by FOA
Fashion Design by Sue Jenkins Jones
The Fold by Deleuze


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