Eiko Ishioka loved red. And not just any red: Like every element of her life, the red Eiko (pronounced AY-ko) favored had to be something very specific—in this case, a dark but vibrant scarlet verging on maroon that to her telegraphed a mix of elegance, danger, and intelligence. Her red evoked her native Japan, and one of Eiko’s missions throughout her dazzling and eclectic career—which included graphic design, art direction, and the invention of theatrical worlds through costume—was to forge a visual bridge between the East and the West. Her range was astounding: In the seventies, Eiko—who was usually referred to by her first name—conceived commercials with Faye Dunaway for Parco, an upscale Japanese department store; she won a Grammy for album packaging in 1987 when she paired photographer Irving Penn with Miles Davis for the latter’s Tutu album, and an Oscar in 1993 for designing the savage, exquisite costumes for the film Dracula; more recently, she created a wild, sculptural wardrobe for the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. She also directed Björk’s controversial 2002 video for the song “Cocoon,” in which the singer appears to be nude; designed the performers’ costumes for the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008; and dreamed up the futuristic outfits for Grace Jones’s 2009 tour. When Eiko died in late January of pancreatic cancer at age 73, she had just completed the wardrobe for Mirror Mirror, a retelling of the Snow White story, her fourth collaboration with director Tarsem Singh.
“Eiko wanted to evoke a true fairy tale,” Singh told me over the phone. “She was not well during the movie; she was undergoing chemotherapy. But Eiko had only two gears: full-out or no gear at all. Her work kept her alive—it was her reason for being.” Like all of Eiko’s movie projects, the costumes for Mirror Mirror are elaborate, richly detailed manifestations of character. A lace collar around the evil queen’s neck is designed to evoke the backs of reptiles; Snow White’s gossamer gowns include touches like overlapping leaves and climbing velvet vines that subtly underscore her exile in the forest. And, of course, there is the judicious use of what’s become known as Eiko’s Red. “Eiko would say that red is the most difficult color,” Singh explained. “But in many ways, red was Eiko: strong, intense, brilliant.”
From childhood, Eiko was encouraged to pursue a career in design. Her father was a commercial graphic designer, and her mother, a traditional Tokyo housewife who wanted a more exciting life for her daughter. After studying design at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Eiko began working in the advertising division of Shiseido in 1961 at age 22; four years later she was the first woman to win Japan’s most prestigious advertising award. “One man, a very talented designer, said that my name would not be famous if I were not a woman,” Eiko said in 2000. “It made me angry.”