Trailblazer, Provocateur, Visionary

You've almost certainly been struck by the indelible images created by Eiko Ishioka (1938-2012), even if you didn’t know it was her work when you  saw them.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Dracula, she exploded the cinematic vampire stereotype of black capes and formal attire. “The costumes will be the set,” said Coppola at the time, and Ishioka delivered.

Vivid splashes of red in blood-red, muscle-textured armor, a dragon-tailed kimono, and an elaborately draped Victorian gown wordlessly spoke volumes, while reptile-themed dresses conveyed both a character’s nature and her fate. Small wonder Ishioka received an Academy Award for costume design for this film.

As director of costume design for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she developed some ten thousand costumes that simultaneously create texture, movement, and atmosphere as well as sheer performative beauty. She seamlessly wove inspiration from sources including ancient Greek statuary, 19th-century African helmets, and Asian iconography into one of the most memorable visual spectacles in Olympics history. 

Important as Ishioka’s design legacy is, her legacy as a trailblazer also inspires aspiring designers today. Born in Tokyo in 1938, she grew up in a society that defined women’s traditional roles, which did not include design and advertising. Nevertheless, she studied graphic design and broke into the field with the cosmetics company Shiseido before vaulting to international attention with her striking ads for the Japanese department store chain Parco.

“Eiko expanded her portfolio to encompass products and packaging; journals and magazine articles; and album design, including Miles Davis’s Tutu, for which she won a Grammy Award,” explained Genie Guerard, manuscripts curator in UCLA Library Special Collections. “During the final two decades of her career she focused on the performing arts, with major credits including the Broadway production of  M. Butterfly, the opera The Ring of Nibelung, and Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai.”

Documentation of Ishioka’s extraordinary career is now available in UCLA Library Special Collections, given by her husband, Nico Soultanakis. This massive collection fills more than seven hundred containers with student artwork and design projects, costume sketches, set design drawings, photographs and transparencies, fabric samples, posters, production material, and audiovisual files.

“Eiko’s papers are an invaluable resource for students, scholars, and creators in and of themselves,” added Guerard. “But as part of our broader holdings related to fashion and costume design, which include the collections of Bonnie Cashin, Rudy Gernreich, Dorothy Jeakins, and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, they make the UCLA Library an essential resource for study of the visual and performing arts.”