Boro: The Beauty of Thrift

I’ve become really interested in other forms of textiles lately. Lots of stuff such as Middle Eastern rugs, Navajo weavings, American quilts, and Japanese boro. Boro comes out of Japan’s countrysides, where cloth used to be very precious and valuable. Since disposing things wasn’t an option, the wives of farmers and fishermen would patch and mend bags, blankets, futon covers, clothes, and even diapers. As a result, you get these beautiful objects with hundreds of shades of indigo, often pieced together with a type of rough running stitch known as sashiko

Boro used to be a source of embarrassment for many families, because of its association with poverty, but in more recent times, they’ve become collectors items. If you’re in NYC, you can check some out at Shibui (at least until they move locations in a few weeks) as well as Sri Threads. The second is an appointment-only gallery run by Stephen Szczepanek. You can read an article about him at the New York Times, and check out his wonderful blog, where he posts about the things he’s found in Japan. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite entry, but this one would be a contender. Notice that the stitching forms an interesting geometric pattern across the whole garment. As Stephen writes, those shapes represent masu — a type of wooden box used to measure rice during Japan’s feudal period. 

The price of boro can really range. Sometimes you can find them on eBay for $150-300, but the designs tend to be somewhat simple. Nicer pieces can be found at galleries and speciality auction houses, but in the thousands of dollars. I’m hoping to find a nice, but affordable, piece in the next year, and use it to line the inside of a black leather moto jacket. Fingers crossed. 

(Photos via Sri Threads’ blog)

Artifacts From the Hiroshima Atomic Blast

Slate has some haunting images today of some of the clothes left over from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. An excerpt from the article:

In 2007, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum opened its archive to Ishiuchi, and since then she’s photographed hundreds of artifacts. Some of the objects came from bombed buildings or were found on the streets; others came from families who held onto items for decades after the blast. People are still coming into the museum to donate, Roth said. “It’s not a nostalgic project. She’s not interested in that. She’s not even really interested in the history of what happened in Hiroshima because it’s known. She’s more interested in the life of these objects she’s photographing and the life that’s there now,” he said.

You can read the rest here.

Actual Japanese Workwear

Check out these absolutely stunning Japanese firemen coats. Known as Hanten coats, these were worn by Japanese firefighters in the 19th century. At the time, the technology to spray water at a high-enough pressure hadn’t been invented yet, so Japanese men had to fight fires by creating firebreaks downwind. Doing so, however, put them in danger of catching on fire themselves, as hot embers can travel up to a mile. So to make their coats more protective, they were continually doused with water. 

The symbols and designs you see are for several things. Some are just for decoration, of course, while some signal the fire crew that the wearer belonged to. Others are lucky symbols or refer to a heroic story, giving the wearer encouragement to be strong and courageous. 

You can see these coats in person (along with many other awesome things) at Shibui, a shop in New York City for Japanese antiques and collectibles. They’re moving at the end of September and are having a sale right now to lighten their load. Select items are discounted by up to 50%, including lots of boro fabrics, which is a kind of heavily patched and mended Japanese textile. You can see examples of boro here.

For those of us outside of NYC, Shibui has a Google+ page you can admire (they’ll take phone orders, if you’re interested). There’s also a book titled Haten and Happi, which is all about traditional Japanese work coats. 

The Man Who Wore Bespoke Suits and Jeans

It’s said on a few places online that Jiro Shirasu was the first person in Japan to wear jeans, but that’s probably not true. Jeans came to Japan by way of American GIs, who imported second hand Lees and Levi’s and sold them to the fashionable youth. It’s more likely that the first person to wear jeans in Japan was some teenager obsessed with American movies.

Jiro Shirasu was probably the first public Japanese figure to be photographed in jeans though. He studied at Cambridge University in the early 1920s, where he picked up a love for many things English, and then returned to Japan in 1928 to work as a journalist. Within a decade, he became an advisor to the Japanese government, and after the war, was appointed by the Foreign Ministry to help the Central Liaison Officer negotiate with the Occupation forces. There’s actually a famous story about how he once delivered a Christmas gift in 1945, from Emperor Hirohito to US General Douglas MacArthur. Upon receiving the gift, MacArthur waved his hand towards some spot on the floor and asked Shirasu to put it down. Offended by the General’s cavalier attitude, Shirasu demanded that a table be brought out so that the Emperor’s gift could be shown some proper respect. He’s often remembered as a man of principle because of that story.

Shirasu wasn’t a simple nationalist, however. As mentioned, he loved many things Western. He drove Bentleys and Porches, and was a client of Henry Poole (a bespoke tailoring house in London, often credited with being the first tailors on Savile Row and having invented the tuxedo). His first purchase at Poole was in March of 1953, when he ordered:

  • A midnight blue double-breasted dinner jacket and trousers
  • A fawn and red check single-breasted jacket
  • A fawn dogtooth single-breasted jacket
  • A chalk stripe, brown worsted flannel, double-breasted suit
  • A chalk stripe, grey worsted flannel, double-breasted suit
  • A chalk stripe, brown flannel, double-breasted suit

The total bill was £203, which he settled in cash. 

He didn’t always wear suits, however. One day, he posed for a portrait wearing Levi’s and a white t-shirt. Those stripes on his cuffs? Given the time period (1950s), probably the finished edges of selvedge denim. 

Put This On Spring 2014:

Japanese Blue & White, Five Ways

(And Maroon, One Way)

For spring, the Put This On pocket square shop has added half a dozen Japanese cotton pocket squares. The cottons come from old rolls we’ve purchased at flea markets and vintage textile shows, demonstrating a variety of traditional Japanese resistance-dying techniques.

Like all our pocket squares, these are hand-made by a single craftswoman, with hand-rolled and sewn edges for an elegant presentation. No flat machined seams, here.

Each of these, like all our cotton squares, sells for a price more suitable to a mass-produced product: $45. Find them in the Japanese section of our shop, along with over 75 other beautiful designs in fabrics old and new.

Shopping Japan

Although, technically, legal trade between the United States and Japan has been going on since the 1850s, and Americans and Europeans can order from each others’ webstores as easily as they can order from a store two towns over, Japan’s online retail economy still confounds many an eager shopper. The disconnect is part language barrier and partly technological—many Japanese sites are just not set up to accommodate global e-sales. English speakers are privileged in that most European stores have staff who speak English, or can translate quickly via online tools like Google Translate. English/Japanese translation tools are not nearly as reliable, and sometimes no amount of good will and intentions on the part of both seller and buyer can overcome the communications breakdown. Likewise, even if you can navigate Japanese shopping sites, you often can’t register with or ship to non-Japan addresses.

The state of affairs is even more frustrating because Japan-based brands just make so much cool stuff, and because Japan’s big retailers, like Beams and United Arrows, have the buying power to carry exclusive goods from many brands that you’ll just never see elsewhere. (For instance, Danner still makes Japan-exclusive boots.) And Japan’s secondary market (Yahoo Auctions is analogous to ebay) is full of new and secondhand goods at relatively reasonable prices. Compared to U.S. stores and ebay, the Japanese market is particularly rich in niche and cult brands like Buzz Rickson, Visvim, Undercover, Jun Hashimoto, and Nepenthes/Needles.

How to Use a Proxy or Buying Service

Brad at Harajuju has put together a really solid guide on buying stuff from Japan, the bottom line of which is that your best bet is proxy services; that is, paying someone in Japan to shop for you and then ship goods to you. Brad’s guide has a helpful breakdown of the steps and costs of purchasing through a proxy. He recommends using FromJapan; SutoCorp also has a good reputation. I’ve personally also used the smaller scale StylisticsSpace. (Harajuju and Put This On readers may or may not be shopping for the same stuff, but the process is the same.)

Tips

Some things to remember in addition to Brad’s advice:

  • Be realistic about an item’s marked price vs. what it will cost you. Transaction fees, shipping, and proxy commission all add up.
  • Right now, 1USD is approximately 100JPY, a relatively favorable exchange rate for U.S. shoppers.
  • For Japanese brands, clothing generally runs smaller than U.S.-market clothing.
  • Japan isn’t Nordstrom. Some shops and proxies accommodate returns, but when you order something through a proxy, chances are you’re stuck with it. Consider fees and shipping, at least, as sunk costs, and be prepared for some trial and error. In my experience, if a store makes a mistake (for instance, ships the wrong item), they’ll work with you to fix the mistake.
  • For most U.S.-based brands, you’re better off buying domestically. On average, American-made goods will be more expensive in Japan than in the United States (this goes for European goods, as well). Japan is not a good place to look for discount Alden shoes.
  • Transactions take time. If you want a pair of Visvim sneakers on Yahoo Auctions and the auction ends in an hour, it’s not likely you’ll be able to coordinate with a proxy service in time.
  • Depending on what you order and how much it costs, you may have to pay duty (import tax) on top of everything else. It’s illegal to misrepresent the value of the goods you order in order to avoid paying taxes.
  • Rakuten, which lists some stores’ inventories as well as one-off (often used) items, has made it easier to order for buyers outside of Japan. Some Rakuten merchants will work with you directly (i.e., no proxy); Rakuten even offers occasional specials like free international shipping from select merchants.
  • The market opens up a little more every year; Japanese brands are more widely available than they used to be. Self Edge carries a lot of great Japanese brands. Kamakura has a shop in New York and a webstore; a lot of stores sell the Beams house line Beams Plus now; Danner is more liberal with their Japan designs. Don’t use a proxy if you don’t have to.

This may all sound discouraging, but I’ve had many good experiences shopping from Japan, both through proxies and directly through Rakuten. It may seem perverse in a make-everything-easy, customer-is-always-right shopping culture, but it’s satisfying to successfully navigate the process—the extra effort is emotional investment in the item you purchase, whatever it may be.

-Pete

The New York Times’ T Magazine published a guide goofing on Japanese men’s magazines, including Free & Easy, Popeye, Men’s Non no, HUGE, and 2nd. Free & Easy? “It’s like if GQ covered cats.”
-Pete
Jonathan at the Bandanna Almanac has a short guide to the different types of Japenese textiles to help you differentiate your boro fabrics from your katazomi. Jonathan talks about geographic origins, dye techniques, and general applications for these fabric styles, some of which date back to the 19th century. These traditional textiles lend their beat-up beauty to everything from farmer’s clothing to bedding, and their folk-y influence and wabi sabi appeal have been seen in recent collections from brands like Kapital and Visvim.
Wearing a lot of traditional Japanese textiles can be like wearing a lot of cowboy-styled clothing—a little can go a long way and too much is trouble. You can often find accessories made from vintage cloth at Hickoree’s and on Etsy.
-Pete

Jonathan at the Bandanna Almanac has a short guide to the different types of Japenese textiles to help you differentiate your boro fabrics from your katazomi. Jonathan talks about geographic origins, dye techniques, and general applications for these fabric styles, some of which date back to the 19th century. These traditional textiles lend their beat-up beauty to everything from farmer’s clothing to bedding, and their folk-y influence and wabi sabi appeal have been seen in recent collections from brands like Kapital and Visvim.

Wearing a lot of traditional Japanese textiles can be like wearing a lot of cowboy-styled clothing—a little can go a long way and too much is trouble. You can often find accessories made from vintage cloth at Hickoree’s and on Etsy.

-Pete

I’ve just posted two new items in the Put This On pocket square shop. Both are Japanese in origin - the one on the left is vintage silk, we think from the 60s or so. The one on the right is new Japanese cotton. Both are absolutely gorgeous, and perfect as we transition from winter to spring.