This is the showroom of Sri Threads – the life’s work of Stephen Szczepanek. Twenty years ago, when Szczepanek began importing Japanese fabric to the US, no one considered his stock of much value. The clothes and ceremonial garments of the poor in Japan – with their faded indigo dyes, sashiko stitching (a decorative reinforcement, often in contrasting white thread) and patchwork construction – were barely noticed, let alone collected. Today they are known by the term “boro” cloth, and are obsessively bought and much sought-after as examples of textile art.
It’s not hard to understand why. In an age that values craft and quality, that loves beaten-up Barbours and perfect denim fades, boro cloth is wonderfully authentic. It is also beautiful, as these shots of some pieces in Szczepanek’s studio show. But what makes one piece – prices range from $25 to over $7,000 for museum-level items – more beautiful than another?
“That was a really hard thing to get my head around initially,” says Szczepanek. “I knew I liked some pieces more than others, but it was hard to know why. And when I first began collecting there were no standards, no traditions around what was more valued.”
Is it better to have greater variation in colour, or less? Is one unexpected patch an effective counterpoint, or a distraction? These are artistic questions and admit little logic. The large sheets of boro aren’t that different to a canvas, and personally appeal to me more than more formal textiles-as-art (such as the work of Anni Albers, for example).
Szczepanek first found examples of the cloth when he was travelling around Japan, but there wasn’t much available. It was mostly seen as rags, and certainly no textile distributors valued it. “I thought it was some of the most beautiful fabric I had seen,” he remembers. “But in Japan it just showed you were poor – you patched and remade old things because you couldn’t afford new ones.”
Today he goes back to Japan twice a year, when particular markets are held around the country. “Even though they might look ragged, these were largely ceremonial pieces: parts of a wedding trousseau, perhaps a kimono or a covering for the wedding bed,” he says. “They were repaired and kept in good order so they could be used for these purposes. Day-to-day clothing didn’t get as much care.”
His most popular pieces – and my favourite – are the patchwork sheets kept together with rows of sashiko stitching. I ended up buying a narrow (and relatively cheap) strip of very deep indigo, with several patches and one small “good-luck” line of red stitching. It will hang on the wall next to the stairs of our house, running between two storeys, as a piece of art and a memento of a wonderful visit.
Simon Crompton is an author and journalist, and the founder of a leading website on luxury and bespoke menswear, PermanentStyle.com, which receives over a million visitors every year. He is the author of several books, including The Finest Menswear in the World (Thames & Hudson). @permanentstylelondon.