“Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics” at NYC’s Japan Society

This centuries-old craft and its contemporary influence are on show at the learning center

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Designed by NYC-based architecture firm SO-IL, the Japan Society‘s Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics exhibition introduces audiences to folklorist and cultural anthropologist Chuzaburo Tanaka’s personal collection of vintage Japanese pieces along with contemporary garments by pioneers of Japanese fashion like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. The presentation bridges the gap between new and old, dually representing anonymous individuals who forged this medium and those who wish to push it forward.

Boro (which roughly translates to “rags” or “trash”) began out of necessity. Different styles emerged as solutions to variations in weather, and wear and tear. If temperatures dropped, a layer was added; and if a hole or tear appeared, a patch was sewn on—whether the fabric matched didn’t matter. The craftspeople who filled in those missing pieces surely couldn’t have imagined that their efforts would evolve into a formidable fashion category, or a style that brands would adopt as their signature look. The unique process of repairing garments certainly doesn’t begin in 19th or 20th century Japan, but the incredible textiles available there differentiated their pieces. Repairs made the garments whole again, while adding another literal and creative layer—each with a story attached to ultimately create a wearable historic timeline.

The SO-IL-designed exhibition allows visitors to survey the pieces with 360-degree access. Whether walking in a circle around a garment to see its entire construction or directing your gaze at an angle to get a glimpse inside, the lighting, the height at which they’re hung, and the reflective surfaces that sit below every piece form an ideal environment for viewing. The first room of the three-gallery show focuses on incredible specimens of traditional pieces dating as far back as the Edo period; the second highlights Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s photography of boro being worn and the opportunity to try on select garments and the final highlights contemporary works of art and avant-garde fashion using or inspired by the medium.

Centuries before Boro became intertwined in fashion (see CH favorites Kapital and Atelier and Repairs), it served as an extension of Japanese principles and traditions. Recognizing the beauty in everyday items and the sentiment behind repair are integral parts of traditional Japanese culture, both in ethics and aesthetics. The style also encourages sustainability and favors worn-in, one-off items over those that are mass-produced. Through both the vintage pieces and the newer releases (which range from children’s pieces to bags and socks), the Japan Society’s exhibition affirms this.

Images by Josh Rubin