Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese concept of the “wisdom of imperfection” or the “beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. There is an ancient story set in one of Kyoto’s majestic gardens whereby a tea master asked his disciple to prepare for tea ceremony. After trimming the hedges, raking the gravel, picking the dried leaves from the stones and clearing the moss path of twigs, the boy made sure the garden looked immaculate without a pebble out of place. During the master’s inspection of the garden, he reached out to a branch of the maple tree and shook it, watching the leaves trickle onto the regimented grass. This is an example of the magic of imperfection, the order of nature which is never far from the hands of humans, AKA wabi-sabi.
The perfect imperfections in life have always been a source of fascination for humans. It is not a full moon that is the most wonderful to look at, but a full moon covered behind wispy clouds. The award winning tea ceremony master, Ryotaro Matsumura, says “As human beings –however flawed and imperfect we are – when we sit together shoulder to shoulder in the backdrop of the great Nature and bond over a single cup of tea, we have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the beauty of this short and imperfect life”. It is no secret that there is constant pressure to be perfect, whether it be the perfect body, skin, job, smile, laugh, ‘squad’; the list goes on. It is important that sometimes we take the time to step back and appreciate the pleasure of rustic, flawed beauty and realise the fact that nothing is ever perfect. Nor permanent.
Now, when it comes to the things in our life that are our favourites – a worn out old jacket, your trusty rust riddled car, a teddy bear you’ve had since birth– they don’t tend to be objects of perfection. The Philosopher Kant spoke of virtue-centric qualities of objects and how their beauty is a reflection of the human virtues of those who made or own them. So, even though your old teddy may not be perfect, items that mean a lot to us become beacons of our humanity and reflect our ability to feel, empathise and to connect to those we love. You love that teddy because of his age, the fact that he has been through so much with you and because he wears a threadbare jumper that your grandma knitted, in other words, you love his perfect imperfections. In fact, in the fashion industry, we are now seeking out items that are perfectly aged. From jeans with holes in the knees to distressed leather bags, we want to look effortlessly cool without letting on that we actually care.
Just last month a pair of vintage Nike “Moon Shoe” trainers sold for £350,000, you see a picture of them and wonder how on earth that happened - well they have had quite a life. The shoes were one of the first to be created by Nike’s co-founder Bill Bowerman in 1972 who designed them for runners in the Olympics, and the name “Moon Shoe” comes from the soles which were imprinted with a grid design Bowerman discovered while experimenting with imprinting rubber on his waffle maker. They were handmade by Geoff Hollister who was one of the company’s very first employees and only 12 versions of the shoe were put into production. It is thought that only a handful are still in existence and this pair are now officially record breakers as the most expensive shoes ever sold. The trainer collector who bought the shoes at the Sotheby’s auction said he would display them alongside his classic car collection in his private Toronto museum. This is man who obviously appreciates items with a story and doesn’t mind a few imperfections.
In 2018, there was a whole exhibition dedicated to flawed, altered, unfinished and distressed garments. Greeting attendees at the exhibition entrance was the Comme des Garcons “lace” jumper which, made in the 1980’s, was hand knitted and adorned with intentional holes. For decades, consumers have sought out, and sometimes paid extortionate amounts for, tattered clothing in order to achieve a heavily-worn look. Now, I am not trying to pretend that putting on a pair of heals and a beret with my worn out old nightie would be a good look but, there is something to be said for looking at the clothes you have previously discarded and seeing them again as re-born, re-used fashion statement.
Rough fashion and the techniques that are used in order to create it- be it mending an old bag or ripping a pair of jeans that were previously discarded- is central to many brand’s DNA. There is a reason that the ripped hemlines and scruffy leather jackets are so popular, the brands that produce them are feasting on our fascination with the imperfect. This idea also connects with the ‘make do and mend’ concept from World War II; a notion that we would do well to adopt in a society that advertises £1 bikinis. There is a very considered approach when it comes to making something perfectly imperfect; getting a piece to look like you’ve owned it for years makes it personal. Using the concept of wabi-sabi and the idea of the leaves sprinkled on the faultless blades of grass, we can appreciate those things that show us the real and ever changing beauty of imperfection.