Is Imperfect the new Perfect?

Unfinished Business: How Fashion Embraced the Perfectly Imperfect

By Maya Singer
Photography by Zoe Ghertner
Styled by Alex Harrington

ON A TEAR Already the queen of offduty cool model Kendall Jenner gets her grunge bona fides sorted with a vintage Maison...ON A TEAR
Already the queen of off-duty cool, model Kendall Jenner gets her grunge bona fides sorted with a vintage Maison Margiela sheer top. Re/Done tank top. Miu Miu embellished skirt; Fashion Editor: Alex Harrington.Photographed by Zoë Ghertner, Vogue, March 2023.

Last summer, in the midst of an emotional tangle I was struggling to unknot, I made an impromptu trip abroad. The trip itself is sidelong to the story I want to tell here, a story about two long flights, the first a sleepless red-eye I spent running laps around my predicament, returning again and again to the question Why does everything have to be so complicated? Why can’t my life, for once, be straightforward, instead of this endlessly forking path into the dark?

WASTE KNOT WANT KNOT Another gauzy rather delicate vintage Maison Margiela top becomes a bit more grounded when matched...WASTE KNOT WANT KNOT
Another gauzy, rather delicate vintage Maison Margiela top becomes a bit more grounded when matched with artfully speckled Polo Ralph Lauren pants;

On the flight home, I distracted myself by watching movies—notably, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers. The film turned me upside down. Its plot is a pileup of mistakes, on a spectrum from oblivious error to historic catastrophe, yet the note Almodóvar lands on is one of uplift: bonds of love forged out of pain and confusion and complexity. It struck me, as the credits rolled, that I could never have been so moved by a film that proceeded according to the logic I wanted to prevail over my own life—that a story about a frictionless, picture-​perfect existence wasn’t much of a story at all. Perhaps, I mused, gazing out at the lowering sun, the way forward was to embrace the tangle and the work of unknotting it.

These thoughts recurred to me as I viewed the Marni spring/summer 2023 collection, shown in September in New York. It was the motif of rising and setting suns that resonated first: Creative director Francesco Risso devised myriad ways of incorporating radiant orbs into his looks—patchworking, printing them on body-skimming jersey dresses, embroidering around circular décolleté cutouts as if drawing a tender frame around the heart. The theme was inspired, Risso later explained, by a moment of pause: He, too, had stared out a window one day amid swirling thoughts and “realized that, whatever else is happening, we can always stop for this beauty, the sun rising or setting, and breathe, and come back into our bodies. Then we go on.”

The harder I looked at Risso’s suns, the more I was struck by the purposeful imperfection of his clothes, with their odd abutment of textures and dangling sleeves and hems and threads. The imperfection resonated, too: This was a collection emphatically about the marvelous unfinishedness of life, with all its ebbs and flows; a celebration of being in process.

As the Fashion Weeks continued, this idea continually reemerged: In London, at Erdem’s show, a tribute to the mindful labors of art and antique garment restorers; in Milan, where Matthieu Blazy’s precise asymmetries and windswept gestures at Bottega Veneta read like freeze-frames of life in motion. In Paris, as the collections drew to a close, Dries Van Noten turned his post-pandemic return to the catwalk into a tale of becoming, with all-black looks inspired by Kazimir Malevich’s void paintings blossoming, by show’s end, into a parade of vivid, blurry florals—a print effect meant to mimic, according to Van Noten, the view of someone “waking up, and squinting at the flowers outside.”

Why this theme of unfinishedness, why now? Talking to some of these designers, I got the impression they’d been engaged in reflection similar to my own on those long summer flights—and that, in considering how to create fashion at a moment rocked by various kinds of turmoil, they’d turned away from ideals of soigné impeccability and determined instead to capture the feeling of flux. “We’re bombarded with images of perfection, but it’s a fake perfection—fake beauty, fake happiness,” says Van Noten. “Realness was an important word this season. And so this wasn’t a ‘happy’ collection, but an optimistic one—because for me that’s more profound: the work we do every day to retain a sense of hope and continue moving forward. True happiness is fleeting,” he adds. “Optimism is a journey.”

LETS SHRED Jenner wears a Jil Sander by Lucie and Luke Meier wool and sequin top’S SHRED
Jenner wears a Jil Sander by Lucie and Luke Meier wool and sequin top;

By pushing back against those images of perfection Van Noten describes, fashion is—per usual—reflecting the zeitgeist. We’ve hit peak filter. For over a decade now, society has been squeezed by the pincer assault of hustle culture and social media, the first insisting we must be relentless self-​optimizers and the latter urging us to commodify our seemingly optimized selves via our feeds. “We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life,” business school professors Carl Cederström and André Spicer wrote in their 2017 book, Desperately Seeking Self-​Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement, and nothing since its publication has dimmed the mania for life hacks, energy-​boosting supplements, wrinkle fillers, fitness trackers, and follower counts quantifying the performance of brand me.

But the new cultural wind is blowing in the direction of a more honest, messier portrait of humanity. You can catch its drift in Risso’s dangling Marni threads and the ersatz-looking drapes and gathers throughout Van Noten’s collection, and in the rising popularity of BeReal, an app that invites users to post photos of themselves wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, once a day.

“Perfectionism isn’t unhealthy, per se, but there’s a difference between holding yourself to a high standard and an impossible one,” notes Scott Braunstein, MD, national medical director at Sollis Health, a boutique medical chain that often treats patients troubled by mental health issues and/or anxiety disorders related to “maladaptive perfectionism.” “It comes down to: How do you cope with disappointment, setback, and failure? Those experiences are part of every life—even the most outwardly successful.”

Braunstein counsels his patients to try to stop thinking of life as “an endless report card” and simply “let themselves be.” Easy advice to hear, harder to take. We’ve been conditioned to think in these terms, of course, thanks in no small part to a multibillion-​dollar wellness/self-help industry premised on the toxic promise that perfection is in reach, that it’s merely a matter of consuming the correct suite of enhancing products and services and never, ever missing a workout or letting your positive mindset drift to a doubt-​inducing thought.

OPEN SEASON Romance movement and an irrepressible sense of fun animate Jenners Bottega Veneta fil coup halter dress...OPEN SEASON
Romance, movement, and an irrepressible sense of fun animate Jenner’s Bottega Veneta fil coupé halter dress, finished in an extraordinary shade of teal lifted directly from the work of Italian designer Gaetano Pesce;

Does anyone actually live this way? Should anyone? Miuccia Prada answers with a resounding no, explaining that her entire project as a designer has been to “bring the ‘bad’ in order to bring life into clothes.” The Prada spring/summer 2023 collection is especially forceful in making this point: As Prada commented in the show notes, its creases, stains, splotchy ombré, and exposed slips are there to express “traces of living,” i.e., the inevitable blemishes that the filter—and, often, the fashion industry—prefers to scrub out. “There is this fake idea of perfection that I have always hated,” Prada notes. “What I’ve done in my career so far is about introducing ‘the real’—more imperfection.” What I love about this conceit and the way Prada and her co­designer, Raf Simons, execute it is that it embraces the human instinct to make the most of oneself—this is not the wardrobe of a woman who has succumbed to a life in sweatpants—while also ennobling the missteps that accrue in the attempt. And this, I suspect, is the new frontier in wellness-think, tentatively mapped by entrepreneurs like Danielle Duboise and Whitney Tingle of Sakara Life.

“Striving for perfection is just an invitation to failure,” says Tingle, explaining the genesis of the Sakara nutrition program Eat Clean, Play Dirty, which explicitly gives customers permission to screw up. “We prefer to think in terms of balance,” Tingle goes on, pointing out that the word is often construed as referring to a permanent state of grace, as opposed to an ongoing effort to attain equilibrium. “Sometimes balance means eating healthy food, and sometimes it means going out with friends and having fries and wine and laughing. It’s about being present in this moment, now, so there’s less anxiety about becoming who we want to be tomorrow.”

This idea is echoed by Doing Well’s Daphne Javitch, who—full disclosure—is one of my best friends, as well as a health coach offering guidance to private clients and subscribers to her online platform. I’ve long joked that Javitch is my “malnutritionist,” because our favorite way to spend time together is over, yes, fries and wine. Cheat nights, you might say. But, like Tingle and Duboise, Javitch says: Permission to “cheat” is the point.

“I’m always telling people: You don’t have to join the wellness witness protection program,” she says. “There’s no prize for doing everything perfectly all the time. The success is in accepting, Okay—you are where you are, and maybe that’s two steps back from yesterday, but stuff happens, so be gentle with yourself and move forward.”

THATS A STRETCH Like a Bernini masterpiece brought to life Jenner reconciles the statuesque and the sensual in a tulle...THAT'S A STRETCH
Like a Bernini masterpiece brought to life, Jenner reconciles the statuesque and the sensual in a tulle Dolce & Gabbana dress;

OVER AND OUT A textile made of paper and viscose lends a floral Prada frock a crafty—and wonderfully whimsical—kind of...OVER AND OUT
A textile made of paper and viscose lends a floral Prada frock a crafty—and wonderfully whimsical—kind of loveliness;

These wellness-oriented conversations brought me back to the one I’d had with Risso, discussing the “unfinishedness” of his Marni collection. Seemingly as an aside, he mentioned that a few years ago he’d taken up the cello. “I was a novice, you know, and it went very slow—you can’t just click a button and be excellent,” Risso recalls. “And then little by little, you start to hear these wonderful sounds. Still not perfect, but—music.”

Risso got serious about his cello playing during the early lockdown days of the pandemic. Many of us embarked on new hobbies at that time—learning to cook, learning a new language, learning to sew. Grounding practices, in that there’s no skipping ahead—the fulfillment is in the doing, the application of care. Risso connects his anecdote about studying cello to the emphasis on hand craft in his collection: He wanted to draw people’s attention to the tender labors that had brought his apparel into being. Van Noten, likewise, structured his catwalk outing to make a similar point, disentangling formal elements by showcasing first shape, via his all-black looks, then color, then print. His foregrounding of humble materials, like a sport mesh typically used inside garments, to sculpt them, was also intended to lay process out and pay it homage.

But perhaps no show this season engaged this theme as directly as Erdem Moralioglu’s. The timing of his défilé was so apt, coming the day before Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and amid political and economic mayhem almost unprecedented in modern British history, that it’s easy to forget Moralioglu planted the seeds of his collection long before his nation began to come so noticeably apart at the seams. What a moment, then, for a story of mending.

“It started out really abstract—thinking about decay, and the human desire to restore,” Moralioglu recalls of the impetus behind his collection. A very post-​pandemic jumping-off point, I guessed, but Moralioglu shrugged his shoulders at this suggestion. “As a designer, you’re always tapping into undercurrents—or you should be,” he says, before launching into an enthusiastic retelling of his experiences in the conservation back rooms of London’s V&A and National Gallery, where he put flesh on the bones of his SS23 concept by watching restorers bring Old Master canvases back to life. Their painstaking efforts fused fine-brush artisanship with high technology, deep archival research, and no little imagination.

INTO THE FRAY Jenner leans into the art of the undone with a tweedy Givenchy jacket. Marni pants.INTO THE FRAY
Jenner leans into the art of the undone with a tweedy Givenchy jacket. Marni pants.

“One painting, a corner of it was totally destroyed, and it was fascinating to see this conservationist, like, feeling his way through the repair,” Moralioglu explains. “Or to look at ancient Roman glass vessels that were being put together out of fragments, and when you got up close, you could see all the chips and the cracks…. I suppose that was the emotional trigger for this collection,” he continues. “I wanted to capture that sense of being in the middle of an exploration into how to take something broken and make it whole.”

It’s funny that an erstwhile gothic theme—decay—could result in a collection so thrillingly alive. That’s a quality shared by all these “unfinished” fashion outings: They thrum with in-the-moment-ness, of not knowing where your next step will take you. That feeling of uncertainty—and possibility!—is what differentiates a person from a product, and reality from fantasy. And in reality, we are all buffeted by forces beyond our control.

“One thing the pandemic showed us is that we were living in a kind of dream,” says Van Noten. “That we could do everything, have everything. And then…everything stopped.” We were made to inhabit our time differently, and to re-reckon our values, he goes on to note, and awaken to the understanding that the way we led our lives was premised on unstable structures.

“It’s absurd to think we could snap our fingers and go back to ‘normal’ after that, because now we ask, What was normal?” Van Noten continues. “This was very much on my mind as I considered returning to the runway, and what type of collection I wanted to show. I felt it would be tragic not to convey that the way I view the world, and my place in it, has changed. And I wanted to design clothing for people who were also thinking along these lines.”

RAW DEAL Ribbons of deadstock rayon and cotton tied together by the softest shade of cotton candy pink are the making of...RAW DEAL
Ribbons of deadstock rayon and cotton, tied together by the softest shade of cotton candy pink, are the making of a beguiling CDLM dress; Ikram, Chicago.

IN STITCHES Dries Van Noten cotton blazer and trousers The Row sandals.IN STITCHES
Dries Van Noten cotton blazer and trousers; The Row sandals.

That refusal to pretend that everything is perfect when it’s not—not yet, not ever—explains why I feel, in a strange way, understood by Van Noten’s clothes. And Risso’s, and Moralioglu’s, and those from numerous other jagged, ragged SS23 collections. They acknowledge that life is but a series of passing moments, a fluctuation of travail and renewal, and that we’re all in some way, like Erdem’s restorers, continually reweaving the loose threads of our existence to create something not perfect, no, but in its own way sublime.

“We need to reorient our concept of ‘perfection’ away from what we think we’re supposed to be—which is usually what society is saying we have to be to fit in, or get ahead—and start thinking, What’s perfect for me, right now, in this moment?” says Taryn Toomey, founder of fitness studio The Class. Like Javitch and Sakara’s Duboise and Tingle, Toomey is fostering a more compassionate approach to self-improvement: While the classes in her program can be done in a very high-intensity way, the instructors always offer mellow modifications and encourage clients to take them; the “win” in The Class is to understand your own needs. “Some days you want to do a million jumping jacks and get that stuck energy moving,” Toomey says, “and some days you have to stay grounded. We’re human beings—we’re not static, and the story’s going to keep changing.”

FROM THE HIP Woven top from The Row. Alaïa ruffled skirt.FROM THE HIP
Woven top from The Row. Alaïa ruffled skirt.

In this story: hair, Tamara McNaughton; makeup, Fara Homidi. Set Design: Spencer Vrooman

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.