The art of imperfection: Worn Wear by Patagonia

This story is brought to you by, being in the right place at the right time.

Last week I travelled 16 hours, round trip, to Mont Tremblant. I outfitted my truck with a heavy wool blanket, two sleeping pads for extra R-value, and my -20 sleeping bag that proudly sports the original MEC logo (why did they ever change that gem?).

My plan was to ski bum for the week, but Ullr (the Norse god of winter) had other plans for me. Friends put me up, a fellow named Jordan gave me a killer deal on a bachelor rental, and on off days a little sandwich shop let me loiter at one of their tables while I wrote (stretching each cup coffee well beyond it’s natural life span). And in the end, I only had to spend one evening bundled up in the passenger seat of my Tacoma.

But my luck extended beyond the hospitality of friends and strangers. To my wonder, a small cedar shake-covered trailer sat tucked snuggly at the bottom of the village. Its port-holed doors and chimney, trailing a wisp of white smoke, called me in.

The merry band and their caravan

Busily tending to zippers, buttons, tears, and patchwork, was a band a merry of fellows buzzing around the quaint lodging.

Kern, Brendan, Anne, Brandon & Rudy (a little blonde Podengo that lives in Brandon’s parka most of the day) were out braving the -20 cold fixing whatever wardrobe malfunction had befallen the outdoor enthusiasts of Quebec. These five Californians were on tour representing Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative, and our visits just happened to overlap.

Brandon & Rudy keeping each other warm.

The Worn Wear trailer travels all over North America visiting hotspots of outdoor activity fixing people’s clothing. They had just come from Sugarloaf, Maine when I stumbled upon them at the base of Mont Tremblant.

Their mission is to keep our clothing in play as long as possible. They do this out of their small 15′ x 5′ trailer outfitted with sewing machines and a tiny wood-stove. They are the guerrilla squadron of Patagonia’s Repair Center.

The story teller

Kern, a bushy bearded ginger with very kind blue eyes, says he loves visiting Canada and that we are excellent hosts. Whistler, Kern confessed, was his favourite stop yet. Way to go you crazy Canucks. Keep it up!

Kern is responsible for sharing stories from the road. The Worn Wear Instagram feed is populated with stories of radical repairs. Reminiscent of “Humans of New York,” Kern turns the spotlight on funky folks, but uses clothing repairs as a lens to tell their stories.     

Introductions made, I headed off to tour up the south side of the mountain before dark. Two hours, seven kilometres, 2,200 feet of vert climbed, and one ski descent later, I was back at the village and met by the celebratory gestures and smiles of my new Worn Wear pals. They laughed at my bushy beard and long hair caked with ice and snow. Kern pulled me aside for a quick photo outside the trailer. We made plans to meet for coffee once they put down their scissors, pliers, needles, and glue for the day.

Kern’s portrait of me outside the Worn Wear shack.

Clothing is sentimental

Cozied up in the corner of the mountain side coffee shop we gathered around a small bistro table. The band, looking a little worn for the wear themselves after a frigid day, were still eager to chat about their mission.

Anne, a member of the old guard of repair, told me that the goal of clothing repair used to be restoration: returning the garment to its original state. She explained that it took some convincing to get her on board with the Worn Wear approach of drawing attention to the repair. Worn Wear is all about fixing your garment to be sure. What distinguishes their approach from a typical repair shop, is that they will use a different colour, or pattern, to patch up your item.

This aesthetic is likely born of necessity–you only have so many options when you are on the road after all–but the philosophy that underlies this approach to repair is deliberate. Making a repair visible draws attention to the “radical act of repair” in a consumer-obsessed world ruled by disposable fashion.

“It took me a while to come around to their way of doing things.” Anne said with a big smile on her face. “Eventually I saw the beauty in it. It’s sentimental to draw attention to the imperfection. People should be sentimental about their clothing.” Anne has been making her own clothing since she was a girl. It was her form of creative expression. Kern explained to me that, “Anne comes out of retirement every time the Worn Wear trailer goes on tour.” She has fully adopted and become a master of their aesthetic philosophy now.

Anne can usually be found hard at work behind her Brother sewing machine working her magic on some next to impossible repair.

Kintsugi

Worn Wear’s aesthetic philosophy of honouring the history of an object by drawing attention to its imperfection is not new. The Japanese have an aesthetic tradition that precedes, but aligns well with that of the Worn Wear movement. It’s called Kintsugi. When a piece of pottery is fractured through an accident or the stresses of time, they guild the weak spot with gold to draw attention to the imperfection and natural processes of aging. In this way they honour the history of the object. This aesthetic tradition has implications beyond pottery. The message is that imperfection, as a result of natural processes, are authentic and should be highlighted rather than hidden.

Forgive me while I geek-out for a sec on aesthetic theory. Kintsugi seems to belong to a larger overarching Japanese aesthetic philosophy called Wabi-Sabi. Wabi-Sabi takes its aesthetic values from observations of the natural world and its processes. The theory distils these processes into three ruling principles: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is prefect. Characteristics such as asymmetry, simplicity, roughness, and transience are all viewed as hallmarks of authenticity and arise from natural processes. This definition of authenticity is what underpins this entire theory of beauty.

Repairs, in this context, are part-and-parcel of the authentic life of a garment, rather than a blight on a pristine canvas.

Authenticity isn’t being the first to wear a commodity intended for thousands of people.

Ironically western culture applies the term authenticity to early adopters of upcoming trends. Someone may argue that these folks are influencers and thereby determine the trends. A real chicken or egg situation. Or is it?

Authenticity can’t be copied or turned into a trend. Trends are defined by an action that is copied until a uniform and predictable pattern emerges. Think, Ramen restaurants or buffalo check under a jean jacket.

Authenticity isn’t being the first to wear a commodity intended for thousands of people. That’s a story being sold to us by advertising agencies and their army of Instagram influencers tasked with propelling the industrial machine of disposable fashion.

There is no such thing as an authentic commodity. Authenticity is the deviation from pattern, it is asymmetrical, simple, rough, and transient. With Worn Wear, the authenticity is in the story behind the commodity and repairs. It’s about the natural process, transient moment, and unique life, that brought your jacket into a state of disrepair. The roughness and asymmetry of the repair is merely an echo of an authentic life lived in that garment. This is the art of imperfection.

Brendan, the gore patcher extraordinaire. Sorry we never made it out for that tour brother.

Repair is a radical act

Of course, not all trends are bad. I would love to see a trend emerge where people decide to have their clothing repaired rather than replaced. This would be a positive trend and one more step toward sustainable practices.

The Worn Wear slogan is, “repair is a radical act.” You might not consider getting your jacket patched as a radical act. However, their mission to give life to worn clothing is a paradigm shift away from conspicuous consumerism: keep people shopping and the NASDAQ hopping.

Patagonia, and Worn Wear by extension, are asking us to be more considerate when we make a purchase, or when we think of making a contribution to the landfill. This means a movement away from seasonal trends, hype brands, viewing clothing as disposable, and sale driven consumerism.

Instead, replace those values with something more sustainable. Consider the material composition (lasting and natural), how they’re sourced (humane practices), how this piece will serve you (multi-use), and the environmental impact of your purchase (construction and disposal). In short, Patagonia is leveraging the phenomena of trendiness to establish more sustainable practices in consumerism.

Rudy, keeping warm in his custom Nano Puff, patiently waiting for his best bud Brandon.

The Cleanest Line

Worn Wear is only one facet in the gem stone of Patagonia’s environmental ethics. Patagonia has established best practices for sustainability across the industry. Walmart hired Patagonia a few years ago as a consultant for just this purpose.

Their blog, The Cleanest Line publishes articles about the ways in which Patagonia is attempting to reduce their environmental footprint, and even the ways they fail to. Essentially they are tracing a history of their efforts to establish new best practices for creating ethically made garments and they are doing it with 100% transparency.

They have the largest clothing repair facility in the world (read Fixation to learn more). The Worn Wear tour is an extension of that arm. Worn Wear serves the most immediate and practical answer to unnecessary waste and sustainability, keeping your clothing in play longer and out of the landfill.

If it’s broke fix it, even if it ain’t Patagonia

I didn’t write this article so you’d run out and buy a bunch of Patagonia stuff because it is ethically made. In fact, Patagonia would encourage you to use what you have. The folks working the Worn Wear trailer will gladly repair anything you have whether it is Patagonia or not.

Brandon, sans Rudy, repairing a Roots hoodie.

Anne kindly breathed new life into my Arc’teryx touring gloves. I had ripped the cuff years ago, but have kept them in heavy rotation. Every tour I have gone on, whether it was -5 celsius or -30, I’ve had those puppies on. I shovel my driveway in them, get groceries, go for coffee, play with my daughter in the snow, you name it. Now they’ve been imbued with new life and bare a bright yellow stitch (my gilded lining) where the rip once was. They remind me that repair is a radical act. Thanks a million Anne!    

Patagonia didn’t invent the idea of repair and sustainability, but they’re certainly leading the charge in their industry. We might even be tempted to saddle them with the term influencer with regard to setting trends in environmental ethics.

People are looking for alternatives to conspicuous consumerism and it’s residual effects. Marie Kondo’s bestselling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” was so popular they turned it into a Netflix series. Minimalism is one of the most popular interior design aesthetics going. Buying local is probably the coolest thing you can do. All of these trends translate to a lighter carbon footprint and help create the infrastructure we need for a more sustainable model of consumerism.

So get out there and earn some Kintsugi stripes. Your gear and clothes are meant to be worn. The next time you rip something, bust a zipper, or pop a snap, fix it. See the flaw for what it is: evidence of a life lived well. Wear it like a badge of honour. That shit is authentic. Plus you’ll be ahead of the trend 😉

– Lucas

A very special thank you: To Kern Ducote, for giving me behind the scenes access. That made this article possible. To my good old pal Rob Whelan for putting me up, touring with me, and lending me his little Fuji camera. And to Virginia (my love) for your seemingly inexhaustible patience editing this piece and willingness to take care of our daughter while I was away for nearly a week. None of this would be possible without ya.


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