Counterfeit fashion is as old as fashion itself. In 1900, sketch artists copied designs they saw on Parisian runways in an effort to create desirable reproductions of the hottest designs in France.
Long before the notion of ‘intellectual property’ existed, by 1914 more than 2 million garments brandishing fake couture labels had entered the market. In the 1950s, counterfeiters used to pose as legitimate buyers to attend Dior’s fashion shows, collaborating with one another to produce the best possible replicas of the designer’s work.
Media saturation and the prominence of luxury fashion in our culture has made it easier than ever to co-opt other people’s creativity; spies are simply no longer necessary.
Both the market for, and the ability to produce and disseminate fake goods, has grown in lockstep with the growth of an interconnected, global economy and leaps forward in the technology of garment reproduction.
The Counterfeit fashion trade is currently estimated at over 450 billion dollars. The counterfeit industry in its totality is worth an estimated 18 trillion a year.
It accounts for 2.5% of all world trade, and 5% of imports into the European Union. Over 20% of the top 750,000 posts on Instagram about fashion feature illicit fake goods. In the EU alone, experts estimate that fashion houses lose 27.7 billion dollars in revenue a year from counterfeit goods, equating to 10 percent of their total sales.
Fakes are the globalized illegitimate business of the 21st century. The technologies required to make fake clothes, shoes, handbags, watches, and accessories are cheaper and more accessible than it ever has been in human history.
Counterfeits range from shitty 10$ Vans, to expertly copied 1,000$ Louboutins stilettos. 81 percent of these goods are produced in China and Hong Kong, either through shady shell companies or directly through organized crime.
Fake goods no longer just line the alleys of Milan and Canal Street. Business has moved online, and sellers have worldwide reach through the benefits of technology and the internet. Transactions are often made through Telegram and WhatsApp, both messaging services that have inbuilt end to end encryption. Fake accounts and spambots deploy botnets and elude internal security systems, allowing for thousands of images of fake products to be posted a day.
As to who the typical customer is and what his or her motivations are, the answers are still contentious. While there is a lack of data on the subject, it is estimated that the bulk of shoppers who buy fake goods believe they are getting an authentic product. There are no reliable means to identify what is genuine and what is not, and in a vast market where every consumer is fishing for a bargain, making distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate products is a cloudy process.
Defining the boundary became a counterfeit and an inspiration is where things become complicated. What about the Piet Mondrian inspired dress that Yves Saint Laurent made? What about the countless reproductions and homages to this dress? Who is copying who?
Tasteful appropriation and theft are two different things, but trying to delineate the two is increasingly difficult. When one starts thinking about reproductions of reproductions, and what this means for creative thought – the answers start to get muddy.
Oliver Rousteing, head of Balmain, received a combination of praise and vitriol for showing a white suit identical to that in Alexander Mcqueen’s 1997 Givenchy runway show at his spring 2015 show in Paris. Some lauded it as an obvious tribute, while others derided it as a cheap imitation.
The answer, again, can lie anywhere on the spectrum of larceny to genius depending on the value system of the individual. Rousteing himself, much like many of his predecessors, does not mind being copied; he enjoys watching his ideas be disseminated in their various forms, perverse or tasteful.
In fact, Rousteing enjoys seeing his designs, combined with elements of both brands like Chanel and Proenza, in Zara shop windows. He has described this as “genius” stating that he both acknowledges and appreciates the design merits of this watered down version of high fashion.
Piet Mondrian inspired dress. Yves Saint Laurent
left: Balmain. 2015 / right: Alexander McQueen. 1997
Counterfeit goods are even reaching a level of proliferation that many luxury brands are now making ironic references to fakes in their collections. Most famously, Gucci under the direction of Alessandro Michele used street artist Gucci Ghost’s iteration of their interlocking “GG” logo. Dolce and Gabbana also recently released a white tank top with a deliberately misspelled “Dolce & Gabbaba” on the chest.
Picking up any counterfeit product at random and thinking about it deeply can offer a window into how the globalized world we live in operates. A singular reproduction can be a rich reservoir of information about our economy, our own worldview, our own relationship with products, our relationship with capitalism, not to say our ideas as to what is interesting and relevant in style and design.
A closer reading of fakes can be rich, deep, and profound. In contrast to something produced in the tight and controlled environment of a high fashion atelier, a knockoff of a tightly controlled design is produced in a process is almost totalizing of our entire age. It touches so many disparate realms of our globe and speaks to so many different areas of human experience.
This is not an endorsement of the counterfeit industry, but simply an acknowledgment that illegitimate productions are not simply shallow, empty products with zero artistic merit and no deeper meaning. Like many things in our world, they have a gilded surface that reveals many of the seedier, darker, and hidden underpinnings of modernity when peeled all the way back.
text: Aaron Gray
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