When Luxury Brands Counterfeit The Counterfeiters
With designs that imitate fakes, luxury fashion brands try to attract a younger and more connected clientele.
PARIS — The shoe has found its way to the other foot. In its 2018 cruise collection, Gucci paid homage to Dapper Dan, the famous Harlem couturier who was forced to close shop in the "90s over counterfeiting. In the Gucci show, a bomber jacket with canvas balloon sleeves bearing the Florentine fashion house's monogram, recalled a coat created in 1989 by Dapper Dan, who was famous at the time for designs covered with silk-screened logos of brands like Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Gucci, and in high demand with American rappers.
The Italian brand also designed a pink sweater with a teddy bear tagged "Guccy," an allusion to flagrant errors on fakes. Real Gucci pieces inspired by counterfeits? The playful nod bears the hallmarks of Alessandro Michele, the artistic director who loves to shake up the rules of luxury.
For French ready-to-wear and accessory companies, counterfeits represent 3.5 million euros, or about $4.2 million, in lost sales per year and 25,000 lost jobs (EUIPO, 2015). But now some brands are playing along and have started producing "fake fakes." In October 2016, Vetements unveiled in Seoul — an epicenter of fake fashion — a capsule collection called "Official Fake." The pieces had intentional defects: The patchwork jeans were turned backwards, the sweatshirts were red (the brand's signature hoodie is black) and the brand's best-selling "definition raincoat," ripped off by the fake brand "Vetememes," was reproduced without the definition of the word "raincoat" on the back, in a play on failed fakes.
Brands need to leave their ivory towers.
Others have tried ripping off their own logo: "J'adior" in gold-plated letters on Dior purses, or the Louis Vuitton monogram dwarfed by the Supreme logo in the two brands' collaboration line — after the leather goods company sued the American brand in 2000 for having printed its iconic label on its skateboards.
In another form of hijacking, this fall, Balenciaga launched a blue plastic bag modeled after the IKEA shopping bags — 1,700 euros, or about $2,030, for the luxury version versus $1 at the Swedish home goods giant.
An alliance with "street culture"
"Until now, only young online brands parodied these logos, like Brian Lichtenberg and his Homiés and Féline t-shirts, or Conflict of Interest with Chapel and Niu Niu. Today, the luxury brands themselves hijack their logos and pretend to counterfeit," explains Emmanuelle Hoffman, a lawyer who specializes in fashion rights. The objective is clear: to gain favor with the 15-25-year-old demographic, the Generation Z that luxury brands are trying to seduce at any cost.
"For a long time, luxury brands looked down with some disdain at "street culture," that bootlegged fashion. But today it's the most-consumed culture on social media. It's not insignificant that these brands are hiring artistic directors who grew up with these references. Without Kim Jones, the artistic director of its men's collection, Louis Vuitton would never have collaborated with Supreme," says Michael Dupouy, founder of the street-wear maker Club 75.
On Instagram, some accounts parody luxury brands by publishing photos of fake logos, fake products or fake ads. This is the case with Reilly (@hey_reilly), a Scottish graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, who creates improbable logo hybrids, such as Lanvin and Lidl, Calvin Klein and Burger King, Supreme and Subway. "Brands are obsessed with digital success and inspired by online artists known for their ripoffs," says Reilly, who has already collaborated with Gucci, Nike, Colette and LVMH.
Breaking with traditional rules, luxury fashion wants to show that it is in touch with reality. "This evolution is linked to the digital world, in which there can be no vertical discourse. Brands therefore need to leave their ivory towers. And those that poke fun at themselves are those that work best," explains Benjamin Simmenauer, an associate professor at the French Fashion Institute.
Evidence of this is Gucci's 4.4 billion euro turnover in 2016. Still, luxury brands have not stopped fighting counterfeiters. "The budget allocated for this fight hasn't diminished," says Hoffman, the fashion lawyer. However, she adds, "legally, self-parodying is dangerous for brands. These can be difficult cases to defend, knowing that today, counterfeits are getting so good that is increasingly difficult to distinguish the real from the fake."
And of course, the irony of a luxury brand copying its counterfeiters is that the phony item costs so much more than the original.