“Knock-off.” “Bootleg.” “Counterfeit.” “Fake.”
These terms are often used interchangeably in the fashion world when describing pieces that mimic designer bags, clothes and shoes. In a world where the same white T-shirt could be deemed more or less fashionable based on the presence of a designer label, it is interesting to consider the extent to which the word ‘fashionable’ itself is gatekept by those who can afford to buy designer clothes.
The Netflix original series “Emily in Paris” (which premiered on the streaming platform this October) follows Chicago-born Emily as she moves to Paris and is forced to navigate the complexities of French culture. As I devoured the light-hearted first season in a day, there was one moment that really stood out to me. After being called a ‘ringarde’ (which translates to ‘basic’) by a top Parisian designer for sporting a cheap bag charm, Emily defends herself and the many girls like her who purchase knock-off or inexpensive designer items:
“We all wanted to be Serena van der Woodsen in her gorgeous, crazy-expensive couture. But the only thing we could afford from any of those designers was a clip-on charm from an outlet mall … You think ‘ringardes’ don’t respect designers. We worship designers so much that we spend all we’ve saved on a dumb accessory just to feel like we’re somehow on your runway. You may mock us but the truth is you need us.”
“Gossip Girl,” with all its Upper-East-Side drama, was for me — like Emily — a first look into the world of couture, high fashion and runway shows. From Serena van der Woodsen’s “it-girl” style to Blair Waldorf’s enviable headband collection: it was a show that inspired an interest among masses of watchers in the once alien world of designer fashion. It’s no wonder that Emily’s strong defense of her ‘basic’ bag charm hits home for both myself and the Parisian designer to whom her criticism is directed. High fashion is something that is kept, guarded even, by the upper echelons of society both on-screen and in real life. Often, the only way to feel involved in the glamor of Serena van der Woodsen’s fictitious life was via knock-offs and fakes (or, like Emily, via the most ‘basic,’ cheapest items sold by a designer). Knock-offs help you squeeze through the door to a world that has, for years, been open only to the uber-rich.
In my high school in the UK, (where a school uniform is the norm nationwide) bootleg school bags were common — bags being one of the few items of our school attire that we could choose for ourselves. Fake Louis Vuitton bags or knock-off Michael Kors handbags could be bought both online and at the markets in town, never more than £15. Plenty of girls had the ‘real deal’ bags, and I personally didn’t notice any contempt directed toward girls with fakes. But in the wider world, there remains a sense of snobbish superiority directed toward people who buy fake or knock-off designer goods. But why is that? The style is the same, just with a lower price tag. Why is it that a valid designer label affords some kind of fashionable distinction?
Surely when a style enters the runway, it’s purpose is to inform the style of the masses, to act as a new model for fashion in that particular ‘Season.’ So why is it that when fashion actually is appropriated by affordable brands, the wearers of knock-off pieces are seen as less ‘stylish’ than their counterparts wearing the ‘original’ (really expensive) pieces? It seems that, in some capacity, there is still fashion leverage held by those who can afford designer wear. Even when flicking through an issue of Vogue, the majority of pieces included are completely out of the price range of normal people and especially out of the price range of teenagers and students. It seems that those who lead and shape the fashion industry continue to perpetuate the idea that there is a high price tag on “true style.”
Still, it seems there is a distinction to be made between ‘bootleg’ and ‘knock-off.’ While ‘bootleg’ products are unlicensed and illegal (most likely to be sold at market stalls or outlets), ‘knock-offs’ have a slightly edited design, allowing them to filter down into mainstream shops.
I am not attempting to defend cheap items made in unethical conditions. It is absolutely true that many bootleg pieces are made in unregulated working conditions, with harmful fabric dyes — often profiting from child labor. The quality of some pieces just isn’t high enough to say that they are always made ethically. This opens up the more complex question of whether culpability should lie with the consumer or the producer — this is a question that I don’t know how to answer. I also know that I can’t speak to the complexities of legality surrounding knock-off culture, nor can I speak to inter-designer copycatting (which can often benefit big brands and put small designers out of business). What I can say is that snobbish high-fashion stigma (‘uncultured’, ‘not stylish’ or ‘basic’) should not be directed toward consumers of ‘bootleg’ or ‘counterfeit’ products.
On behalf of all those who have looked up to the Serena van der Woodsens of the world (both real and fictitious): ‘fashion’ can’t be defined by the possession of designer pieces. This is just not an accessible reality for most people. Instead of looking down on those who try to mimic high fashion on a budget, high fashion must embrace and equally value its ‘knock-off’ iterations. It’s like Emily said: “You may mock us but the truth is you need us.”
Featured image courtesy of Vogue