Hong Kong: the Asian city with the western pulse is inundated with It Bags and other accessories bearing all the characteristics of the current season’s fetish fashion items. Almost before the new season is officially launched in the fashion world, the Asian capitals are showing off the prestige models of the major fashion houses: Chloe, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Marc Jacobs… There are any number of new lines – and the rip-offs are more numerous still! If a designer needs to invent the next must-have handbag to survive on planet fashion, in the world of imitations it is the most talented counterfeiter who makes the most money, evades tax, denies the authorities their tax and VAT – but brings great joy to his hungry customers: women obsessed with fashion and slaves to their already overloaded credit cards.
Chloe, Balenciaga (centre, right)
Fashion rip-offs have a long history. They appeared in the late 1980’s, when the mania for consumption flooded the tourist streets of European cities with imitation Lacoste or Fred Perry shirts, Rayban Aviator glasses and Adidas trainers with two stripes instead of three. In those early, innocent days, when the world still respected brands like Lacoste, Rayban and Levi, the imitations did not really attempt to deceive the customer. The consumer appetite for brand logos was still restrained; the modified logos on the labels and the dubious quality of the materials justified the difference in price between the genuine article and its imitations.
But as time passed the imitation products bred all sorts of offspring, creating whole colonies of clothes, accessories, furniture, electrical and electronic gadgets, sports gear, watches – even perfumes, make-up and, worst of all, pharmaceuticals. From a cult demonstration of street-smart cheek by the less affluent members of society, the phenomenon has now assumed the dimensions of an economic crime. The countries of Asia, northern Africa, Eastern Europe and the Balkans owe much of their black economy to the illegal reproduction of brand products. These ‘rip-offs’ are the weapons used in a new class war. The major multinationals – which spend massive sums on advertising campaigns, pay for big spreads in the fashion magazines, present gifts of priceless handbags to Hollywood actors and other celebrities – are the first to lament their huge losses. And they are fighting back. France (home of Cartier, Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Dior), Italy (Gucci and Tod’s) and America (Nike, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren) are now taking precautions. Each company is now employing its own detectives – former secret service operatives, experienced in tracking down networks engaged in the illegal trade in rip-off products.
Chloe, Louis Vuitton (centre, right)
And they are now calling on government agencies to play their part in campaigns against replica and imitation products. Campaigns to raise consumer awareness have already been launched. The internet – the main market place for illegal trade in imitation products – is now being enlisted in the campaign against them. Sites offering ‘authentic designer products’ are now being challenged by new sites offering practical information and advice on how consumers can recognize and avoid rip-off products, and condemning the activities of the fashion frauds. Airports in western countries now have notices alongside their terrorism and security warnings, reminding the public of their complicity in this new kind of crime. Travellers whose luggage is found to contain rip-off products are now regarded as accomplices and subject to large cash fines.
Marc Jacobs (left, centre), Mulberry
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the phenomenon has attracted the attention of the Washington lobbyists. Powerful American designers are seeking, through their official organization, the Council of American Designers, to persuade American politicians to take measures against rip-off products and include fashion designs under the law protecting intellectual property. In the land of the free market, the saying ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ has flooded department store shelves with illegal copies. Imitation is now seen as so acceptable that women’s magazines like Elle and Marie Claire feature the original, expensive designs, as they first appeared on the catwalk, alongside various convincing copies or products with minor modifications on sale at much lower prices. The designers claim that these ‘smart purchases’ are intended for women who cannot otherwise afford the season’s fashions, and that they encourage inferior manufacturers to copy their designs and profit from their own creative efforts. Can anyone blame them for being upset?
Perhaps the solution is to be found somewhere deep in the cities of Asia. Somewhere in the cramped houses and poorly lit sweatshops where the nimble fingers of the workers are busy creating their imitation products. Perhaps the truth lies closer to the assertions of Funky Frank, the merchant from Hong Kong who sells genuine replicas of Chloe, Louis Vuitton and Mulberry handbags in limited editions. Frank uses top-quality materials in authentic colours, paying great attention to detail and selling his rip-off products with certificates of authenticity, guarantees and protective bags. And all for just 100 dollars. As soon as he has identified the season’s hottest accessory he purchases a sample from the official supplier, studies it carefully to see how faithfully it replicates the original and can even return it and ask for his money back if he is not satisfied. Strange as it might seem that Funky Frank can acquire the most sought-after accessories and return them without cost, it appears that he has the network to supply even the most exclusive boutiques with his own masterpieces. On planet of the apes – the war goes on…
By Effie Falida