[hey guys - so upon a more thorough perusal of the article that went to print for prim. magazine, i realized that large chunks of information are missing in some places and some sentences have been edited to the point that they're unclear and/or awkward sounding, so here's what the article should have looked like, posted below.]
They're not hard to find if you know where to look: on Manhattan's street corners and busiest thoroughfares, often in the vicinity of fanny pack-toting tourists. You'll find them on display, or sometimes tucked away beneath a bulky tarp, vendors suggesting in a tight-lipped murmur that you take a look at their wares. They present a compelling bargain: quilted Chanel totes, Dolce&Gabbana shades, Balenciaga motorcycle bags, and a seemingly endless assortment of luxury goods, all to be had at a sliver of their usual prices. Granted, the products aren't actually manufactured by the fashion houses whose logos they boast and the quality of the merchandise is questionable, but it's still a tempting offer at first glance. A second glance, however, will reveal that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Counterfeiting - in all its forms, and not just that of luxury goods - has been estimated to cost the city $1 billion a year in unpaid taxes, and its profits are often linked to organized crime.
New York police have long been engaged in an active campaign to quell the deluge of fakes, and though you can't do jail time for snagging a faux Louis Vuitton, they are encouraging the public to direct their money away from supporting such dubious enterprises. Unfortunately for designers, Canal Street-style counterfeiting and its clear-cut parameters and consequences are anomalies in the world of knockoffs. Replace city street commotion with an air-conditioned mall, and even if the fakes are just as egregiously copied from the runway, it's a rare occasion when designers have the unmitigated support of the law on their side. If a well-established retailer like Forever 21 turns out a reworked Fendi clutch or Mayle dress, the onus of protecting creative intelligence often falls upon the designer and not the government, as fashion design has yet to enjoy the protection of copyright laws. The Bush administration was once staunchly opposed to a bill guarding intellectual property, claiming that it would create "unnecessary bureaucracy." Displaying an apparent change of heart, the president recently signed the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property (PRO IP) Act, "a bill to enhance remedies for violations of intellectual property laws." While its stipulations include an appointed enforcement official and greater consequences for violators, the act's direct effects on the fashion industry remain to be seen.
But where police commissioners and city comptrollers bow out, industry watchdog blog Fashionista steps in, with plenty of posts dedicated to outing knockoff purveyors, including a popular feature called Adventures in Copyright. The blog's anti-knockoff stance has drawn both supporters and detractors, while shedding light on just how subjective the entire debate is. Some visitors to the site are offended by Fashionista's "pretentious" and "sanctimonious" disdain for knockoffs, calling attention to their hypocrisy in "fawning over Zara and J.Crew's Balenciaga blazer knockoffs" and instructing readers on how to create Prada-like earrings, while simultaneously bashing Forever 21 for bringing runway style to the masses. Where exactly is this thin line between inspiration and knockoff?
ABS founder and design director Allen B. Schwartz has said, "There is no such thing as an original design.... To me a spaghetti strap is a spaghetti strap, and a cowl neck is a cowl neck." His viewpoint serves his own purposes well, considering that ABS has long been the go-to brand for affordable versions of the red carpet gowns worn by celebrities on Oscar night. But these sentiments also ring true for the average consumer, who isn't necessarily willing to make a research project out of each personal shopping trip, and therefore may not be able to determine whether or not the A-line shift she's bringing to the fitting room has been copied from another designer. The government appears to be similarly perplexed by the question of inspiration versus copying, with the U.S. Copyright Office stating in 2006 that it "does not yet have sufficient information to make any judgment whether fashion design legislation is desirable." Even so, timing is everything. Maybe designers can't stake a claim to a particular garment feature, but the success of labels like ABS and ASOS - which stands for As Seen On Stars - is grounded in their ability to produce a knockoff quickly after a design originator has created something new. In other words, Allen B. Schwartz isn't going to try out spaghetti straps or cowl necks in any season unless Valentino or Christian Lacroix has done it first.
Though many shoppers might purchase knockoffs unwittingly, there's a growing number of consumers who, as fashion becomes increasingly visible and accessible, prowl their local stores in hot pursuit of them. High prices combined with ever-changing trends leave several fashion-forward girls with practically no other choice. New York City's anti-counterfeiting campaign warns that buyers' money is funneled towards criminal activity, but what can prevent fast fashion's worldwide consumer base from acquiring knockoffs? Since knockoff profits don't fund corruption in the same way that counterfeits do, it's principally the original designers' profits who stand to suffer. Or does it? If Topshop and Forever 21 stopped copying runway looks tomorrow, would Marc Jacobs' profits see a significant jump? Probably not. With such drastically different price points, it's not likely that someone who buys knockoffs can easily make the leap to high-priced designer apparel.
The artistic value of original design remains a worthy knockoff opponent. For the time and effort that goes into creating and showcasing the looks seen during fashion week, in magazine spreads, and draped upon the lithe bodies of Hollywood starlets, a cheap, poorly-made imitation hanging limp on a store hanger amounts to nothing less than piracy. Unfortunately, the designers whose artistic merit we seek to uphold and protect are not always above such acts of plagiarism. Earlier this year, Marc Jacobs paid an undisclosed amount to Gösta Oloffson's son Göran, who discovered that Jacobs had blatantly copied his father's 1950's scarf design depicting the Swedish county of Härjedalen, simply replacing the original red script logo with his own name. A tipster informed Fashionista that a handbag used in Anna Sui's Fall 2008 Ready-To-Wear show appears to be an exact replica of a vintage piece. Designers like Zac Posen and Diane von Furstenburg went to Washington, D.C. in 2006 to argue for a three-year protection staute on fashion design. If this statute were to come to fruition, vintage pieces would be fair game for copying. Yet until then, when Anna Sui sues Forever 21 for ripping off her work, her own apparent lack of artistic integrity makes her claim a bit hard to take seriously.
One of the most valid arguments against knockoffs and counterfeits may be that of sweatshop and child labor. Counterfeit goods are almost exclusively manufactured in unsafe and unregulated conditions, and for retail chains to churn out runway rip-offs while the current trend is still hot, retailers sometimes resort to quick and dirty methods of manufacture as well. Sadly, buying well-made, higher-priced goods does not erase the possibility of sweatshop labor. Several high-profile fashion houses including Gucci and Prada have come under fire for outsourcing work to companies where illegal immigrants work for less than minimum wage.
And with that, the wildly indignant protests of designers are lowered to a muddled and grumbling din. At its core, the fashion industry is built on a foundation of business, and the supposedly vast gap between original design and lowly knockoff is, in reality, not all that large, and a guilt-free buy is hard to find. Curiously enough, some theorists have proposed that knockoffs serve the unexpected purpose of pushing the envelope and enabling design originators to increase innovation. After all, hackneyed trends die quickest, leaving it up to designers to create the "next big thing" each season, further affirming their collective status as tastemakers and arbiters of style. Fueling the creative process by generating a desire for something new, the knockoff - for better or worse - has acquired its very own position in the fashion hierarchy.
[kudos if you can guess which labels the items in each of the above images are knocking off!]