“My marriage is a fake Fendi!”
Exclaims Charlotte in the third season of Sex & the City, and her pronouncement resonates to date as fakes and divorces have both become more rampant.
For a little context, said episode is all about Samantha’s quest to land herself a fake Baguette from a San Fernando Valley-based replica-seller, while Charlotte grapples with the absence of chemistry with her then-husband, Trey. The storyline thus proceeded to imply what counterfeit-skeptics claim – buying fakes is devoid of the luster that comes with the original.
But is it really?
Counterfeits have infiltrated the art and commerce worlds since time immemorial, with the oldest fake (a Gaulish replica of a Roman amphora) housed in the Counterfeit Museum in Paris (yes, that’s a real place) dating back to 2,000 years ago!
And, as one might expect, fakes have only become more commonplace since then. In fact, studies suggest that the counterfeit industry is worth over $1 trillion, with a trading volume of $600 billion per year. Others speculate that nearly 10% of all branded products could be fake, and nearly a fifth of all luxury buyers could be toting knock-offs!
But we’re already privy to this information. By now, we’ve seen and heard almost all there is to be seen and heard on counterfeits. So, without getting into the entire existentialist discussion about what is authentic in this world after all (like they do on RepLadies), most of us fairly agree that:
- fakes are morally questionable
- they infringe trademarks
- their production and distribution almost always involve connections with the illegal economy
However, this conversation was, until now, almost exclusively centered on the counterfeits market in the West – namely, Europe and the USA – whereas fakes generate primarily from South and Southeast Asia. And for brand-aware customers such as myself hailing from this region, the image of counterfeits is slightly (read: vastly) different.
How? Let’s discuss.
The Culture of Counterfeits
“Aren’t you just tired of seeing Chanel everywhere? Buy this Michael Kors, show your real status!”
“I’m not a big fan of Gucci. I think it’s copying from Guess – and looks cheap!”
“Here, I have for you an authentic Aldo, directly from the UK, for the sophisticated, wealthy user. But if you’re looking for something a little more budget-friendly, I have Louis Vuittons for you too!”
Nope, these aren’t overly-aggressive marketing tactics gone awry. Rather, these are real comments and/or sales-talk passed by – wait for it – actual local handbag sellers from my city on Facebook live videos. At first glance, it’s puzzling. Why are these businesspeople (an overwhelming majority being women) trying to coax buyers into thinking contemporary and mall brands are more “sophisticated” than well-known luxury houses?
But you only need to encounter the first “premium-quality” Neverfull they display – complete with plasticky red trims, a top zip (with a frighteningly limp zipper pull hanging out), and is “so indistinguishable from the original even Louis Vuitton store employees wouldn’t know” – to understand that what they have on offer consists entirely of counterfeits.
With fakes ingrained so deep into the minds of the buyers and sellers alike, what is inconceivable for users here is that someone would ever imagine, let alone be willing to, drop hundreds of thousands (in the local currency) on an original. So, the general argument that favors the purchase of the real deal – durability, cost-per-wear, and quality – literally flies out the window as most buyers, never having witnessed the genuine article, would rather buy more bags that last less so that they can switch up their cheap purchases at regular intervals!
Thus, with this convoluted idea of consuming luxuries, fed by the misinformation from sellers themselves, as witnessed above, consumers have come to recognize the brand names themselves – alongside keywords like “AAA” and “made in Paris” – but true awareness about brand identity is at an all-time low.
The Case for Counterfeits
The disturbing part about buying and selling counterfeits, especially in countries where misinformation is everywhere, is that it makes frighteningly good business sense.
We’re all quite aware of the general argument buyers of counterfeits resort to, as this article from The Guardian states,
“But if China can make the same goods, to the same standards, and at a fraction of the price, isn’t buying the cheaper unofficial version what any rational shopper should do?”
Nowadays, the luxury sector is as much about selling an intangible “experience” as much as it is about selling a tangible product – the glitzy marketing campaigns, the star endorsements, the elaborate play-act of exclusivity like Hermès – are all a testament to that. And as counterfeiters or counterfeit-buyers, one merely has to replicate the product’s outlook at the lowest price, and voilà, you have free and easy access to the brand’s appeal and the status it confers.
This is seen in countries in Southeast Asia where few luxury brands have retail stores; counterfeiters argue that they are raising brand awareness and making trends more accessible to all. It’s a question the film House of Gucci raises too, when Patrizia encounters her house-help carrying a knock-off version of the iconic Gucci Bamboo bag, but doesn’t explore sufficiently well to provide a definite answer.
Furthermore, while counterfeiting is illegal in most countries, the repercussions are minor enough to serve as possible low-risk sources of funding for organized crime. In Bangladesh, on the other hand, there isn’t any law on the subject at all. So, the biggest profiteers from the counterfeit industry here are large, taxpaying department stores with flashy storefronts registered under the category of “luxury handbag sellers.” Any qualms buyers might have otherwise had about breaking the law through the trade of fakes? Thus dismissed.
But Why Do Local Buyers Opt for Fakes?
The market for fakes, like most forms of crime, lies at the convergence of three factors: opportunity (lack of regulation on the subject), financial pressure (of the exorbitant costs of the original), and rationalization (as apparent from the buying behavior of counterfeit-buyers). But for the unique context of my country, there’s another aspect at play – convenience.
As apparent from my trials and tribulations in buying luxuries on resale through intermediaries, the process of actually getting your hands on genuine products – whether new or pre-owned – is relatively difficult for locals here unless they are traveling abroad. One needs to obtain the services of an intermediary, who is likely to charge a premium over the product’s price. At the same time, the process itself is lengthy and fraught with uncertainties (remember the time I waited six months for a Balenciaga that never materialized?)
Hence, what with the ease of buying fakes and the perception of status rather than the more usual taboo surrounding the counterfeits themselves (*my fake Birkin is more expensive than your fake Birkin*), paired with the limited avenues available for getting authentics, makes the decision process for most buyers, even if they can purchase an original, unfairly inclined towards replicas.
And speaking of users who are aware of the differences between genuine and replica items, the fact that most popular silhouettes are widely counterfeited is a deterrent for them: “people will think it’s fake anyways, so why spend that much on the real thing?”
Further rationalization takes the form of pleading that fake-buying behavior is driven by financial constraints that can’t hurt or cannibalize the brand’s sales; as Steven Brown, from Batley, UK, told BBC,
“I’ve bought fake handbags for my wife. We both knew that a Gucci bag for £20 would be fake and not last as long as a real one. Is it really stealing revenue from a company if I would never buy a genuine Gucci bag?”
Others are more upfront about their nonchalance towards the big brands, citing that it is neither their moral obligation to protect luxury fashion houses nor would the companies go out of business because of them. Perhaps that’s true for the bigger brands, but for smaller brands, it’s certainly a distinct possibility.
But where does the extent of this psychological distortion lead to? It isn’t uncommon either for a certain class of fake buyers to perceive themselves as “financially savvy,” “shrewd shoppers,” or “street smart” in allegedly having “beaten the system.”
My Stance on Counterfeits
Unlike most people, my entry and awareness of the world of luxury fashion came through the world of counterfeits. My introduction to the Gucci logo came not from the quintessential interlocking GGs, but from a GD print. The first time I came across the actual Louis Vuitton Monogram, I realized it’s not just a random juxtaposition of shapes like most lookalikes but a strictly-defined pattern.
Ultimately, however, I’ve ended up as a critic of counterfeits because, purely from what I’ve observed, they haven’t served anybody well. Yes, it’s cheaper with the same outlook, so it sounds rational from a financial perspective. But that entices buyers to buy more fakes, and eventually, what they spend on a large collection of low-priced knock-offs turns out to be much more than what they would have spent on a well-thought-out luxury purchase.
Not to mention there are all the usual arguments of counterfeits proliferating dishonest behavior, and funding terrorism, child labor, and sweatshop practices. A hard no for me.
The issue of counterfeits is one that’s hotly debated now following high-profile instances of the notorious article on The Cut and allegations against brands of selling counterfeits from their store.
But at the end of the day, whether we buy a fake is purely a personal decision without a definite answer, just like the subject of buying full-priced authentics or pre-loved merchandise too comes with strings attached. Some people take pride in them; some, such as myself, have simply lost our tastes in them. However, at least we should be able to own up to ourselves regarding our choices, as Carrie laments in the SATC episode:
“Even if everyone else knew it was real, I’d always know that mine came from a cardboard box in a trunk.”
So, in this utopia of fakes, which side are you on?