June 18, 2005

Bootleg: Or, Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery

Real or Fake?

How many of you would be embarassed to be caught with knockoff goods?

A few weeks ago there was a short article in the New York Times about designer furniture knockoffs -- $2000 Barcelona chairs being sold at Urban Outfitters for $200, $700 Emeco Navy chairs sold at Target for $125. Which reminded me of an article in the previous issue of I.D. magazine, where they Q&A-ed Eames Demetrios, a grandson of Ray and Charles, who happens to be the man in charge of Eames as we know it marketed and distributed today; his reaction to designer knockoffs was: only a fraction of the cost of buying a REAL piece goes to design and keeping up intellectual property rights -- you're paying for the craftsmanship. (But, is it really that much more to produce one fine chair?)

Which made me get a fishy feeling from designer-anything (especially in this post-Midcentury Modern and post-Logo-ed out era) -- if they say you're paying for the craftmanship, they've got to be lying. You're paying that much more for the brand! (Some of which goes to the quality control, I'm sure).

But is buying a faux Barcelona chair with painted metal accents at Urban Outfitters (which you should never be shopping at anyway) a shame to the integrity of what's authentic or virtuously "bringing high-end design to the masses" or just being ironic? Is it making a statement against the hegemony of the elite tendency to flaunt good taste / wealth, or is it just trying to imitate them (because you share those values) within your means? Is making available counterfeit goods actually democratic?

Prof. Ananya Roy, who teaches courses on urbanism and development at Berkeley, gave an anecdote in class. She had just come back from Kuala Lumpur, and one of the themes of her lecture had to do with mimickry and authenticity -- in other words, the 3rd world mimicking the 1st world in an attempt to be cool, and also, the shame of very real poverty that is associated with it. She found out that in a posh part of KL, there is a row of high-end boutiques (Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc) where street vendors would brazenly sell their counterfeit goods right alongside the authentic retailers. The designer houses complained to the government to do something about this (as business wasn't looking good for them). But, instead of outlawing the counterfeiters -- they were a more thriving economy than the real stuff -- they erected a seven-story mall, into which all the counterfeiters were moved. Here, they could sell their fake Gucci bags in peace. And guess which mall gets more traffic!

Prof Roy's conclusion: in KL, she nabbed a fake Gucci for ONLY TEN DOLLARS! And it looks just like the real one! Her final ironic statement: it came with authenticity cards.

So -- is there nothing to be ashamed of when you're buying knockoffs? The larger geopolitical idea is that maybe these goods coming from "poor" countries like China and to the south might be just as valid as the real goods, which are marketed towards an illusion -- a certain kind of perfect consumer lifestyle that exemplifies the "developed world." There are arguments that bootleg DVDs sold in China (the vast majority being Hollywood and European films) actually help bring democracy and the flow of ideas to the populace (too idealistic, I think). Bringing the high-end design to the masses. Or it just reminds you how absurd you are to be spending so much on something that is materially worth so little to convey a social construct: wealth. (Ie: who's the fake? The bag or you buying into the image and subconsciously pretending to be who you are not?)

Another point Prof Roy made earlier was taken from the movie Bladerunner. In the Bladerunner world, Replicants (slave robots that look and act exactly like real humans) are by law to be destroyed if they try to escape slavery. But, the question posed is -- how can you tell if the Replicant is actually a Replicant, and what if you kill a real human by accident instead? Which is about simulacra -- the fake thing is so much like the real thing that you can't tell the difference anymore. That "calls into question the authenticity of both real and fake."

So, how much more are all the international designer goods worth than the stuff my friends or I made ourselves, or comparably bought for a lot less from local designers? Times are a-changin.'


bruce said...

cats in beijing were selling fake rolexes for 25 yuan (what, 3 bucks? if you bargain, even less!)

i'll never wear a rolex but i'll proudly rock a fake one. move over obey giant, this is subversive fashion!

if parallels can be drawn between third world imitating the first world (or, rather, the first world molding the third in its own image) and counterfeit goods, then the ideals of sustainability, alternative sources of energy, and green politics can be applied to fashion as well.

have you seen used rubber (http://www.usedrubberusa.com/) and freitag (http://www.freitag.ch/index_frames.php) yet? or kathy's button ear pieces!

bruce said...

by the way, thanks for the ananya reminder. i wish i brought my cp notes with me to asia.

jean said...

... hey! blogspot posting? you're in HK! glad to know you're well. thanks for the links ... i miss ananya; i think about her stuff all the time!

jean said...

oh yeah -- thesis based on something in china?? there are like a thousand topics i could think of.

Anonymous said...

your argument is based upon the assumption that a person who has the option of purchasing fake or legit items will inevitably purchase the fake item because the price is significantly lower.


-psychoexbf ;)

jean said...

you misunderstand my point, psychoxbf. i question the shame of inauthenticity associated with buying counterfeit goods, which is often assigned to lower classes attempting to imitate the upper and 3rd world countries.

bruce mentions it's subversion to buy the counterfeit goods and flaunt it in the face of people who believe having the real thing makes them a better person -- because notions of authenticity (especially when it comes to the absurdity of buying goods that are over 10x their cost of production) and wealth are social constructs.

i personally own way way too much designer shit (furniture, clothing, handbags -- relics of the 90s), but sometime around the early 2000s, i realized that conspicuous consumption does not make me cool. especially these days, when there are billions who are below the us on the income ladder, wars, incredible fear, and so on.

im not saying counterfeit goods undermine the profitability of authentic goods (nor do i give a shit for billionaires who lose a few dollars). i think more of us need to recognize that our desires are produced, not necessitated, and that we shouldn't be sheep.

ben said...

in terms of technology, i think people don't care about having the real thing. unlike fashion, (arguably) value of the object almost relies entirely on its function.

however i think there is value added by (not necessarily functional) design, exemplified by sony and apple, so this isn't true.

jean said...

oh yeah -- the kind of goods im talking about are popularly accepted status symbols that don't so much have design value as they do hype as status symbols, esp on the international level. if prada'd hire me to design for them, i'd jump on that! unfortunately, large design houses like the aforementioned seem to have to rely on these mass-produced, mass-selling pieces to sustain their businesses so they can do stuff that's far more interesting.

siqi said...

what's greater: grains of sand or # of stars?