The Rise of Copycat Culture & Counterfeit Fashion

Photo: Courtesy of SSENSE.
Copycat culture has reached its peak. Tongue-in-cheek imitations of both established and emerging designers’ key items and logos can now be found for sale all over the internet.

It started with streetwear labels: Think back to imitation Comme des Garçons fonts screaming, “Comme des Fuckdown,” or Will Fry’s multi-logo bomber and Pretty Real’s Broschino range. Slowly, it filtered into high-end. There was Ashish's Tesco satire for spring '14. Then, a slew of high-meets-low-brow combinations like Jeremy Scott's Moschino x McDonald's, Moschino x Barbie, and so on.

A sensitive subject, these contentious collections were born into a legal gray area, making the brands on the receiving end unsure of whether or how to take action. Oftentimes, as is the case with Vetement's DHL logo, borrowing is totally legal — with companies licensing the use of their own logos to fashion brands for a fee.

And along the way, brands were able to grab the Instagram generation’s attention, with social influencers reveling in the fact that they were wearing a juxtaposition of labels, participating in and mocking fashion all at the same time.

Moving into 2016, the trend refuses to quit. There’s O-Mighty’s "Adidas" jumpsuit, Palace Skateboard’s "Palasonic" knit, and — most notoriously — Vetements' DHL tee. The latter sold out in weeks, despite its steep price tag, and became the darling of street style. (If you're really keen, you can still scoop up your own branded T-shirt at Ssense for $330.)

A site named Vetememes.com, is taking the whole bootleg theme one step further by creating meme-esque styles of the originally copied pieces. Its interpretation of the sell-out DHL tee, for example, features the same recognizable colorway and font, but reads "memes" in lieu of the name of the international mail company. So 2016.

Sample shot 📷 p.s. the final production model isn't going have raglan sleeves 👌

A photo posted by @vetememes on

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What feels new among copycat culture is an underground movement where the cool kids are taking charge. Take 17-year-old designer and high school dropout Austin Butts, a.k.a. Asspizza: A clothing dealer, he creates his own streetwear pieces and, using his social media following and influential acquaintances, passes them on to someone who’s willing to pay over $300 for one item. Fans include Wiz Khalifa, ILoveMakonnen and Theophilus London, impressively wearing Asspizza on stage. But that's not even the half of it. Most famously, Butts sold mock-ups of Kanye West's Life of Pablo merchandise ahead of his pop-up (and even in the queue outside) for $20 a pop. Yet, instead of getting into trouble for it, Butts was praised: The popup employees loved the idea and, with Kanye’s approval, some of the pieces were even displayed inside the store.
Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.
It’s not always fun and games, of course. In February, Gucci filed a lawsuit against discount designer e-comm site Beyond the Rack for allegedly selling counterfeit bags. (The brand was made aware of the site’s faux-logoed bags in June of last year, after receiving multiple complaints from shoppers stating that their new double-G-plastered purchases were "inferior quality," per The Fashion Law.) And how about the umpteen fake Primark stores that continue to crop up in the Middle East? There are so many of them now that it's impossible to monitor and subsequently shut them down.

There’s such a thin line when it comes to copycat culture — and, if the copying isn’t done well, or in a way that’s either above board or massively ironic, it can get nasty. Last year, Chanel sued Erin Yogasundram of e-tailer Shop Jeen for a whopping $2 million after she sold knock-off iPhone covers for $35, The Fashion Law reported. The case was quietly settled, and the exact amount Yogasundram had to pay back wasn’t revealed — however it must have been hefty. Her response to the whole ordeal? "The fact that we were even on their radar, it was flattering," Yogasundram told The Cut. And this is exactly what this trend is about: being able to acquire a new audience that’s on the opposite end of the luxury spectrum, in a cheeky and tantalizingly clever way.

When it comes to this "borrowing" theme, there’s now a sense of mutual acceptance from both sides. It’s been done so much that even designers of the highest caliber take the fact that someone is mirroring their work in stride. It’s all about recognition. Whether it’s a 17-year-old social media star or Karl Lagerfeld, taking the time and effort to "copy" can be a complimentary nod to the other brand’s wealth of influence, or — when it's low culture stealing from above — a subversive critique on the cult of luxury.

The movement is bridging the gap between the catwalk and the street. And if this recent wave of copycat culture is anything to go by, the bootleg trend is here to stay — especially if creative directors continue to be flattered by the idea of younger, hipper brands echoing their identity, enabling them to be exposed to an otherwise difficult market to target. Looking to the future, expect this concept to reach even wider mainstream audiences. River Island x Dollar Store, anyone?
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