Counterfeit Culture Moves Beyond Canal Street

Photo: Courtesy of The Museum at FIT.
When I was in sixth grade, every girl had to have a nylon Prada backpack. I don't remember how much they cost, or where the fad even started (although I'm sure we saw one of the Olsen twins or Paris Hilton wearing it), but I do remember how desperately I wanted one to "fit in" — regardless of how ridiculous (and unnecessary) a designer bag was for a middle-schooler.
Since I grew up just outside of New York City, though, my parents didn't fret — they simply took me to Canal Street to buy a counterfeit one, knowing that in a few months, it would end up sitting in the back of my closet for eternity. And, I didn't think anything of it.
It's been more than a decade since I wandered the booths of Chinatown, shopping for "Gucci" sunglasses, "Louis Vuitton" wallets, and the like. It was so easy to have the latest, greatest designer goods, especially when they cost around $20.
I was reminded of these times while visiting The Museum at FIT's latest exhibit, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, which opened yesterday and is on display through April 25, 2015. The retrospective "investigates the history of both authorized and unauthorized copying [in fashion], as well as the various factors that have led to grey areas in authenticity" — from the licensed copies Bergdorf Goodman sold in a post-World War II New York to the "designer" goods I once bought downtown.
Although copying is part of the conversation today, thanks to runway lookalikes made by fast-fashion companies like Zara, it is in no way new. In fact, it began as early as the 1860s, when designer Charles Frederick Worth began signing his name on the labels of his creations as a guarantee of authenticity. Decades later, Paul Poiret trademarked his name to avoid counterfeits, while Madeleine Vionnet added thumbprints to her labels.
The exhibit hosts more than a century's worth of different types of copies: Chanel suits that were reproduced without permission; authorized couture copies of Balmain and Dior gowns; Versace and Yves Saint Laurent dresses that "borrowed" inspiration from Andy Warhol and Piet Mondrian, respectively; and the heavily imitated logos of labels including Yohji Yamamoto and Louis Vuitton.
The days of Chinatown replicas that look identical to their name-brand counterparts may have dwindled, but we suspect counterfeiting will continue to exist (and thrive) well into the future. People will always try to cash in on the hottest new trends, but the truth is, you just can't fake real fashion.