For his Spring/Summer 1993 show at Perry Ellis, a young designer by the name of Marc Jacobs decided to try something new. After a few seasons of churning out predictable, unoffensive all-American looks, he would attempt to capture the zeitgeist of a new youth movement: grunge. Jacobs’ “Grunge” collection at Perry Ellis is now considered a turning point in his career as well as in the history of American fashion. After the show, Jacobs famously sent samples from the collection to Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, who promptly set it all on fire. It was immediately panned and lost Jacobs his job, yet the concept behind the looks has proven to hold some staying power.
Seeking inspiration from the streets is nothing new to the fashion world. Bill Cunningham has been documenting uniquely stylish and – most importantly – real people for over 30 years. Yet recently the industry has experienced a significant shift from presenting looks motivated by the eccentric real-world styles of the times to endorsing the very model that incurs so many millions of dollars in lawyers fees each year for major couture houses: the bootleg.
Counterfeit products have been part of the cycle of commerce for thousands of years. Ancient Romans even enjoyed collecting fake coins – which had no value but were sometimes prettier than the real thing. In the 1990s and 2000s, however, designer counterfeit saw tremendous growth – most likely due to an increasingly globalized society, dubious intellectual property laws and the rise of efficient means of production. In 2008, the U.S. government estimated the global “bootleg” industry to be worth $500 billion with a growth rate of 1,700% over the last 10 years.
Recently it became cool to counterfeit the counterfeit. A byproduct of the churning cycle of art, Internet and irony that feeds a significant portion of youth culture today, brands like #BeenTrill have picked up tremendous steam by cleverly reinterpreting well established digital tropes. Indeed, re-appropriation is all the rage – just look at Kanye West’s recent controversial ownership of the Confederate Flag, a symbol of racial degradation and hate.
Brands like Crooks & Castles, Reason Clothing and COI have all carved out a niche for what is essentially the artful bootlegging of designer logos. By re-contextualizing Parisian design houses as somehow in-touch with the trends of the streets, these labels provide consumers with witty and insightful homages to the originals when executed well, cheap and useless imitations when done poorly. Some major brands complain. Some know it’s good PR. Few have any true ground to stand on legally since it’s difficult to argue that anyone buying a $30 USD T-shirt could be mistaking it for a $400 USD one due to a similarity in logo design, especially when the former is designed to be interpreted ironically.
After nearly a decade of this trend thriving, something interesting has happened – designer brands are beginning to bootleg the bootlegs. Much like how Marc Jacobs did with his “Grunge” collection, drawing inspiration from the real world has always been a reality for fashion labels and should continue to be. Louis Vuitton tastefully hopped on a dark allover imagery trend by foregoing cheap screen prints for elaborate silk embroidery and a partnership with the Chapman Brothers. In fact, while in charge of Louis Vuitton, Jacobs collaborated with street-relevant artists from the late Stephen Sprouse (who popularized graffiti prints in high fashion) to RETNA.
Just as some streetwear brands have committed more creative and thoughtful plundering of designer motifs, so have some labels chosen poorly. It’s different and unproductive for upscale brands to, with their myriad resources and the world’s top design talent and craftsmen at their fingertips, find themselves encircled in a process not of collaboration or sourcing motivation, but rather of premium bootlegging.
This year has seen Moschino taken over by the invariable one-trick pony Jeremy Scott. Highly-anticipated, his collection was sure to be a hit amongst the glitterati regardless of what it actually looked like. Whether it was a comment on the state of fast fashion design, an homage to the glory of consumer culture or a trick to be played on bloggers across the world – Scott’s inaugural Moschino line contained almost solely references to McDonalds. Is it pushing culture to emblazon a $950 USD dress with the logo of a chain restaurant known for unhealthy food and underpaid workers – especially under the helm of a well-established and historically significant Italian label – or is it just lazy design?
Seeking to incorporate some “normcore” into the stuffy fashion world is not a wholly inauthentic pursuit. Chanel’s multi-million dollar show this season in Paris contained a life-sized supermarket complete with branded details like boxes of snacks emblazoned with the French house’s logo and doormats that nearly every guest attempted to steal. This was a smart and whimsical take on exactly how high-fashion can seek inspiration from the lives of everyday consumers without actually letting it dictate the apparel.
Nonetheless, with cheap-looking Warhol-esque camouflage dominating the once-tremendously iconic Italian house of Valentino, Givenchy weighing so heavily on prints that they might not bother to make anything without a Rottweiler on it anymore and Hood By Air being nominated by LVMH for its 2014 Prize for Young Designers, the trend of upscale bootlegging seems likely to continue for the next few seasons, at least.
At the end of the day, who this really hurts is the young designer. Fashion is about dreaming – of artistic expression, of the world’s finest fabrics, of creating something intrinsically new that could also, with a little luck and a lot of merchandising, fly off the shelves of the world’s top boutiques. A focus on re-appropriation of everyday brands does nothing to sharpen the eye of the consumer nor does it do anyone who is trying to make it as a young designer a favor. Training our next generation of talent that screen-printed logo knockoffs and tote bags embroidered with witty phrases is all there is to fashion will leave the market with no one to shift the paradigm. Wherever our next “Grunge” collection is, it’s needed now more than ever.