Fendi or Falso?

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The UK tabloid Mirror recently reported that Mama Monster herself, Lady Gaga, told a group of fans that, “In Tokyo, they have all these stores that have fake Chanel and Versace. And I’m an Italian from New York, so I still buy it. This jacket is a fake.” While many doubt that the Gaga actually goes ga-ga for designer knock-offs, I’ll buy that she (or more likely her stylists) at times does indeed go for knock-offs and put them into her glorious closet. Yet, counterfeits for the woman who got Donatella to open the Versace archives just doesn’t make much sense. This debate made me want to look closer at the difference between the two and the dirty little secrets hanging in our closets right now.

Are we all on the same page on the difference between counterfeit goods and knockoffs? I know it’s a fine line to walk, but I do think there is a difference. A $90 leather quilted handbag with a double C logo is a counterfeit. Upon closer look, you notice the crooked stitching, you smell the chemical perfume of pleather, and you notice the logo is slightly off; this is not Chanel freshly imported from Paris, this is made in China. If you were caught buying or selling these, you might go to jail.

A knock-off is a grey area where subjectivity, creativity, and commerce get mashed together. The animosity towards retailers like Forever 21 has grown over the years, with a riot of support emerging for designers and their original work. Knock-offs and thievery are commonplace, of course. In a large industry with so much demand, there is little innovation and loads of imitation to spare. The grey area becomes even more smudged when another designer is inspired by a high-end designer and creates an affordable version. Of course, running a business based solely on copycat fashion—as Forever 21 has been accused of doing—is another beast altogether. If not always illegal, these ersatz versions are at least unethical, but that moral dilemma is something many women seem to be willing to live with, and likely as many are probably not even aware of their infringement. Hell, they just want a cute dress to wear on Friday night.

The rise of social media means we are bombarded with fashion content. Styling sites like Polyvore and blogs like the Sartorialist encourage women to seek maximum style in their everyday lives, and somehow, the need for a large fashionable wardrobe seems more urgent today than it did ten years ago. There is a preponderance of young fashion savvy shoppers who favor mass retailers for trend-driven, easy-on-the wallet goods.

I personally have other and (in my opinion) better reasons to dislike these on-the-cheap retailers, such as sweatshop abuses. Yet I cannot tell a lie; last weekend, I shopped at just such a place, buying a tunic cotton blouse that looked frightening similar to an Isabel Marant Etoile version, only for $10. I basically saved $290 on a blouse I won’t wear more than three months.

There is a fascinating 2010 study from the University of North Carolina that explains some of my despicable behavior. Academics Francesca Gino of Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC at Chapel Hill, Michael Norton at Harvard Business School, and Dan Ariely at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University ran a series of experiments to see what happened when individuals wore both fake and genuine sunglasses. The study demonstrated that counterfeit products actually make people behave more dishonestly. Even worse, people are completely unaware of this impact. People often buy fake goods to look good to other people, but the study shows that these products can affect moral choices precisely because they make us look worse to ourselves.

It doesn’t feel like that to me. In fact, I think my self esteem gets a boost from the fashion endorphins released during the purchase of a cute knockoff for a killer price. Perhaps Lady Gaga knows best. I think she would agree that buying knock-offs is in our DNA, and than most of us are born this way.


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