An Ode to Bootleggers: How They Narrow(ed) The Gap Between The Streets And The Runway

11.14.16 4 weeks ago

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The fashion industry’s contentious history with counterfeiters is a lengthy one, but one moment stands most prominent among the rest: M.I.A’s 2013 Versace line. The line premiered with baggage as hefty as its price tag: By deliberately designing pieces that mimicked Versace knockoffs, M.I.A. both acknowledged and embraced the brand’s extensive history with the counterfeiters that supplied them. Versace’s silent cosign spoke volumes: What could be cooler, after all, than knocking off the knockoff?

Though small, the moment was a strange win for counterfeiters and their customers. Over less than a century, counterfeit fashion slowly escaped the ire of high fashion, eventually signaling success rather than a threat. Fashion houses have since become tolerant of  —  if not completely numb to  — the existence of counterfeiters and the multi-billion dollar industry they sired. Their cheap outputs were considered an unfortunate byproduct of ultimate brand success  —  both insult and acclamation. That Versace could exalt its legacy as counterfeiters’ biggest target spoke to its strengths, something the brand was all too ready to do. What changed?

For one thing, hip-hop. The Versace-M.I.A. line stood inadvertently at the intersection as fashion, music, and streetwear — — not for its aesthetics, but for the history that preceded it. Hip-hop’s generous embrace of Versace and other fashion houses in the ’80s and ’90s led to a counterfeit boom never seen before. Urban black youth coming of age in Reagan’s America naturally sought their own mode of personal expression  — something that could disassociate them from their realities or portrayals. Through the influence of hip-hop legends, dope boys, and hustlers, they immediately found their escape in high fashion. Counterfeiting soon became yet another means to a luxurious end.

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