Despite anything you may read, fakes are not in fashion. As you should know by now, the notion that counterfeits are back in fashion is not one that sits well with us. First of all, this would imply that they were "in fashion" before, which, as far as we know, has never been the case. And second, while we will admit that the purchase of them may be on the rise, an increase in people buying is not the same as being "in fashion."
Let’s start with the most basic way to illustrate why purchasing counterfeits should not be likened to a trend: Counterfeits items – as opposed to knockoffs – are illegal (more about that commonly-confused distinction here). These are goods that utilize the intellectual property of another brand to either dupe a consumer into thinking an item is real or to convince a consumer that he or she can dupe others into thinking it’s real. Either way, it’s intellectual property theft. You wouldn’t say assault is in fashion just because it’s more prevalent or it’s becoming more of the norm, would you? Nope. You’d say the incidence of assault is on the rise. And the same should go for counterfeit goods. Counterfeits are illegal and as such, it is ridiculous to suggest that they are in style.
It is true that the numbers indicate an increase in the purchase of counterfeit goods. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the value of counterfeit goods seized rose by 38.1% in 2013, from $1.2 billion in 2012 to $1.7 billion last year. The United States seized more than $116 million worth of apparel and accessories in 2013, up 26.8% from 2012. The value of seized watches and jewelry amounted to more than half a million dollars, which was up by 168.9%. And, not surprisingly, handbags and wallets were the most seized counterfeited product in 2013, accounting for 40% of the total value of all goods seized and equaling more than $700 million.
This should certainly not be presented in a light that is anything but worrisome. Moreover, such statistics are not indicative of some shift in which fashion idols are huddling over counterfeit bags, deciding which ones look the most real. What the numbers actually show is that real designers and brands are being hugely impacted by the theft of their intellectual property. Even more important, though, is that these numbers also highlight a more terrifying problem: the labor conditions used to create counterfeit goods.
The most concerning takeaway from the numbers is that people either don’t know or don’t care that there are laborers, who are literally dying for the furtherance of fashion. No, we’re not talking about that voice that tells you you’ll die without every item from the Preen Fall 2014 RTW collection. I’m talking about buildings collapsing, people being locked in factories, children being chained to work stations, fires – real life tragedy all in the name of, say, counterfeit watches.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the state of counterfeit production more than the harrowing image created by Dana Thomas in her book, “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.” Of the conditions in one particular sweatshop, she wrote"
I remember walking into an assembly plant in Thailand a couple of years ago and seeing six or seven little children, all under 10 years old, sitting on the floor assembling counterfeit leather handbags. The owners had broken the children’s legs and tied the lower leg to the thigh so the bones wouldn’t mend. [They] did it because the children said they wanted to go outside and play.
There’s also the fact that many counterfeits are created with hazardous materials. It may be true that the counterfeit clothing and accessory industry doesn’t seem like much of a risk in terms of harmful chemicals, at least not when compared to other counterfeit goods, like, counterfeit pills, but it is all part of the same illegal trade. Just because a counterfeit bag is not something you ingest, and thus, the risk might be lower, that doesn’t mean that by buying said bag you are not also giving money to the same individuals selling fake pills to fight malaria, for example.
And to all who say counterfeits have no real negative impact, try swallowing this: On several occasions, the millions of dollars that are generated from the sale of illegal goods have been linked to organized crime and terrorist activity. The New York Times reported in 2007 that the group accused of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people, used money generated from the sale of pirated CDs. A report released by the U.N. states that the Chinese triads, the Japanese Yakuza, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Russian Mafia are all well-known criminal organizations involved in the counterfeit business. And Ronald Noble, who is the Secretary General of Interpol, has said that some supporters of Al-Qaeda have been found with huge amounts of counterfeit items. These are just a few examples. There are surely many more because there is the potential for a lot of profit and the penalties for selling counterfeits are often not as extreme as the penalties related to other illegal activities.
Does any of this add up to something that is "in fashion?" Not by a long shot. Maybe it is true, as some publications have posited, that some respected individuals in the fashion industry are buying counterfeits (we, by the way, have no proof of this). And it’s clearly true that the general public is willing to sacrifice quality for a low price tag. This does not make counterfeiting a trend or stylish or acceptable, though. It just means that more people are willing to say that saving a few hundred (or thousand) dollars is more important that the lives that are lost as a result of counterfeit goods.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS is a recent law school graduate who writes about fashion, the legal avenues available for protecting it, and the ways in which the laws are falling short. She is currently awaiting admission to the NY State Bar. For more from Jennifer, follow her on Twitter.