Friday, April 04, 2008

The cultural cachet of the fake bag

It wasn't so long ago that the fashion editors at high-fashion titles were letting readers in on a little secret: the cool kids were either picking up "fake" bags for $20 on Canal Street or putting their name on lists for meticulously handmade it-bags. Both fashions were decidedly about money. The latter was a case of conspicuous consumption made palatable for upper middle class values by invoking the language of longevity and anti-fashion: it was an 'investment piece' and the money spent was worth it because it was a classic and would never go out of style. The 'fake' bags, on the other hand, were of-the-moment precisely because they screamed out that the moment would pass. They acknowledged the speed of trends and the need to move on once the masses got there. So too they can be seen as a case of classic slumming it (fake bags were no where near as cool if you weren't wearing Balancegia pants.) Their status as fashionable also stemmed from the young fashion assistants, models and downtown girls who carried them, the young things whose approval the fashion industry so desperately needs and whose creativity they so mercilessly borrow from and co-opt. So the Canal St bag's popularity was also a nod to the fact that the fashion industry's young minions and inspirations were not paid nearly enough to enjoy the lifestyles they were involved in creating. It was ironically aspirational in the urban context (actual aspiration being reserved for people in the suburbs.)

If ever there was a designer who was able to play with the dialectic of fashion and all of the social commentary inherent in it, it is Marc Jacobs.

In 2000 Jacobs revived the career of Stephen Sprouse, a designer who made his name in the 80s and was known for a pop punk aesthetic. Sprouse's Louis Vuitton bag (or is it Louis Vuitton's Sprouse?) was a classic Vuitton shape, covered in Sprouse's graffiti. Sprouse turned the label's ubiquitous logo into a tag and by doing so gave the bag multiple meanings and spoke to different groups of people in different ways. Fashion commentators will often note that Sprouse gave the label street-cred but the limited availability of the $700 bag also made Canal street knock off the real prize. If you're going to thumb your nose at the meaning and meaninglessness of a luxury logo, why not do it properly?

Today, the fashion industry is on the warpath against "fake" bags and the same magazines who admitted that 'fake' bags could have real cultural cachet, regularly run features that claim counterfeit luxury labels are responsible for everything from terrorism and drug trafficking to child-labour in China.

So while the fashion press is reporting that the simultaneous New York launch of © MURAKAMI at the Brooklyn Museum
and 'Monogramouflage' his latest collaboration with Vuitton is set to highlight the 'problem' of counterfeits, it's just as easy to see other not-so-corporate narratives at work. Coinciding with the launch, Vuitton has set up 10 fake street vendors outside the museum to sell fake fakes, that is 'real' Vuittons that cost real money. Authenticity is the luxury markets new buzzword and apparently there is nothing more authentic than not having enough money to buy an overpriced limited-edition bag that was made using the mechanisms of mass production. So the upper east side socialites who trudged their way to Brooklyn are rewarded with some good old fashioned slumming it (so 'fun') and Vuitton gets to have its cake and eat it too, co-opting reality for it's own purposes.