Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Politic of Counterfeit Goods

Once again, fashion week is upon us. Talk of anorexia, Anna Wintour, and tulle are abundant. In a world where the ratio of body fat segways to the same of waist to hip measurements, there is a break in the mundane. Harper's Bazaar held a conference last week to discuss the issue of counterfeiting. On display were several stunning copies of Chanel, Louis Vuitton and other designer bags. The theme of the conference was how the counterfeiting industry is linked to terrorism. An absurdity as blatant as some of the clothes Harper portrays on it's cover. The concept of terrorists profiting from counterfeit designer goods is one that has been floated for a year or more. Terrorists also sell American cigarettes, condoms and viagra on the black market to line their coffers. When was the last time you heard Marlboro calling for an investigation of their cigarette buyers? The real impetus behind this poorly conceived "crackdown" is image and marketing. The designer lobby often sites the millions of dollars of lost revenue in counterfeiting. The logic fails in this argument. Any woman buying a knockoff Louis V for $50 could hardly afford the real deal for $500. Designers are more concerned about the Walmart shopper who ports her fake Gucci to the laundromat. The overweight, gum chewing, sneaker weraring model is not their idea of the ideal buyer. After all, the right look allows you to charge the "right money".....sometimes. Last year, the chief exec of Crystal champagne quipped that Rappers bring "unwanted attention" to the upscale brand. Well, JayZ, a multimillionaire rap mogul called for a boycott. The bling king switched his allegiance to Moet Chandon and Crystal went flat.

A cultivated image is the tool marketers use to enhance the value of the ordinary. But, one need only look behind that image to find that sometimes, it is just an illusion.

Fake Louis Vuitton bags are in abundance on Canal Street. Maligned for their attempt at the real thing. But, let us look into the history of Louis himself. A new book written by Stephanie Bonvicini details the nazi collaboration of Louis Vuitton during the war years in France. Louis Vuitton had a store on the ground floor of a fabulous property, the Hotel Du Parc, in Vichy where Petain, (French leader) set up his puppet government. The other shopkeepers, including Van Cleef and Arpels were forced to shut down. Vuitton was the only one allowed to stay. Vuitton's grandson, Gaston, the wartime head of the company had instructed his eldest son, Henry to forge links with the Petain regime to keep business going. Henry became a regular at a cafe frequented by the Gestapo and was one of the first Frenchmen to be decorated by the Nazi backed government for his loyalty to the regime. The Vuitton family even set up factories that manufactured some 2,500 artifacts glorifying Petain. And while French Jews were marched off to a horrible fate, the house of Vuitton continued to supply and patronize the nazi regime that helped them make lovely designer merchandise. Not only were the Vuittons admirers of the Nazi culture but also, the House of Prada.

Prada was founded in 1913 by Mario Prada. When the Nazis swept thru Europe, Mario, according to his grandaughter was "fascinated" by Hitler's parades and obsessed with German culture. Miluccia Prada, now chief icon of Prada recalls photographs of her mother in Tyrolean dress and remembering how she and her brother and sister would dress in leather trousers or dirndl skirts. She still does when vacationing on the Italian lakeside. Miluccia, a former communist, designs today with an anti-bourgeois feel. Considering the income of the company, this would appear as an oxymoron.

Now speaking of contrasts, one should consider the price of Gucci goods with what the design magnate pays it's factory workers. Gucci, owned by Pinault Printemps and Redoute is the target of an international campaign. The focus is PPR's catalogue business which runs a series of mail order services thru out the world. The suppliers allegedly flaunt labor standards and are highlighted in a recent report by CFIE (Center for Information about the Enterprises) Suppliers in Bombay and the Phillipines are singled out as providing payment below wage. This is compounded with the thousands of African immigrants who flee their continent year after year to secure factory work in Italy. They assemble Gucci goods in factories, hoping for permanent visas. Many lose their lives on flimsy boats sailing to the Italian promised land. All to make a bag for a rich woman.

And while we are on the topic of rich women, one must examine the life of Coco Chanel. The Chanel label is frequently copied for it's design and prestige but it's origins are quite below par. Coco Chanel was born at the end of the nineteenth century. Her father, Albert Chanel was an itinerant market trader. At one point, he left behind his 19 year old pregnant girlfriend who would become the mother of Coco. Her parents finally married but her mother died at the age of 33. She spent time in an orphanage and at the age of 17 struck out for a career in show biz. She tried to sing but was better sewing costumes for those with a better voice. Through her show biz contacts and good looks, she managed to "farm" herself out to several male mentors. Nimble with the thimble and other skills, they bank rolled her until she rose to the fame and prominence that created the House of Chanel.

The counterfeit industry ia a growth business netting billions of dollars a year. It now boasts what is called a "super copy". In effect, the fake is better engineered than the original. Tradesman who are legitimately employed by the legitimate designers are marketing their skills to the higher counterfeit bidder. Thus, the link between terrorism and counterfeit merchandise is a tenuous one. It is multifaceted. As long as women will drop a thousand dollars and more on a handbag, the industry will continue to proliferate. Perhaps they are the real terrorists. The continue to feed a system that was built on supplying nazi regimes and exploiting the poor. The icons are built of clay feet that are masked in the adoration of those who rule by exclusion. Counterfeiting is not bad. It follows the old adage of "Imitation is the highest form of flattery".
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