Is there anything tackier than wearing or carrying a designer garment or accessory that has nothing to recommend it except for the logo which is all-too- visibly plastered all over its front—especially if the “designer” item has been marked up by 300% or more over its actual cost only because of the logo? Doesn’t that kind of label slavishness suggest that you are the sort of insecure jerk who uses brand names as a substitute for taste and whose sense of self-esteem is so low that you need to buy status from some canny “luxury goods” mass marketer who profits massively from your inadequacy?
True or false? Is this handbag in a Shanghai store window a fake or genuine Armani?
Well yes, actually, there is something that is even tackier. And that’s when you buy a designer fake. You buy it even though you know it is bogus and that the quality is far shoddier than the real thing because (a) you have low income in addition to low self-esteem; or (b) you are so greedy that you think you can get a “designer” bag or shirt at one-third of the price; or (c) because you are the sort of fool who thinks that nobody can tell that your so-called Louis Vuitton bag or your alleged Ralph Lauren shirt is an obvious fake (if I see another rip-off of the Stephen Sprouse Grafitti bag where Louis Vuitton is spelt “Louis Vuttion”, I will throw up).
Most of us have a complicated relationship with luxury brands and designer labels. We are quite happy—assuming we can afford the price—to buy a quality product from a famous brand, provided we like it. For instance, I’ve used a Prada black nylon carry-on bag for three years now, without any trace of embarrassment. Given that I travel out of New Delhi at least once a week on average, the bag has done a minimum of 300 trips, to and from my home and has yet to give way. Despite the small Prada triangle on the side, I reckon it has more than delivered on the price I paid for it. So, sometimes, a luxury brand can deliver quality and reliability, and it is foolish to buy something cheaper out of inverse snobbery, only to find that it falls apart in months.
And often, luxury brands do make products that are desirable simply because of aesthetics. Hermes and Chanel are obvious examples but there are others. Armani Black Label fits better than most off-the-peg menswear without the pimpish vulgarity of Brioni. And I know lots of women who love Louis Vuitton bags but have had to stop buying them after they became the nouveau riche Punjabi lady’s accessory of choice.
But mostly, the so-called “luxury” companies have little to do with luxury but are mass-produced, overhyped brands that survive on the cachet of their labels. Anybody who buys, say, Jimmy Choo over a genuine quality product such as Christian Louboutin is a fashion victim who has been fooled by the marketing. And somebody who buys into the whole “designer” con by buying a fake is particularly pathetic. Why buy a shoddy T-shirt with Calvin Klein (which is not even a proper designer label these days) stamped across the front when you can buy a better quality T-shirt at a fraction of the price? Why waste money on a fake Ralph Lauren Polo shirt when even the original is rubbish, produced in the millions for the malls of Middle America and when a Gap Polo has better quality?
And yet, people keep buying the fakes. Outside the Prada shop in Venice, I watched in astonishment as Senegalese vendors (they are from the two-million strong Mouride sect who also sell fake Rolexes on the streets of Manhattan) openly spread out their fake Pradas on the streets and did a flourishing business. In Bangkok’s notorious Patpong area, nobody bothers with the sex shows any longer; they just buy the many designer fakes that are on sale. And I have seen Alitalia crew crowd into the shops selling designer fakes on Mumbai’s Colaba Causeway. I am told that they later resell them, claiming to have bought them on the cheap in Milan.
The designer brands expect us to treat the fakes business as a huge social evil. While I feel pity for the unfortunate souls who need to flaunt Dior logos across their bosoms, I have very little sympathy for the big brands either.
The truth is that most mass market designer fashion is a bit of a con anyway. This was driven home to me when I visited a market in Shanghai. While most of the fakes on display were rubbish, there was another category called Grade AA product. These goods were so convincing that it was hard for a non-expert to tell that they were fake. In most cases, the leather and the buckles were of such good quality that I asked myself the obvious question: If these guys can sell a Louis Vuitton bag at the equivalent of $30 (approx. Rs1,200), then how much profit does Vuitton make when it sells the real thing at $600? Of course, the Vuitton original probably costs more to manufacture. But just how much more?
What makes this more significant is that so many of the so-called European or American designer goods are actually manufactured in Third World sweatshops. According to Dana Thomas in her brilliant new book Deluxe, among the brands that have outsourced production to China are Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Christian Lacroix and Armani (the lower end range). Thomas says even the “Made In Italy” or the “Made In France” labels are no guarantee of authenticity. For instance, says Thomas, Valentino suits that are made in West Asia have the “Made In Egypt” label ripped out when they go on sale in Europe. Never believe the labels on designer goods—I know of loads of Western designers who manufacture things in India but refuse to acknowledge it.
So yes, it’s pathetic to be a label-whore. It’s shameful to be a fake label-whore who knowingly buys counterfeit merchandise. But hey, don’t feel sorry for the fashion companies. They started the whoring in the first place.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org