BUYER BEWARE
An assistant curator of Faking It, a show at The Museum at FIT, on how to spot a counterfeit Chanel bag

When Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel designed her “2.55” purse, she created an icon. A very desirable icon. Like a lot of high-end designer merchandise, the bag became a target for imitators and forgers; copies are probably for sale on Canal Street at this very moment. The counterfeit industry nets $600 billion annually, according to independent news source World Trademark Review, yet counterfeiting is only one way that the value and integrity of designs are damaged. An exhibition at The Museum at FIT, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, explored the spectrum of inauthentic designer goods.

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Forged fashion existed even before Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) pioneered the role of couturier, says Ariele Elia, assistant curator and organizer of the show. A pair of 18th-century shoes adorned with paste jewelry attests to the early existence of imitation high style. Yet the couture system, which treats designers like artists and enshrines their creations, makes knockoffs almost inevitable: Once a singular look debuts on a Paris runway, it’s only a matter of time before something similar shows up at Zara. Over the years, some fought the trend—Madeleine Vionnet, for example, used her thumbprint as her label, rendering it inimitable. Others were more practical: Dior authorized licensed (and more affordable) versions of his creations for retail.

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The show was developed with consultation from Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University; and Valerie Salembier, CEO of the Authentics Foundation, an international organization dedicated to raising awareness of the counterfeit industry. It turns out it’s not benign to buy an imitation Chanel bag; Salembier says child labor is often involved in the production of the goods, and profits may be funneled into all sorts of sinister activities, from organized crime to terrorism. In France, shoppers can be fined €300,000, or serve three years in prison for owning a fake, but the U.S. has no copyright law protecting fashion designs, a subject of endless debate. Most counterfeit items are purchased online now, and Elia says the websites that pass them off as real are shockingly sophisticated. Even fake versions of the über-luxe Hermès Birkin bag have sold.

Chanel herself was famously sanguine about her imitators. “The very idea of protecting the seasonal arts is childish,” she said. “One should not bother to protect that which dies the minute it is born.” Idiosyncratic details in her work, however, mean that a keen eye can discern the master’s hand. Fashion experts know that Chanel’s designs frequently include veiled references to her autobiography: The “mademoiselle” lock on the authentic “2.55” bag is a reminder that she never married. Yet it’s the couture-quality materials and attention to detail that ultimately distinguish it. “From the outside, fakes can fool the eye,” Elia says, “but once you open them up and look at the craftsmanship, you can tell.”

The exhibition closed April 25. View the online version at: exhibitions.fitnyc.edu/faking-it

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VIDEO: In An Insider’s Perspective on the Counterfeit Industry, Valerie Salembier, president and CEO of the Authentics Foundation, and Susan Scafidi, founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham, teach viewers how to spot counterfeit bags by Goyard, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton.

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