Anti-Fake: A Q&A

Posted by Rob Walker on August 14, 2006
Posted Under: Brand Underground,Ethics,Fakes,Q&A

When I saw this “Stop Rockin’ Fake Shit” T, created by a Georgia-based brand called Prestigious, written up by Freshness, I was immediately interested in what Susan Scafidi would think about it. Her current project is a web site (and book in progress) called Counterfeit Chic, and it’s “about the culture of the copy within the multi-billion dollar global clothing and textile industry,” her site’s Introduction explains. “It’s about New York’s Canal Street and Beijing’s Silk Alley, but also about the cognitive and sociological reasons that make us want to buy or reject knock-offs in the first place.” Generally knockoffs are thought of as a luxe-world issue, but it’s a topic in the brand underground as well, albeit with some different spins. Whether these T’s actually get much consumer traction or not, they do express a particular point of view on conterfeits that’s worth considering. Prof. Scafidi graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Q. In the luxe world, the fight against counterfeiters seems to play out in the form of legal and/or legislative moves, which tend to be focused more on producers than on consumers, right?

A. That’s right – we haven’t seen a grassroots “Save the Vuitton” movement or (role) models proclaiming, “I’d rather go naked than wear fakes.” Most anti-counterfeiting efforts have been pursued through the courts or through law enforcement efforts. But a quick tourist travel advisory: in France and Italy, consumers can face steep fines for purchasing fakes. Also, bringing counterfeits back into the U.S. is prohibited.

Q. I have a friend who is a very dedicated consumer of high-end handbags, and she assures me that people like her can spot a fake a mile away. Although she probably wouldn’t put it this way, her point of view seems to be that her expert knowledge (of the real from the fake) is in essence its own reward. To her, it’s self-evident that consumers of fakes are not fooling the people they most desperately want to fool (that is: her), and are therefore making fools of themselves. I’m not sure that she’s right, in that (as the name of your current project implies) there is a certain chic, or at least a mental payoff, for many consumers of knockoffs: While my friend feels smug about buying the real thing, the fake-buyers feel smug about getting a great bargain. What’s unusual about these T’s, to me, is that they bring this conflict right out into the open, and basically try to make fake-wearing an unequivocal badge of shame. I’ve never seen anything like that, whether originating from a brand or from consumers — have you?

A. Ah, my favorite subway game: spot the fake! There are quite a few motivations for buying either the original or a copy of a luxury item. Those who buy the real deal may simply appreciate fine quality or craftsmanship, or they may wish to advertise their access to luxury goods and thus their status. Those who buy fakes may be attempting either to imitate the real thing and sneak into an elite club – in which case they fail miserably if detected – or to simultaneously own a version of a popular design and to satirize those willing to pay for the real thing. So yes, carrying a fake could be interpreted as either counterfeit chic or counterfeit chic. The Prestigious T’s are perhaps the sartorial equivalent of laughing and pointing a finger at someone wearing a fake.

The only similar organized effort that I’ve seen is Disney’s mail-in game, in which Chinese consumers were encouraged to buy genuine merchandise, peel off the holographic stickers, and affix them to contest entries. While that contest attempted to leverage consumer behavior, however, it did so with a prizes rather than derision. Of course, the press has also been known to “catch” individuals like Finnish Minister of Culture Tanja Karpela, an anti-counterfeiting crusader, wearing fakes.

Q. The other striking thing about these shirts is that they’re sort of a grass-roots response to counterfeiting, and completely in the context of consumer behavior. That is, it’s not BAPE or Nike/Jordan taking action, it’s people much closer to the consumer base (even though they are producers themselves — but it’s clearly not their productions that are being rocked in fake form). The Freshness post even includes information on how to report fakes to Nike. Can it work? Could it work in the luxe context? Should Burberry do a co-branded T with Prestigious? (Just kidding — but you know what I mean.) Is peer pressure more effective than legislation?

A: Humans are social creatures, so peer pressure directed towards consumers definitely strikes me as more effective than legal threats against producers. And if the market for fakes dries up, their manufacturers will simply move on.

As you’ve noted, social norms against buying fakes already operate in some circles. These T’s are (just a bit!) less subtle – and more down to earth. There’s a wonderful symmetry to indie brands seeking independent (as opposed to expensive legal) means of defending their territory; the same creativity that turns individuals into brands can be commodified in defense of favorite brands.

For luxe brands, direct appeals run the risk of appearing self-serving or moralistic rather than genuine. Consumers of counterfeits are likely to perceive (and perhaps resent) luxury companies as large, establishment entities, not as social equals who can influence norms. In addition, T-shirt slogans are not the native language of elite labels; the Queen doesn’t speak cockney and wouldn’t be persuasive if she tried. However, a little bit of P2P stealth anti-marketing (or should I say “murketing”?) could go a long way towards keepin’ it real.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments


Today,Tuesday, April 26, a group of undergraduates did this to Yale’s cross-campus, the busy sidewalk in front of the main library. They painted the whole area with a bright Yale blue and white Louis Vuitton® signature print–easily the most pretentious thing I’d seen yet here at Yale. My first thought was that this was trademark dilution in advertising for some unrelated event. I expected this article to be about Vuitton’s fiercely policed trademark. But it turns out this was just a tasteless advertisement, guerilla trademark enhancement if you will. (continued…)
I talked to five of the students (out of about a dozen I saw), so what follows is an only slightly stylized combination of their answers.

The students were wearing quite well-made white T-shirts with the four Vuitton icons on the back and the ‘LV’ logo on the front with the caption “Save Louis.” Some were also wearing ribbons in brown. Interestingly, the “Save Louis” slogan had no intellectual property markings. I asked if this was really a campaign to save the European luxury brand.

Me: (sounding concerned) Is it really going under?
Two Students: (laughing smugly) No No. Of course not.
Me: So you’re getting paid?
Student 1: Not really.
Student 2: No, this is a creative campaign across the country at all kinds of schools to raise awareness.

Raise awareness? What a great buzzword for guerilla advertising. These students were raising awareness of a brand that has continually skyrocketing profits, and for free! Brilliant plan, Louis; I have to give you that. The Yale group’s creative plan was to have Vuitton manufacture (quite nice) custom stencils so they could paint the most prominent public area at this non-profit institution with the Louis Vuitton® print.

Me: Why are y’all painting this?
Student 3: We’re raising awareness of this issue. (I assume by issue, this student meant trademark or brand.)
Me: (skeptically) So this is an ad?
Student 3: Well, I guess you could think of it as that.
Me: (nicely) So Yale approved it?
Student 3: It’s just chalk.

Wrong answer. A billboard made of chalk is still a billboard. I guess the folks at Vuitton think you can write anything you want, wherever you want, as long as it is chalk. They must have missed Part K of the Student Organization Regulations.

No undergraduate may undertake to represent any commercial interest or to operate any business on the campus without securing prior permission from the dean of Student Affairs.
At writing this, I hadn’t gotten a response from the dean, but I sincerely doubt she approved advertising of this scale. (Update 4/26: Dean Trachtenburg in fact did not authorize this display). Most chalkings in this area, and they are frequent, involve a bucket of half-used sidewalk chalk and announce some event, like a poetry reading, movie showing, protest, rally, lecture, etc. The Vuitton chalking process involved two buckets, and at least three spray-on substances for each stencil.

This was a professional advertising operation that didn’t even benefit the school in the way other advertising, for example sponsorship in school papers, does. I fear the kind of advertising it may herald. Yale has plenty more spaces to chalk, tons more sidewalk and even brick, and plenty of students to do it. Why not chalk the whole school? When it rains, just go out the next day with your Pepsi® stencil again. Maybe this time you can get the space Coke® got last time.

Update (4/27, 2:30 PM): It has been raining for hours. It seems all of New Haven is a giant puddle except this ad, standing strong albeit a bit blurred. Whatever this is, it is not just chalk.

Update (4/28): This lovely piece of spin was forwarded to me today. You too can get a quality response by e-mailing the organizers at

The Save Louis Vuitton project on Cross Campus was a successfull attempt to demonstrate our support for Louis Vuitton and spread awareness. Louis Vuitton, one of the world’s leading luxury brands, has only opened 23 new stores and increased net profits by 50% in the last year. We hope you will join in support of Louis Vuitton and that you enjoyed the project.

Update (4/29): Even two days of rain couldn’t destroy this ad (more here and here).

Update (5/5): Eight days and three days of rain and the ad is still going strong.

Written By SALLY B on August 14th, 2006 @ 1:21 pm

This is a little confusing, Sally B., but looking into it — and particularly in reading the bit at the end there —

“The Save Louis Vuitton project on Cross Campus was a successfull attempt to demonstrate our support for Louis Vuitton and spread awareness. Louis Vuitton, one of the world’s leading luxury brands, has only opened 23 new stores and increased net profits by 50% in the last year. We hope you will join in support of Louis Vuitton and that you enjoyed the project”

— I think it’s safe to say that this most likely a satiric/ironic project, or, somewhat less likely, an LV marketing stunt. I don’t think it’s remotely possible that this was a heartfelt grassroots effort.

Written By murketing on August 15th, 2006 @ 8:06 am

Sally B., a similar prank and/or bit of performance art re: LV occurred when I was back at the Yale Law School teaching during the Spring 2005 semester. My students pointed it out to me, since we had discussed trademark counterfeiting as part of our International Intellectual and Cultural Property course, and I walked around a bit to see the remnants of the display (which wasn’t quite so permanent last year). The universal opinion among the members of my class (including one student who implied insider knowledge of the stunt) was that it was an elaborate joke and a comment on consumer culture by decidedly left-leaning members of the student body. Clever and possibly sincere — but not in defense of the luxury brand.

Written By Susan Scafidi on August 15th, 2006 @ 7:26 pm

I have a comment regarding “bringing counterfeits back into the U.S. is prohibited.” I was under the impression that travelers entering the U.S. were allowed to bring back one counterfeit item of each type of good every 30 days (so one counterfeit purse and one counterfeit wallet is okay but two purses is not.)

See the custom’s website for details (

Am I wrong?

Written By Nicola Searle on August 16th, 2006 @ 10:38 am

Yes, Nicola, there is a personal use exception for counterfeits (though not for other illegal merchandise – better skip those Cuban cigars). However, there are several reasons why I never suggest that people rely on it:

1. I have heard anecdotal evidence that some customs officials will impound even a single counterfeit item – sometimes waking attorneys for the brand in the middle of the night to confirm that the item is a fake and should be seized. While a sufficiently irate traveler may be able to bring a legal action for an item’s return, the cost of doing so might very well exceed the cost of buying the genuine article.

2. U.S. government advice to travelers generally doesn’t include reference to the personal use exception, but instead simply states that only authentic articles can be carried into the U.S. – see e.g. This doesn’t mean that the exception doesn’t exist, but it’s certainly being downplayed.

3. The international trend is to tighten loopholes that facilitate movement of counterfeits, and the European Commission has already noted the personal use exception (which varies from country to country) as a possible action item – see Since the U.S. has been working with trading partners to stem the flow of counterfeits, the future of the exception is unclear.

Given these facts, as well as reports that many travelers who buy fakes overseas do so in multiples as gifts, I’d rather that my jetlagged fellow travelers be safe than sorry.

Written By Susan Scafidi on August 16th, 2006 @ 7:02 pm
Next Post:
Previous Post: