In Fashion, Bootlegging Is No Longer Something to Hide, but to Flout
Brands from Fendi to Supreme are making it cool to look like your clothing is fake.
The Virgil Abloh rug that quotes Four Pins.
In the past few seasons, the rigid world of high-end fashion has been infiltrated by a new generation of latchkey creatives who have managed to build impressive portfolios by less-than-traditional means—all while altering how consumers perceive original ideas and reworked concepts. Fashion is an industry largely defined by antiquated prerequisites and obligatory CV must-haves, but invitations (formal and otherwise) have recently been extended to an emerging wave of boundaryless self-taught designers who now seem to hold more power than ever before.
At the forefront of this wave is Virgil Abloh, the celebrity creative director who levelled up to buzzy fashion designer. Abloh, despite having no formal fashion education and a reputation for “recontextualizing” existing ideas, was recently named the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, one of the most powerful and status-signifying European houses in the business. James Jebbia, the founder of Supreme (a brand that is so well-known for referencing the archives of other labels that it spawned the Instagram-account-turned-coffee-table-book entitled “Supreme Copies”), is nominated for the coveted CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year award. There is also Ava Nirui, a young fashion siren for the Instagram generation, who built a digital résumé of one-off bootlegs and luxury logo flips that eventually landed her a job at the legendary Helmut Lang. And there’s Mike Cherman, the former Nike employee whose most recent endeavor is Chinatown Market, a streetwear brand that mostly offers bootleg-inspired merch and has become a favorite of rich-dude-turned-style-icon Scott Disick as well as won the approval of esteemed retailers like Colette (RIP) and Extra Butter. Even Fendi, the Italian luxury house led by Karl Lagerfeld, appropriated the logo from the South Korean sporting goods company Fila in their fall-winter 2018 womenswear collection, with help from Instagram graphic artist @Hey_Reilly. These designers are vastly different in terms of style, scope, and scale, but all represent a major shift in bootleg design as fashion and how atypical talent can rise the ranks of contemporary fashion.
Today’s designers are living in the era of the super-influencer and working in the gig economy, where an active social media account and a jack-of-all-trades mentality can help generate more income. As a result, there has been a boom of creative types who have honed their craft in unconventional ways, extending themselves across industries and weaving in and out of disciplines to build their book and pay the rent.
There is perhaps no better modern avatar for this concept of simultaneously doing-and-learning than Abloh himself. Back in 2013, when he was an unknown creative working behind the scenes for Kanye West, his then-recently launched Pyrex Vision label found itself in hot water. Abloh was selling $550 screenprinted flannels under the guise of high-end streetwear when an eagle-eyed Tumblr user spotted that garments appeared to make use of a basic $36 Ralph Lauren Rugby as its blank. A zoom on the e-commerce photos even revealed a haphazard Photoshop job that still showed remnants of an old Rugby tag on the flannels. The cult menswear blog Four Pins wrote, “It's highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, at retail no less, slapped ‘PYREX 23’ on the back and re-sold them for an astonishing markup of about 700%.” It sparked a plethora of online chatter about transparency and ethics in the streetwear community. (Abloh later printed the exact quote on a rug produced by the graffiti artist Jim Joe that sat on the floor of an Off-White fashion show in 2016.) The peak blog-era uproar wasn’t so much that Abloh has done this, but that he had tried so hard to cover his tracks.
“If something inspires you, wear it like a badge of honor rather than hiding your sources and pretending you're a fucking maverick,” Richard Turley, the acclaimed creative director known for bringing his Midas touch to print magazines and creative agencies, told me in a recent interview. “I find it far more interesting in this day and age to be honest to the fact that anyone involved in any creative practice is knitting together other people’s ideas [and] influences to create their own outcomes.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—this nagging feeling that those who entered the industry through a side door, as it were, don’t possess the talent or work ethic of their peers who rose through the ranks more conventionally, flouting the design practice of recontextualization has now become almost trendy. On Cherman’s Instagram, for example, there are videos of him and his friends using a handheld jet printer to apply various logos and sayings on T-shirts and sneakers, showing very little self-seriousness. Nirui’s job at Helmut Lang hasn’t stopped her from posting her off-kilter brand-mixing projects (although there is definitely more Lang product up in the mix.) Young creatives like Cherman and Nirui are prototyping and experimenting in plain sight, a rarity in most industries, especially fashion. Sure, they’re pulling from existing ideas and entities, but that doesn’t make their work inherently less interesting than others.
“The idea of the artist as auteur, the virtuoso, is so rarely applicable and yet so needfully desired,” explained Turley. “I prefer the view that we’re a bunch of murderous thieves, eating our own, with whatever tools we have at our disposal.”
These self-taught designers now yield huge cultural influence, a trait that holds plenty of weight in an image-driven industry. Art and ego aside, fashion is still all about what sells—and these days clothing that feels slightly illicit seems to be flying off the racks. The most electrifying fashion collaboration in recent times was last year’s Louis Vuitton and Supreme collection, a sanctioned version of a decades-old bootleg that landed the then-still-young streetwear brand a cease and desist from LV’s corporate lawyers. There is also the endless stream of bootleg-esque winks from Demna Gvasalia and Vetements, or the fact that Gucci sent “Fake Gucci” T-shirts (an idea based on the infamous Canal Street knockoffs) down the runway last year.
It started with sneakers and screen prints, but an era of uproarious end-to-end fashion is upon us. It’s difficult to surmise if people love what’s happening because it feels a little dangerous, or if they like the DIY spirit it represents, or because it just looks and feels youthful in a way that high-end fashion traditionally doesn’t. But whatever that reason may be, fashion at large seems to be drawn to these bootleggers, remixers, and outsider designers like moths to the flame.