The Real Thing: Exhibiting the Art of the Bootleg
There’s nothing like the real thing, baby – but sometimes, a good fake comes pretty close. From bazaar-bought Burberry knock-offs to anonymous AliExpressers flogging “Vetements” trainers and imitation Jacquemus, counterfeit culture is thriving, and its dedication to detail is stronger than ever.
This month, a London exhibition takes aim at the 450 billion dollar bootleg industry, examining the socio-political power of the fake. Featuring designs by Harlem’s hip-hop haberdasher Dapper Dan alongside Dr Noki’s sartorial splicing of the 1990s Shoreditch rave scene, The Real Thing uses counterfeit fashion as a framework through which to question the hierarchy of high and low culture.
“The exhibition is as much about bootleg as it is about brand obsession,” explains curator Anastasiia Fedorova, whose exposure to counterfeit fashion began in post-Soviet Russia. “When I was a teenager, mainstream culture was very much about wealth. And if a brand has no value, there’s no reason to fake it.”
Following the exhibition opening last Friday at Fashion Space Gallery, we caught up with Fedorova to talk luxury, logomania, and fashion’s ironic take on fake.
What are your first memories of fashion fakes?
Growing up in Russia in the late 90s, my first memories of fashion are counterfeit items: my mum’s “Versace” trousers (which were not even an accurate copy), “Chanel” and “Gucci” belts, fake adidas tracksuits—sold at markets next to fur coats and TVs. There was a lot of branding around, and although I didn’t quite know what the symbols meant, I could feel how excited people were about them—they represented a new dream of Western luxury and success.
Did that make you a logo-lover?
Actually the opposite! I was very anti-brand and wanted nothing to do with the way brands were used to display wealth. Monogrammed LV bags looked very ugly to me at the time. But I was also kinda an anti-establishment goth kid [laughs].
When did you start taking an interest—academic or otherwise—in bootleg as a phenomenon?
When I started working in fashion and spending time around the “real” industry and “real” designs, I started revisiting these memories and thinking how odd they were, but also how much they exposed the power of fashion branding, and its ability to change in different contexts.
Definitely. Even the approach to fakes differs—there are genuine-looking fakes, but then you’ve also got 4-stripe adidas and “Balenciago.”
Right. I think it’s important to remember that notions of “real” and ideas of ownership are different in different cultures, and so is the use of branding. Branded items sold at vast bazaars are not meant to look like authentic branded items—velvet Chanel robes and D&G tracksuits have nothing to do with designs produced by these brands. Branding becomes so separated from its origin, almost like an ornamentation, a thing of beauty like a flower embroidery. It’s not even pretending to be real, it doesn’t need to – which I find fascinating.
But there’s also often a kind of shame associated with fakes—like if you’re “found out” to be wearing one, it’s embarrassing.
Yeah, I totally get you. I think this shame is what stops us from interrogating the very motivation behind buying brands. Counterfeit is like the dark side of fashion no one wants to acknowledge or notice—and that’s another reason why I wanted to start this conversation.
When did the idea for the exhibition come about?
The first ideas were in about 2016, around the time that the cultural language of bootleg started popping up in mainstream fashion – the Vetements DHL t-shirt, the whole Gucci and Dapper Dan story. I remember around that time 032c released their “bootleg kit”—the 032c label which came with two pins—and it was a big inspiration too. I loved that it had this understanding of how we consume the symbolic power of brands today—they don’t even have to be attached to garments anymore—and how brands make us feel like we belong to a certain world or community, be it hypebeasts or rich ladies in head-to-toe LV.
Do you think the question of authenticity is one that has become increasingly important in fashion, for example with the rise of @dietprada?
I think the conversation is a very timely one, and Diet Prada has certainly had a big impact on how we talk about it. I have a problem with the whole “calling out” and “cancel culture” and its language, which creates unnecessary aggression in the creative community—I think what we need to remember when we talk about authenticity is the power balance. On one hand, fashion is a self-referential system where things constantly get recycled and remade. On the other, when large brands and corporations appropriate and copy work from independent artists, it needs to be addressed. The same thing happened with Dapper Dan and Gucci. Even though Dapper Dan was deemed a bootlegger —which he isn’t really, his artistry is the height of originality—, there is no doubt who in this situation is the real deal.
What was your curatorial approach?
The topic of bootleg and counterfeit is so vast one could curate 10 shows about it. I was very much aware of how problematic the counterfeit industry is and how it is geographically spread out. In the end, I decided to focus on artists, collectives, and works which use bootleg as an artistic language to talk about certain crucial issues. The motivation behind the work was key as well: the artists and collectives included in the show use bootleg to talk about sustainability, identity, race, queer communities, economic inequality, and so many other things. It shows how bootleg practice is universal and how it can subvert so many hierarchies, including geopolitical ones. A good example is Anna Ehrenstein’s Tales of Lipstick and Virtue, which is a visual series incorporating counterfeit goods and portraits of women in Albania. It shows how “fake” goods become part of authentic identity and culture. It also exposes how the opposition of real and fake is often used as an oppressive in the context of gender. Like, “who are you to tell us we’re fake?” Power to fake bitches.