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Supreme Italia NSS
Supreme Italiavia nssmag.com

The secret history of mafia-run bootleg fashion

Fake-inspired fashion may be all the rage, but there’s a darker side to copycat clothing

There’s nothing inauthentic about fashion’s current love affair with fakery. Maybe it’s the zenith of post-irony, but something over the past 11 months has led labels to examine the value of what’s authentic and what’s not. Under Alessandro Michele, Gucci has released its own iterations of bootleg t-shirts inspired by Chinese copies, Vetements has staged a rip-off-inspired garage sale in Seoul entitled “Official Fakes”, artists like Ava Nirui and Heron Preston have appropriated luxury motifs for their work and London streetwear label Palace has emblazoned the hyperreal ‘Placae’ Tri-Ferg logo on a tee in homage to Taiwanese counterfeits.

Little over a week ago, Italian streetwear site NSS published an exposé that very much felt like a continuation of this theme. The article detailed the rise to prominence of a brand titled Supreme Italia, also known as Supreme Barletta. The label essentially makes bootleg Supreme – t-shirts, sweatshirts and beanies all emblazoned with an oversized version of the New York label’s renowned red box logo motif. And they do so, technically, within the confines of the law, due to Supreme having not trademarked their logo within the Italy, thus creating a sort of “legal fake,” according to NSS. The same people behind Supreme Italia have also reportedly launched similar labels in the past, including Pyrex Original, which bootlegged Virgil Abloh’s Pyrex Vision.

Naturally, the story sparked intrigue within the streetwear community. This was not a nuanced logo flip – the kind that has underpinned the genre’s lingua franca since the very beginning, creating a rich heritage of subversive iconography – but rather a blatant rip-off. These were not self-aware pastiches; they were just really shitty fakes. And yet, they had seemingly gained a widespread popularity within Italian youth culture, worn by teens entirely without irony.

It is a phenomenon that could perhaps have only happened in Italy. Historically, the nation has a strange relationship with authenticity. A 2006 report by Doxa, a Milanese research company, stated that 20 per cent of Italians buy fake goods, and 86 per cent of them say they do it to save money. There is a perception in most countries a fake will be of lesser quality than the real thing. That, however, is not entirely true of Italy’s “fake” fashion and luxury goods. In the same way that Supreme Italia is, in a roundabout way, a “real fake,” many of the counterfeit handbags or dresses on offer in Italy were made by the same people who also stitched together the officially labelled real deal.

“The same hands that once worked under the table for the big labels now work for the clans… Which means that the clothes made by the clans aren’t typical counterfeit goods but rather a sort of true fake” – Roberto Saviano in Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia

In 2006, Italian journalist Roberto Saviano released his book Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia, a comprehensive exposé of the inner workings of the Neopolitan mafia crime clan the Camorra. If you haven’t read the book, there’s a good chance you may have seen the film, which was released to critical acclaim in 2008. The Camorra were, and still are to some extent, no small-time operation – their power is both great and vast, affecting various facets of Italian industry, as well as its political structures. While their multi-million euro operation drew in money from a number of different areas, the clan’s fashion exploits were integral to their financial structure. By controlling the factories in the areas surrounding Puglia and Campania – which are often little more than sweatshops, with even dimly lit stairwells being utilised as a workspace, according to Saviano – it allowed the clan to create a burgeoning bootleg empire, alongside a host of more legitimate garments.

The fakes produced by the Camorra weren’t the typical cheap imitations that are expected of bootlegged luxury fashion, wrote Saviano: “The workforce in clan operations is highly skilled, with decades of experience under Italy’s and Europe’s most important designers. The same hands that once worked under the table for the big labels now work for the clans… Which means that the clothes made by the clans aren’t typical counterfeit goods… but rather a sort of true fake. All that’s missing is the final step: the brand name, the official authorisation from the motherhouse.”

The strange phenomena was a result of a seemingly archaic process in which multiple factory owners would bid on a single job proposed by a luxury brand (with the names including some of the most famous Italian houses). The factories were then each supplied by the brand with the fabric and design required, and whoever produced the pieces with the best combination of quality, speed and price would be paid. This, however, left multiple other factories with finished garments and no one to sell them to. It is through this overproduction that saw the rise of the “real fake” in Italy, with an excess of garments that made from the identical pattern design and fabric as the real thing, but that could not officially be sold as such.

The garments that had been rejected by the luxury house were then relabelled – often as a brand that sounded somewhat similar to the original – and then sold through the Camorra’s vast retail empire, dotted across several of Europe’s major cities and the U.S. The clan had warehouses from which they would wholesale from, as well as their own stores in Madrid, Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna and Amsterdam, to name a few. Saviano claims that the luxury Italian houses were aware of this practice but turned a blind eye, knowing the cost of preventing the Camorra from selling their grey-market fakes, which, in turn, would jeopardise their access to the cheap labour on offer in the factories that surround Naples.

The Camorra’s creations were equally as popular in Italy as they were abroad, being sold at markets and retail outlets in Italy, depending on their quality. Those of lesser quality went to street market vendors, whereas the better-finished items will go to legitimate stores. It is a process that the Italian public was both aware of and, quite often, embraced according to Roger Warwick, an anti-counterfeiting expert. “The Italian customer is pretty wide awake,” he says in Tim Philip’s 2005 book Knockoff. “He or she is perfectly happy to buy a Fendi bag or a Rolex watch, knowing that it’s a fake. There is no stigma. Italians say, ‘It’s commerce.’”

To what extent these practices continue under the Camorra today are unclear. Since Saviano’s book, there has been a concerted effort by authorities to clamp down on the country’s counterfeit goods industry which has allowed crime syndicates to finance themselves. Last year, authorities shut down 410 Italian websites selling fake luxury goods, including bootleg Prada handbags and Patek Philippe watches, with raids in eleven cities. It is a problem that the country is seemingly trying to get to grips with in recent years, in order to protect an industry that, legally, brings in 60 billion dollars of revenue to Italy each year.

In the case of Supreme Italia, action has seemingly been swift. Although it is not clear who precipitated it, their Facebook has since been deleted and a visit to the brand’s website will see their original homepage momentarily appear, before instantly diverting you to another site – supremenewyork.com.