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The rise and fall of the ironic fashion fake

A lawsuit just hit the maker of the Ain’t Laurent Without Yves t-shirt, but what do tongue-in-cheek slogans say about our relationship to fashion today?

With the news this week that Yves Saint Laurent was suing the brand behind the Tumblr-friendly Ain’t Laurent Without Yves t-shirt, the spotlight returned to a particular trend that emerged over the last couple of years: the ironic fashion fake (IFF). Swapping letters in logos and turning big brand names into nonsense, these items punked high fashion by warping its codes into uncanny new forms – think Björk’s famed ‘Enjoy Cock’ reimagined post-Instagram, and proliferated via a network of blogger re-grams. 

Where did it all begin? Back in 2012, the A$AP Mob began sporting beanies embroidered with the words Comme des Fuckdown (actually a reissued design from streetwear king Russ Karablin, originally put out a decade ago) and the hype machine went into overdrive. For ‘Fashion Killa’ rapper A$AP Rocky, who spends his time bragging about his Gucci loafers, Margiela kicks and throwing shade at Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver, it was a way to boast about his fashion knowledge but still show a sense of self-awareness about the way luxury labels tie into music culture. It’s something that goes far beyond rap’s tendency to name-drop – think ostentatious product placement, brand endorsements and red carpet best-dressed lists. “The A$AP guys understand both the high fashion thing and the street fashion thing,” said the hat’s creator Karablin, arguing that it was “a slap in the face to all the high-fashion stuff they wear. You know, like, calm the fuck down!”

The trend trickle-down effect saw a string of similar items explode: Céline became Célfie; Hermès, Homiès; Prada, Praduh; Tom Ford, Tom Bored. The IFF operated on the prestige of a brand’s name (and the associated ideas of authenticity – that a real designer item is infinitely more desirable than a fake) to create a kitschy copycat. Deliberately camp rather than naively so, these items revelled in their own artifice, and for the wearer offered a way to both demonstrate fashion knowledge and also take the piss out of it. 

“The fashion fake wasn’t about straight-up replicating items that were beyond the purchasing power of teenagers, it was about rejecting real luxury to embrace the obviously counterfeited”

As long as fashion has thrived, so has the market for copycats. Long before the suspicious-looking handbags started appearing on the corner of NYC’s Canal Street, couturier Madeleine Vionnet, so fed up with fakes of her designs, took to marking the labels with a thumbprint. But the rise of the IFF wasn’t about straight-up replicating items that were beyond the purchasing power of teenagers, it was about rejecting real luxury to embrace the obviously counterfeited. “Something not far from the surface of the public psyche is delighted to see the icons of corporate power subverted and mocked. There is, in short, a market for it.” So wrote Naomi Klein in her smash No Logo in 1999, and it’s an ethos that sums up the world’s fixation with the IFF. 

Arguably, the trend ties into an uniquely post-recession mentality and a sense of reclamation – although in economic boom periods kids would aspire to the real labels, or at least buying fakes that looked as authentic as possible, now they take pleasure in the obviously counterfeited, as if they are getting one up on the luxury labels they can’t afford. Of course, true to the spirit of global capitalism, they probably don’t think about how this act of rebellion is likely coming at the cost of sweatshop labour. The further irony lies in the way that the fakes themselves are then faked – it’s impossible to tell the actual Comme des Fuckdown beanies from the thousands of eBay replicas. 

Although the A$AP Mob has long since hung up their hats – the IFF trend now overexposed, oversaturated, and well, just over – this penchant for disturbing the power of the authentic with the ostentatiously fake has bled into culture and art on a larger scale. Look at Jeremy Scott’s IRL Barbie girls and Budweiser ballgowns at Moschino, or art collective Shanzhai Biennial’s intentionally misspelled logos inspired by the hub of China’s counterfeit consumerism (see their Head & Shouldars evening gown, The South Place maxi dress or Holisister jumper). Although the collective has moved on to new projects, the same principles are still finding new forms. “Designers like Barragan, Seth Bogart and Peggy Noland at Wacky Wacko, and Gareth Wrighton of pop-culture corner store ebaE are all about twisting the nipple of brand culture and re-appropriating its meaning to create something truly unruly,” wrote Trey Taylor of a new breed of designers exploiting logomania’s current identity crisis – just because they think it’s funny. “These days it’s all about the branding, minus the brand: the ultimate anti-status statement.”