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Bootleg fashion is forging ahead this year, in unexpected ways


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“We could go get more. I got the guy’s card. He lives somewhere called ‘the Valley.’” Sex and the City fans will remember the scene well. The moment when Samantha proudly shows off her knockoff Fendi bag over brunch. It’s been 20 years since that episode aired, and today you cannot escape the very real presence of fake luxury goods. Instagram is awash with replicas… Gucci belts, Birkin bags, Louis Vuitton luggage. For Gucci’s spring/summer 2017 show, Alessandro Michele even mocked the repeated imitation of the brand so much that bags were emblazoned with the words “Guccy” on them. Though, there is more to bootleg culture than just mass-produced copies. Today, creative ‘brandalists’ are disrupting the status quo and harnessing the power of appropriating symbols as a creative language and tool for political expression.

citizens of nowhere 

A new exhibition at the Fashion Space Gallery, The Real Thing, explores how branding has permeated all spheres of our lives, down to our feelings and memories. “Fashion bootleg was really my first experience of fashion,” the exhibition’s curator Anastasiia Fedorova tells us. “Growing up in the mid-late 90s in Russia, it was just flooded with fake fashion. Branding didn’t really exist there before that, then suddenly it was everywhere. You don’t understand it’s not real, because for you it’s the only thing you know. I was speaking to a fashion designer friend recently who grew up between Bosnia and Austria and he said the same thing: only a bunch of years later realising ‘Oh, that’s what Chanel is!’”

What - if any - is the difference between ‘counterfeit’ versus ‘bootleg’? “Counterfeit [fashion] is more about commercial, exact, unlicensed copy,” Anastasiia adds. “Whereas a bootleg, usually, is not so much about making an exact copy. Often it uses the elements of something to create something new. Using similar designs but then manipulating them to send a different message.”


Take JJ Hudson (aka Dr Noki) - the “OG brandalist”, bootleg pioneer and textile artist who works with discarded or second-hand clothes, takes them apart and deconstructs the branding, to make an entirely new outfit. On one level it’s quite anti-fashion, on another it also encourages a DIY mentality. “I want people to see that it’s time to focus on sustainability properly,” he says.

Upcycling - or ‘trashion’ - is a key element of Ancuta Sarca’s work, too. A new addition on the Fashion East line-up at London Fashion Week, the Romanian-born designer splices together old Nike trainers and vintage heels to produce fabulously fun footwear. “The idea behind the shoes was reusing my old pairs which I didn’t wear anymore instead of discarding them,” Sarca explains. “I had a lots of Nike trainers and kitten heels, some of them broken so I couldn’t donate them, and I really wanted to ‘rebrand’ them and create something totally different. I liked the idea of recontextualising the Nike logo by placing it on a totally different style of shoes.”

Ancuta Sarca

Logos are the modern-day unifying icon, according to Emma Louise Rixhon, whose Citzens of Nowhere 'Gucci' tees are created by hand-painting logos onto silkscreens, tie-dying with vegetables and embroidered using glass beads and freshwater pearls. Rixhon says: “Branding has always been a focus for me because no matter where I’ve been in the world, big sportswear and luxury logos are sold on marketplaces, in outlets, and in luxury stores. We all value the same things; whether they are handmade, or store bought. The ‘fake’ is personal.”


Also featured in The Real Thing exhibition, Berlin-based artist Anna Ehrenstein’s piece of “Burberry” cake (taken from the series Tales of Lipstick and Virtue) interrogates the concept of authenticity and the intersections of ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures. She argues the 'bootleg' isn't exactly a new phenomenon (“fashion has always been about creating new synergies from already existing material,” she says).

anna ehrenstein 

“Conspicuous consumption was always a statement of including oneself into a sphere that wanted to exclude you,” Anna adds. “There is a "zero fucks given" mentality, an exciting and nonchalant coolness involved, when people get crazy with bootleg. Especially within Western societies - folks are fascinated by the 'I am breaking the law' aesthetic.”

One of London’s most prominent logo-jackers, Sports Banger, showcased a spectacularly over-the-top homage to Tommy Hilfger at London Fashion Week for AW20. I loved it. “I want to make luxury for all,” founder Jonny Banger says, who established his shop and studio in North London in 2013. The label-cum-rave collective’s tagline in three words? I ask. “Just do it.”


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