My first (and last) encounter with counterfeit clothing was eight years ago. Our family friends from America came to stay with us in the Philippines and asked if we could bring them to the elusive Greenhills Shopping Center, one of the many places within our vicinity that sells knock-offs at slashed prices. Initially, this sounded like a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon—so you can only imagine my horror when I spent hours wading through crowds of eager patrons, all bargaining with vendors in loud, high-pitched voices.
At the end of this excursion, our visitors managed to walk away with smiles on their faces and several fake designer pieces in tow. Sadly, their satisfaction waned over the next few weeks, rendering all our efforts useless. The items they’d purchased gradually deteriorated: the handbags faded into varying unrecognizable shades, shoes fell apart after a single use, and all digital watches froze like a scene straight out of a sci-fi film. Before they could even board their plane back home, most of what they’d bought turned into mere artifacts of a fruitless quest.
I wouldn’t say I was surprised by what happened, considering the pieces were sold at such low prices; it wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect bootlegs to be exact replicas of their original counterparts. So one can only wonder why bargain hunters continue to buy these goods religiously and turn places like Greenhills into tourist hotspots come peak season.
It’s true that luxury items are in demand because of their quality and scarcity: it’s simple economics. But it can’t be denied that consumer perception also influences appeal. Wearing designer brands is a reflection of the owner’s social standing and wealth. We pay for the jealous stares people give us as we pass by and the feeling of superiority that courses through us afterward. But since a Louis Vuitton handbag costs more than the average factory worker’s monthly salary, not everyone can get a hold of these items, and the prestige and power that come with it. So others knowingly settle for counterfeits that pass as the real deal to the untrained eye.
In reality, what seems like a harmless way to keep up with the Joneses has cost the fashion industry nearly 400,000 job losses and a whopping 6 billion U.S. dollars in revenue over the past two decades. Copycats sell their goods for far cheaper and drive customers away from the original brands who are unable to compete with these prices. Buyers might also be unaware that they’re purchasing a dupe, so when the product falls apart like it’s bound to do, the authentic company is left to deal with angry and disappointed customers and rebuild its reputation. As word gets around, more time and money is spent filing lawsuits and restoring partnerships, but to no avail.
This is supposed to be common knowledge, and yet we buyers find it so easy to blind ourselves from these ethical and moral dilemmas. Our cognitive biases are quick to enter the picture once presented with data that goes against what we believe. I’ve heard my fair share of people say that buying fakes is so normalized that there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Some even think that counterfeiting serves as an effective promotional strategy (I’m just as confused as you are), while others simply avoid the topic altogether.
Though this kind of behavior may reek of desperation on paper, it is, at its core, an extreme method of satisfying our most basic human needs. Even Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs places belonging and esteem in the same pyramid as food, water, air, and sleep. It’s normal to long for reassurance that we’re important, respectable, and desirable. When feigning confidence doesn’t seem to do the trick, we stop at nothing to seek validation from external sources. But buying bootlegs isn’t justifiable in any way, nor is it a sustainable source of fulfillment.
Researchers at Yale University have determined that we develop a quest for authenticity early on in life. In one study, they tried to convince children that a machine had perfectly cloned their favorite toy. Despite both items being completely identical, most of the participants demanded that the original be brought to them. We humans are programmed with a sentimentality chip of sorts: we yearn for the memory or feeling associated with purchasing a genuine item. It is this very need for personal gratification that explains why we can succeed in fooling everyone but ourselves.
I guess this is also the reason why I’ve never been a fan of buying imitation products. From a young age, I’ve learned and accepted that I must live within my own means—that there are things my budget simply can’t afford. And that’s okay. Even as I entered an elite university and found myself rubbing elbows with the top 1%, I never bought anything to gain anybody’s approval. When we detach our material possessions from our self-worth, I find that we are more equipped to assess the motivations and implications of our actions. It’s only then that we realize that while counterfeits may bring us temporary satisfaction, they’re never worth the permanent damage on the industry.
Besides, there’s always the option to upcycle clothing, shop secondhand, or simply mix and match existing outfits in one’s closet to create a brand-new ensemble. Maybe we can even do style swaps with people in our friend groups. Those are just a few examples of cheaper, better, and exponentially more enjoyable ways to style ourselves. Many more are available, and we are free to experiment with every single one! After all, fashion is supposed to be fun; it was never meant to fill any void within us.
By Angel Martinez
Illustration by Hannah Kang