Under fire for the prevalence of counterfeit goods available through his company’s platforms, e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Executive Chairman and co-founder Jack Ma explained that policing is a greater challenge now that the fakes are often of better quality than the authorized goods. “The problem,” said Ma, “is that the fake products today, they make better quality, better prices than the real names. The exact factories, the exact same materials, but they do not use their names.”
Like a blind taste test pitting fine wine against jugged swill, this condition threatens our notions of quality and authenticity, forcing recognition of the extent to which “copying” permeates our culture. That prevalence sparked artist and critic Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, a book that ranges from Buddhism to Baudrillard and Heidegger to hip hop in search of answers to a seemingly simple question: what is a copy? In the excerpt below, Boon circles the knock-off luxury that now plagues Jack Ma.
Brooklyn, New York, April 2008. A row of street stalls in front of graffiti-covered iron gates. Tables full of merchandise: Louis Vuitton handbags and wallets, with their familiar “LV” monograms; brown and beige; white with multicolor fruit-like designs. You can find them for sale on Canal Street in New York, in the night markets of Hong Kong and Singapore or the covered market in Mexico City, and in many other places around the world where the urban poor go to shop—“LV” articles piled up alongside the Patek Philippe watches, Chanel perfume, North Face jackets, and Adidas shoes. Copies, fakes, counterfeits; cheap, poorly made reproductions…or are they? For you are not in a night market, or on the street. You are standing inside the Brooklyn Museum, surrounded by cameras and elegantly dressed men and women; Kanye West is performing in another room in the building. This is the opening night for Copyright Murakami, a retrospective devoted to the work of Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami, including his celebrated collaborations with Louis Vuitton, such as the multicolor monogram handbag you just saw. And the bags in the street stalls are the real thing, made by Louis Vuitton, for sale at high prices. According to spokesmen for the company, the fake street stalls selling fake fakes are intended to draw attention to the phenomenon of counterfeiting, the production of illegal copies of Louis Vuitton’s products.
Vuitton handbags have been called the most copied objects in the world. This statement, part of the folklore of contemporary global consumer culture, seems immediately open to question. Louis Vuitton, after all, is a manufacturer of luxury goods which are defined, even in this age of global branding, by their scarcity. Internet folklore has it that only 1 percent of Louis Vuitton bags are actually made by the company. The copies, then, would be the 99 percent made by others. The selling of such mass-produced copies—which in its current form can be dated back to the 1970s, when Vuitton bags began to be made en masse in various East Asian locations—is not a new thing. In fact, Vuitton’s famous “LV” monogram was developed in 1896 by Louis Vuitton’s son Georges, as a trademark that would authenticate the family firm’s products, in response to the alleged copying of Vuitton Senior’s checkered-cloth design. Although Georges designed the monogram to distinguish his company’s products, today it is the distinctive “LV” logo that makes the bags so easy to copy.