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Bootlegs and Knock-Offs: A Visual Exploration of a Necessary Evil

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Bootlegs and knock-offs have been a hallmark element of the clothing industry since localized trends began permeating the globe. With an initial upswell in the ’70s coinciding with the popularity surrounding designer jeans, companies and factories from around the world began producing bootleg products at breakneck speed.

Scroll down below to view our visual exploration of the cornerstone products that founded the bootleg and knock-off movement.

With waves of fake products flooding the market throughout much of the late-70s, the phenomenon continued to grow, reaching its peak in the ‘80s and ‘90s as fashion and the culture of “newness” became global. And as the knock-off product offer began to diversify, so did the audience consuming it. What began as groups of unfortunates who simply didn’t know better, soon grew into masses of devotees who purposefully sought out such fakes.

While there remain countless consumers who are scammed for the simple fact that they do not know the products they are buying, the growing consensus who purposefully finds such fakes is aware that the source product is probably of a similar quality. In a world where the quality of luxury brands continues to diminish and turn into a run-of-the-mill good, many see bootleg products as a means of keeping up appearances without breaking the bank.

Another exciting aspect of bootleg and knockoff culture that is less known and less talked about is its ability to move fashion forward. As consumers have the luxury of seeing a brand from a third-party perspective, they are able to envision new forms for them that are often more sociologically and psychologically aligned.

This is the case of Dapper Dan, the legendary Harlem designer who started his small boutique in 1982, creating high-quality knockoffs using monogram fabrics from high fashion brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. He adapted these fabrics to new designs, creating products that people were looking for, but that the brands didn’t produce; it was a sort of democratization of high fashion, which at the time was mostly looking at what the white-middle-high class wanted to buy.

Dapper Dan, with his boutique in Harlem, changed this, creating new clothes that, in the decades after, have been used as references for many designers, and, most of all, pushed the idea that the famed monogram wasn’t only meant for bags and accessories. Visionaries such as Dapper Dan opened the eyes of high-fashion brands to the commercial potential of new consumers.

Nike and its famed Air Force 1 were the focus of a similar interception in the early-2000s. At a time when the sneaker game was exploding, and consumers would tirelessly search for new designs and colorways, the perfect storm was created. In every big city across the United States and across early internet forums, customizers and bootleg factories started selling highly unique Air Force 1 sneakers, with the most iconic being their application of the famous monogram to its upper.

We have come to find that this trend received two types of feedback. On one hand, people saw this period as a bad patch for sneaker culture, whereas on the other hand — as is the case with innovators such as Dapper Dan — this movement was seen as the ultimate democratization of high fashion; the people had taken matters into their own hands and were no longer dependent on the output of brands.

The bootleg movement’s far-reaching influence was recently underscored in Louis Vuitton’s latest menswear show in Paris, where artistic director Virgil Abloh debuted an upcoming collaboration with Nike. This move celebrated the legacy of sneaker customization, with the show notes reading, “A cultural symbol in its own right, today the Nike Air Force 1 serves as an objet d’art emblematic of self-generated subcultural provenance. For Spring-Summer 2022, Virgil Abloh collaborates with Nike on bespoke Air Force 1s, fusing the trainer’s classic codes with the insignia and materials of Louis Vuitton in homage to the hip-hop culture that shaped him.”

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