A Deep Dive Into Fashion’s Obsession With Fakes

As today’s social-political climate becomes more and more surreal, fashion is embracing the idea of copies and knockoffs in a new way.

A collage of different fashion trends and fakes
Collage by Ashley Peña

In 2022, fakeness seems to be fashion’s new reality. Take, for instance, Loewe’s spring 2023 collection, for which creative director Jonathan Anderson looked to artificiality as a source of inspiration. Surreal, sci-fi elements were tacked onto dresses, shoes, and bags. The designer put features of nature and everyday ephemera on full display—like fiberglass anthurium flowers magnified and stuck onto frocks; or blown up, pixelated t-shirts. Models at Puppets and Puppets carried bags affixed with bananas, cookies, and other fake foods that looked hyperreal—and straight off a dinner plate. After what feels like a lifetime of Hermès hauls, luxury “It” bag obsessions, and Old Money content on TikTok, trends have recently skewed in the opposite direction: editors, stylists, and influencers have taken to toting around grocery bags printed with splashy Birkins in different hues, made by the emerging brand XYLK. (The label calls it a “not a fake Birkin, but a real grocery bag.”) Who could forget the subreddit where the wealthy go to scoop up the best fake Birkin bags money can buy? Credit all this to the meme-ification of fashion—or an increasing penchant for all things ironic—but as the social-political climate becomes more and more surreal, fashion is embracing fakeness in a new way. Today, the ironic fake, as well as the subversive idea of fakeness, plays with concepts of luxury, class, and the way we consume fashion.

Of course, fashion and fakes go way back. “Faking has been done for millennia,” says the historian Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The most obvious connotation that comes to mind is the idea of knockoffs, which made their way into the American consumer market as early as the onset of the 1900s, when American designers would go to Paris with the specific intent of copying the fashion there and bringing it back. Clothing didn’t even bear labels until the mid 1800s, when designers used them as a way to define authenticity. (Couturier Charles Frederick Worth is credited as being the first designer to start signing his name to his clothing during the 1860s.) Naturally, this shift encouraged the proliferation of knockoffs. Around 1913, the French couturier Paul Poiret discovered illegal copies of his designs—down to the label—selling for a fraction of the price in the U.S.

Looks from Loewe’s spring 2023 collection.

Photo by Giovanni Giannoni/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images
Photo by Giovanni Giannoni/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images
Photo by Giovanni Giannoni/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images
Photo by Giovanni Giannoni/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

But part of what makes fashion’s love affair with fakes so interesting is how the perception of copies has shifted so broadly. In fact, it wasn’t always the case that fakes were thought of as a bad thing—and at this very moment, it appears fashion is coming back around to this concept. “In the U.S., for much of the 20th century, copying was not seen as a crime or as something bad, but actually as a selling point,” explains the fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox. “Many department stores with in-house lines, or big retail designers, advertised their goods as ‘copies of Paris designs’ or as ‘like the dress seen in Hollywood.’ Many knockoffs were marketed as a way to democratize fashion and style for the masses; the aversion from fakes was always there among those who tried to maintain class and racial hierarchies.”

Chanel and Dior, for example, would sell a license to an American manufacturer to make a cheaper copy—even distributing the exact fabric and buttons beginning in the 1940s, after the second world war. “They’d advertise it in the window: Chanel couture, $400, and the copy, $40,” adds Steel. As such, buying a dress with a designer label became a status symbol in itself. The concept of logo and distinguishing fake from real didn’t exist for the average fashion consumer. “However, that changed with the rise of hip-hop style and the fact that flaunting the logos became a way to show your status symbol,” adds Rabinovitch-Fox.

This time around, fashion’s obsession with fakes is more a celebration and reinvention of it all—and the idea of artificiality as subversive, rather than simply putting out blatant copies.

A cookie bag from Puppets and Puppets.

Photo by Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

For obvious reasons, fashion’s recent obsession with subversive fakery is intrinsic: “Fashion has itself often been described as artificial compared with other natural things,” says Steele. “The deliberate attraction to artificiality in fashion is a very sophisticated way of looking at fashion objects. Whereas deliberate copies are just a phenomenon of economics.”

Another reason for the new generation of celebrating all things fake? We’re currently at a unique time period of lashing out against fast fashion. In 2022, publicly announcing that you shop at Shein means your moral compass is off—but the brand was still named the most popular label in the world this year. For the average consumer, shopping isn’t a moral activity. Still, many people’s perceptions have shifted about fast fashion, due to questions of sustainability, human rights, and labor issues.

Fashion is, in a way, mocking itself by making copies—either of luxury goods or everyday objects—and embracing them. One only has to look at the 2021 Gucci x Balenciaga Hacker project, which is all about “exploring ideas of authenticity and appropriation,” to see it. The collection mashed up Gucci and Balenciaga’s heritage logos and signatures together—as well as covering bags in hand-done spray paint proclaiming “This is not a Gucci bag,” to resemble the kind of slightly off-kilter item you’d find in the depths of Manhattan’s Canal Street. Historically, 2022 is primed for this kind of role reversal of fake submission, so deeply steeped in irony. “Irony has become a major factor in fashion from about the 1980s,” says Steele. “People like to play with that because it’s a way of seeming smarter than the average Joe. It’s like, I know this is out of fashion, but I am so fashionable, by virtue of my wearing it, it becomes fashionable.”

A Paris Fashion Week attendee wears a bag with the slogan “You fake like this Kelly,” outside the spring 2023 Chanel show in France.

Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Much of this new fakeness also plays into the Y2K aesthetic that’s still going strong. In the early 2000s, sales of fake designer bags were at an all-time high, and the industry swept in with a major crackdown—associating knockoffs with being tied to illegal labor and criminal activities. “In the early 2000s, designers embraced the fake because it helped them in pumping their market value and increasing profits,” says Rabinovitch-Fox. “But that is also the problem about the democratization of brands—if everybody can have them, even if it is the fake version, they are no longer exclusive and luxurious.”

As we enter what economists predict to be a massive recession, it’s an interesting time to look at fakes and artificiality as a concept in fashion. Maybe it’s because we’re all looking for the next big thing to shock, or perhaps the rise of fakeness has everything to do with our chronically online culture: Staring at screens all day, only showing the best of the best, much of it filtered. Rethinking the concept of the obvious fake in fashion feels oddly and authentically refreshing.