In Praise of Copying

by Marcus Boon

11 October 2010

Vuitton is a mass-producer of luxury, artisanal, unique individual bags, faking the faking of its own products at an art exhibition, while zealously pursuing the prosecution of the actual fakers through police action and courts of law around the world.

Excerpted from Excerpted from Chapter 1: ‘What Is a Copy?’ (footnotes omitted) from In Praise of Copying by Marcus Boon. Copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1/ What Is a Copy?

and you know that Vuitton trunks have been called “the trunks that last a life-time.”
not only IS French but it LOOKS French, not only IS the finest but APPEARS to be the finest.
—Advertisement in Town and Country, May 15, 1922, quoted in Paul-Gérard Pasols, Louis Vuitton: La Naissance du luxe moderne (2005)

cover art

In Praise of Copying

Marcus Boon

(Harvard University Press)
US: Oct 2010

Louis Vuitton
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.

The market for such copies has developed in surprising ways. Today in Taiwan, we are told that there are five grades of copy, ranging from the highest—which are handmade, almost indistinguishable from the bags made by Vuitton, and costing thousands of dollars—to the cheap plastic fakes available in night markets in cities. Some of these bags, which are sold complete with certificates of authenticity, fake receipts, and logo-stamped wrappings, have been “returned” to stores which sell the real items but which did not detect the replicas. On the other hand, famous movie stars have been spotted carrying Vuitton bags which include designs that are not actually made by the company. Furthermore, because of the difficulty in actually purchasing some of the limited-edition bags made by Vuitton and other companies such as Hermès, with its famous “Birkin” bag, it has become fashionable to celebrate rather than hide the fact that a bag is a copy, and the vogue for certain copies has resulted in their prices exceeding those of the originals that they supposedly imitate. Online, one can find images of Vuitton bags which bear the word “FAKE” in bold letters on the side of the bags.

The fragility of the trademark as an identifier of authenticity is illustrated by the fact that in China destruction of copies is often prohibitively expensive, and so labels from counterfeits are merely removed and the now-generic items sold in the marketplace again. Conversely, in order to circumvent the law on illegal vending of counterfeits in Counterfeit Alley in New York, fakes are often sold as “blanks” in one location, with logos and other trademarks being added at a second location later. The instability of the word “copy” in this situation is also illustrated by the fact that factories that produce “originals” under outsourcing contracts from international businesses may also produce the same goods illegally on the “ghost shift” at night, which are then sold as fakes or counterfeits.

The ironies on the Vuitton side mount, too. The “LV” monogram was designed four years after Louis Vuitton’s death. The firm remained a family business for many years, but became a publicly traded company in 1984; the family lost control of the business in 1990, after a hostile takeover bid by Bernard Arnault that resulted in the formation of the “French” luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH). This shift was magnified by the hiring in 1997 of New York–based fashion designer Marc Jacobs as the brand’s artistic director and the hiring of global talent such as Murakami to develop product designs for the company. Although the company still makes luxury hand-crafted goods, it currently has 390 stores around the world. Unlike many other luxury businesses, Vuitton has resisted the urge to outsource production of its goods, maintaining fifteen factories in France; but the company also recently opened factories in Spain and the United States, and began a joint factory venture in Pondicherry in India. So Vuitton is a mass-producer of luxury, artisanal, unique individual bags, faking the faking of its own products at an art exhibition, while zealously pursuing the prosecution of the actual fakers through police action and courts of law around the world.

The not-by-chance meeting of Murakami and Vuitton in an art museum in Brooklyn embodies many of the contradictions involved in thinking about copies. Murakami is one of the most famous visual artists working today, exhibiting his paintings, the pinnacle of individualistic self-expression, in art museums, the most prestigious archives of the unique and original object. In the 2008 Brooklyn show, there was a Louis Vuitton boutique where the visitor could purchase some of the handbags Murakami designed in collaboration with Vuitton. A number of the paintings in the exhibition featured Vuitton’s logo incorporated into their complex “superflat” surfaces. At the entrance to the Copyright Murakami show, visitors were greeted by the statement: “The concept of copyright holds an exalted position within Murakami’s practice, rooted in the acknowledgment of his work as simultaneously interweaving deeply personal expression, high art, mass culture and commerce.” The title of the show references a long-standing stereotype concerning the illegal and anonymous production of copies in East Asia, and playfully transforms it. Murakami himself runs a company called Kaikai Kiki, which manages artists and produces and sells merchandise. At the same time, his own work is based on an explicit appropriation of materials from a variety of sources, including traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. Furthermore, the idea for the museum installation itself appears to have been copied from previous works, such as an installation by Fred Wilson at the 2003 Venice Biennale in which he hired a black man to stand outside the main pavilion selling fake generic designer bags, and Korean artist Zinwoo Park’s 2007 exhibition of real Louis Vuitton “Speedy” bags with the label “FAKE” attached to them.

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