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Couture, Catwalks, Controversy & Counterfeits

In the world of public relations and fashion, image seems to be everything. Your reputation, who you know, and in some cases, what you’re wearing can make or break you. The all-important question seems to be: how important is image? In the world of fashion PR, designers, companies and customers are going to great lengths to not only enhance their image, but in some cases, to protect it, too.

In recent years, the desire for designer goods has reached epic proportions as consumers are constantly trying to re-create the latest runway looks. It certainly does not help that images of celebrities sporting these designer frocks surround us wherever we go. One can not hide from Hollywood stars, such as Cameron Diaz, gracing the covers and pages US magazine wearing those oh-so classic skinny jeans, but don’t forget the moss patent leather Gucci clutch in hand that retails for only $1,050. So what should one do when they crave the hottest fall trends straight from the fashion houses of Paris, the same looks they can not afford?

It’s quite easy, as consumers only have three options: find a realistic knockoff, go to a mass-market retailer that has teamed up with a world-renowned designer for low-cost looks (i.e. Vera Wang for Kohl’s), or refuse to pay rent for a few months all so you can rock the newest $945 Manolo Blahnik “Something Blue” satin pumps. Regardless of which option you choose, the current craze for haute couture has turned into a public relations nightmare for practitioners in the fashion world and it does not seem as if they will be waking up from this bad dream anytime soon.

As many shoppers crave clothes and accessories that are only in the price range of the wealthy and elite, they are finding alternatives that look the same, but are in no way made of authentic Italian leather or actual crocodile like the creations of top designers. Enter the counterfeiting industry. No one knows for sure, but the World Customs Organization estimates that the trade in counterfeit goods is valued at over $500 billion. Knockoffs resembling the creations from European fashion houses, such as those in Milan, are constantly in demand, and although Italy only contributes to 1.4 percent of the counterfeiting industry, the Italian Institute Against Counterfeit Goods estimates that Italy has lost more than 40,000 jobs in the past decade because of lost sales attributed to replica goods.

So aside from writing news releases and planning fashion week, public relations practitioners are now left with the daunting task of trying to fight crime and defend brand image for designer clients, as well.

Because many people are unaware of the disturbing effects associated with the counterfeiting industry, Harper’s Bazaar, the world renowned fashion magazine, has developed a public relations campaign to create awareness about the illegal activities associated with imitation designer goods by establishing the Harper’s Bazaar Anticounterfeiting Alliance. Its “Fakes Are Never in Fashion” campaign educates shoppers on the negative aspects associated with counterfeiting industry and teaches buyers how to determine fakes versus authentic luxury goods.

The French holding company Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton (LVMH), the world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate, has also stepped up to combat counterfeiters head-on. As stated on the LVMH web site, the counterfeiting industry “unlawfully takes advantage of the prestige of its (luxury) brands and harms their tradition, identity and image.” In June, LVMH took legal action against eBay, a web site known for selling replica goods, resulting in a Paris court order requiring eBay to pay approximately $26 million in damages to Louis Vuitton and $30 million to Christian Dior.

This may be considered only a small victory for LVMH, as Louis Vuitton spends millions of dollars annually on a zero tolerance policy against counterfeiting. In 2004 alone, Louis Vuitton’s actions resulted in 947 arrests, more than 6,000 raids, over 13,000 legal actions, and the seizure of many fake printing cylinders.

Not only has this been an ongoing PR fiasco for LVMH, this ruling put eBay’s PR department into over-drive, too. According to Nichola Sharpe, the US spokesperson at eBay, she said the company developed a global crisis communication plan months in advance and worked with global PR teams to prepare for the ruling.

In the fashion war to combat counterfeiting, one might consider buying low-cost goods created by top designers at mass retail chains a solution. Think again. It may appear to be the perfect world, one where shoppers can have access to the affordable designs of Karl Lagerfeld and Isaac Mizrahi at places such as H&M and Target. Wrong. While many are praising top designers’ inexpensive creations, many of the “fashion elite” consider this a fashion faux pas.

“I think when the designers continue to have collections at the lower-priced line, it can be a detriment,” Heather White of W magazine said. “Honestly, Isaac Mizrahi…would you pay $10,000 for a couture multicolored knit sweater? Not after you associate him with producing clothes at Target.”

White is a prime example of those who believe that the overexposure of designers’ creations at mass retail chains could tarnish a luxurious brand’s image and identity. Why would one want to spend over $2,800 for a Stella McCartney dress at Nieman Marcus when people actually have the option of purchasing her clothes at (gasp!) H&M?! The nightmare continues.

So if fighting the counterfeiting industry is almost comparable to declaring war on a small country, and if large retail chains can tarnish a name and image, what is the solution? Perhaps the solution lies in educating the world about the counterfeiting industry. Maybe people would reconsider visiting Canal Street in Manhattan for a knockoff handbag if they knew that these same counterfeiting rackets also deal with narcotics, weapons and child prostitution. I bet my boyfriend’s mom would have taken that into consideration before she bought me the little replica Chanel diamond earrings as a stocking stuffer this past Christmas. Sadly, no one ever mentioned to her that the sale of counterfeit goods has also helped support a Shiite terrorist group. I know I took that into consideration as I was chased down the alleyways of Venice this summer, refusing to let vendors sell me poorly made “Prada” bags.

So instead of investing millions of dollars into combating counterfeiters directly, perhaps PR practitioners should focus their campaigns upon educating their prime target audience: shoppers. Instead of spending time debating whether or not Mossimo Giannulli ruined his career by designing for Target, people should be spreading the world about the negative aspects associated with counterfeiting. The reality is this: everyone knows that knockoffs exist, but many people don’t know the disturbing details associated with the industry.

For the time being, we can only hope that more PR practices begin anti-counterfeiting educational campaigns like that of Harper’s Bazaar and in the meantime, I will personally enjoy wearing my Isaac Mizrahi dress from the Target collection and only wishing that I had $495 for the Giuseppe Zanotti leopard-print ballerina flats to match. I’ll keep wishing and watching as this fashion PR nightmare continues to unfold.

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by Whitney T.


  1. Post comment

    I think that counterfeiting has become an increasing problem with the fashion industry. I have been to New York and seen illegal goods being sold on the street. Especially during these hard economic times, counterfeit goods will be more mainstream.


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