A History of Designers’ Efforts to Circumvent Fashion Hacking

Over the winter holidays, I checked out Faking It: Originals, Copies and Counterfeits, an exhibition at The Museum at FIT that explores the historical battle between fashion designers and counterfeiters, and the increasingly blurred distinction between originals and unauthorized copies.

Throughout history, luxury brands have adopted measures aimed at preventing the creation of counterfeit copies. Christian Dior’s early garments donned a special ink that was only visible under black light. In the 1920s, Couturier Madeleine Vionnet used her own thumbprint as a marker of authenticity on her labels. She also applied an intricate beading technique intended to be too difficult to copy. Balenciaga and Givenchy barred the press from fashion shows in an effort to stall counterfeiters. Such efforts turned out to be futile.

In the 1930s, the Fashion Originators’ Guild of America intervened in the battle against design pirates by creating a registry of designer creations. The concept behind the registry was that manufacturers would refuse to make unauthorized copies of any designs that were registered. However, in 1941 the Federal Trade Commission found that the Guild was “eliminating the right to free competition” and subsequently the Guild was disbanded.

While many luxury brands were preoccupied with the fight against counterfeiters, a certain Coco Chanel stood apart. Madame Chanel viewed the mainstream protectionary approach as unenlightened, suggesting that “[t]he very idea of protecting the seasonal arts is childish. One should not bother to protect that which dies the minute it is born.” While other designers employed techniques aimed at deterring counterfeiters, Chanel enabled copying of her designs by selling them along with patterns and fabric samples.

The logic behind Chanel’s approach was that her original designs and their counterfeit copies served different markets. However, in recent decades, these markets are becoming less distinct with the emergence of collections like Missoni for Target that are aimed at the lower end of the market.