The Next Generation of Counterfeit Fashion In South Africa

By: Tshego ‘Red’ Mosiane

Counterfeiting – or bootlegging to some –  in how we’re now accustomed to it means fake copies of clothing, footwear and accessory designs of major brands like Nike that are manufactured in factories mainly located across Asia. It has been an alarming epidemic without signs of slowing down that damages clothing and textile industries worldwide.

Small Street Mall Cred: Ismail Farouk

These goods are then sold in what we here in South Africa call china stores. They can be found virtually anywhere in the country but predominantly in the central business district of towns and cities. The most famous example being Johannesburg’s Small Street Mall. For those who have never been, it’s essentially a closed off mostly covered street of small retail spaces. It is a mecca of imported counterfeit clothing, footwear and accessories. Everything from attempted replicas of the latest Balenciaga sneakers to Moschino chains can be found and purchased at bargain prices. But these stores are obviously negatively associated with lower income black consumers who can’t afford to buy from the real brands or even major local retailers.

Recently, though, South Africa has caught on to a way of counterfeiting/bootlegging that has been gaining popularity across the globe as it is more palatable to the privileged elitist consumer in wealthier areas.

Young fashion “creatives” have set up online stores, Instagram pages, pop up stores, celebrity merchandise lines, etc. selling this new wave form of counterfeited goods. But what makes them smarter than the black market gangsters is how they first set out to convince both themselves and their followers that these items are in fact original designs merely loosely inspired by global brands. This is crucial because this cool kid-bait branding allows them to sell these copies – that are of similar quality to that of the very china stores they look down upon – at exorbitant prices. Effective branding is vital for any fashion business to survive (making people want to be part of “the culture” or whatever) and these brands are a masterclass in how hard you can make people go for your product just by it being marketed to them in an effective way. They pull this off because most of these brands are run by privileged youth themselves with access to resources such as information, internet, funding and tastemakers that help them ensure they can sell this story.

Sandton Airport collection lookbook
Cred: Blaq Smith

Earlier this year a “creative visionary” known as Don Design released his collection of Sandton Airport hoodies which were admittedly inspired by the classic Supreme hoodies. The collection’s lookbook went viral after the hoodie was seen on local celebrities like AKA and Nomuzi Mabena. Their fans – who rarely hesitate before spending large amounts of money to join a wave – soon followed. Social media came alive with people debating on what to call it and where to draw the line between inspiration and inspiration. With that came a relentless arsenal of defense from the real cool kids of suburbia in support of their new found leader in skrrr skrrr (South Africans use this term to mean those who model themselves after popular Hypebeast-endorsed fashion).

All that grandstanding brought attempts to compare these brands to the practice of “culture jamming” (and others similar to it) which is a form of artistic satire used to “expose questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture” by altering logos, fashion statements and advertisements. It’s a form of protest that can be traced back to the 1960’s Situationist movement and seeks to resist consumerism and “raise concerns about consumption, environmental damage and inequitable social practices”. As much as this is still seen elsewhere, the brands in question are not an example. This is made evident in how they position themselves in ways that adhere to mass media set standards, do not raise a single environmental concern, perpetuate consumerism and maintain elitism in their marketing and products.

But why refuse to call a spade a spade? Why avoid admitting that there are clear similarities between the clothes on the racks at Small Street and those on the Instagram pages of brands that make things like the Sandton Airport hoodie? Is it simply because “counterfeit” and “bootleg” are terms with deeply rooted negative connotations?

There is a clear relationship between, for example, women who live in gated communities but still buy counterfeit Gucci bags off Instagram as analogous to women who live in townships and get fake Louboutins at china stores. 

Truth is, counterfeiting is virtually inescapable in the way the global fashion system has always operated. A market for these goods exists due to a gaping gap between supply and demand of global brands.  In South Africa, a majority of sought after brands that fill people’s aspirations and appeal to their personal style goals are not available in the country – some not even on the continent. Then with those that are, the inflated prices as a result of import costs the retailer has to cover and the under performing Rand render them far too expensive. This means the bulk of consumers in a nation already drowning in debt cannot afford to buy directly from the brand. But people still want to look good. Consumers want what they want and they will buy the next best convenient thing if they are unable to access the original. The demand to buy counterfeited/bootleg fashion is not restricted to one economic class so the supply of it won’t be either.

If we’re going to decide that this is bad, then let it be bad for everyone instead of only publicly disparaging the poorer consumer for also wanting the option to be fashionable. This market has existed for decades on most tiers of society, this is just a newer generation’s interpretation.



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