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Faking it: counterfeit luxury fashion in south-east Asia – a photo essay

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In some countries in south-east Asia, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, a distinctive street style has emerged, characterised by counterfeit luxury fashion. Here, many people sport counterfeits of labels such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada.

In Vietnam, for example, one can see street food vendors wearing trousers and long-sleeved shirts adorned with large luxury logos. In Cambodian markets, fish vendors carry Gucci wallets; in rice fields, harvesters wear Balenciaga visor caps. In some places, mothers dress their babies in fake Louis Vuitton dresses.

  • Clockwise from top left: Siem Reap, Cambodia; Tonle Sap, Cambodia; Can Tho, Vietnam; Bangkok, Thailand.

The fakes are everywhere – in shopping malls, night markets and even in small street shops. Customers of counterfeit clothing include not only locals but also many European and American tourists. For many people, fake branded products offer a way to at least superficially access the luxury and status symbols they otherwise could not afford. Wearing such clothing is often an act of self-assertion and social advancement. The logos convey a sense of prestige and belonging, even if the products are not genuine. They symbolise the dream of a better life and participation in a global consumer culture.

Often, the counterfeits are not exact copies of the original collections but rather unique designs with only the conspicuous logos reminiscent of the originals. These creative creations often combine traditional Asian fabrics and patterns with the logos of western luxury brands, resulting in a unique street style that blends cultural and aesthetic elements.

  • Clockwise from top left: Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Tonle Sap, Cambodia; Tonle Sap, Cambodia; Can Tho, Vietnam

Fashion always plays a central role in how people perceive themselves and how they are seen by others. People use fashion to express their identity. The consumption of counterfeit brands is not only an aesthetic decision but also a social and cultural statement. Many people in rural areas are often unaware they are wearing counterfeit goods. They are sometimes unfamiliar with the significance of luxury brands and wear the clothing simply because it is cheap and readily available. For others, these counterfeit items are a means of improving their social status.

Replicas have provided everyday consumers with an opportunity to challenge the control of high-end designers over their products. To protect their brand image, fashion labels have taken drastic measures such as disposing of old stock to avoid any perceived devaluation. Nevertheless, meticulously copied items have surfaced as a means of resistance, offering a convenient and budget-friendly way to oppose the influence of major fashion houses while still staying in line with current trends.

Counterfeit luxury goods have always had an interesting effect on social classes, blurring the lines between the wealthy and the less fortunate. They have given people from different backgrounds the chance to appear wealthy, even if they’re not. Even in old times, artists were hired to make copies of famous sculptures, which upset the upper classes.

  • Top: Stung Treng, Cambodia. Middle: left, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; right, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Above: Siem Reap, Cambodia

The economic impacts are also significant. The manufacturing and sale of counterfeit clothing provide numerous jobs, especially in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam where the textile industry is a major economic sector. At the same time, the availability of these products undermines the revenues of genuine brands and raises questions about the protection of intellectual property.

Moreover, there is a growing discourse on the ethical aspects and sustainability of fashion. Many consumers are beginning to recognise that the production conditions for both counterfeit and genuine luxury fashion are often problematic. This is leading to an increasing demand for ethically produced clothing and sustainable alternatives.

Despite the challenges, the allure of counterfeit luxury fashion in south-east Asia remains strong. It offers many people the opportunity to participate in global consumption and position themselves in a society where status and prestige symbols play an important role. It is a form of cultural exchange and empowerment that reflects the social and economic realities of the region.

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