Unbootleg: A Case Study

WHAT IS IT?

In contemporary fashion, there are two categories of garment that lay claim to authenticity: the original, and the bootleg. The original garment is authentic either because it is irreplicable or because of its replicability. The existence of subsequent copies, authorized or not, only serves to underscore its authenticity. The unauthorized copy, or bootleg, is authentic as a riff on the original. An original fake.

The merchification of American culture has raised the status of the bootleg from knock-off to desirable status symbol. The two categories– original and bootleg– in cooperation (and competition) have also created a third category of garment: the unbootleg.

Rather than a bootleg of a bootleg (which would require an intention to treat the bootleg as replicable original) the unbootleg either predates the original or emerges from the same era but due to the heightened status of the bootleg is mistaken for one.

WHY IS IT?

In her Ssense essay Fake and Occasionally Superior: The Simpsons Bootleg, Molly Young writes about how the Simpsons bootleg eclipsed original merchandise: “The point was not to trick people into buying a fake Bart shirt; it was to offer a fake Bart shirt that was incontestably fake and obviously superior to the legally-sanctioned options.” Young also explains how brands like Gucci have given themselves over to knocking off themselves, “if you can produce a collection premised entirely on the compulsion of people to rip off your own product, you’ve made it,” Young writes.

The primacy of the bootleg is reflected in the trajectory of figures like Dapper Dan, who for decades made his name selling high fashion and hip hop-inspired bootlegs in Harlem. The Guardian explains that while in the 1990s he was shut down by Fendi’s lawyers, by 2017 he was an official Gucci collaborator.

Over at High Snobiety, Alice Hines profiles the “god” of counterfeit sneakers aka a Chinese seller known as David. Hines writes that in 2018, “Diesel opened a “Deisel” pop-up on New York City’s Canal Street during NY Fashion Week, selling knock-off knock-offs (the brand had, in fact, trademarked the misspelling of its name). As David was going legit, major brands were pulling a David.”

Fashion is no stranger to the loss of primacy, but social media has accelerated the ability to usurp meaning from a garment. In the early 2000s, Burberry discontinued their plaid baseball cap after it became associated with unruly soccer fans and banned from certain bars in the UK. This process took place over the course of months, if not years, and the garment has been reintroduced. In 2019, meaning can be usurped in a matter of days or weeks.

Between February and May 2017 alt-right trolls effectively turned the two-fingered “OK” gesture into a white supremacist symbol simply by joking about it. Where does that leave garments like the OnlyNY hat below?

For a generation of streetwear enthusiasts, Supreme ranks above the work of Barbara Kruger, whose art the brand appropriates. And Supreme in turn has been appropriated. Therefore, the Supreme unbootleg is any red garment with serif-less white font that is otherwise unaffiliated.

WHO CARES?

The ascendance of the bootleg mirrors the importance of our “avatars” in modern life. Internet companies compile our “data doubles” in order to predict what we will browse (and buy). As we solve CAPTCHA to prove our authenticity, we are distinguishing ourselves from an avatar while feeding the same systems that make our avatars ultimately more desirable than ourselves.

Facial recognition systems based on the aggregate photos we post online are trained to read the original– and the bootleg. But what happens when the avatar version of a human determines our humanness? In 2018, a self-driving car failed to recognize a pedestrian as human. “The software was tuned in such a way that it ‘decided’ it didn’t need to take evasive action,” The Verge reported.

If we are less important than our avatars, what happens when we are mistaken for the avatar of someone else? According to CNN, Senator Ted Kennedy was stopped and interrogated at least five times in the wake of 9/11 because of the popularity of the pseudonym “T. Kennedy” among terrorism suspects on the No Fly List.

When our data doubles achieve primacy, the clerical errors that can result in court orders, tax audits and even death expand to truly Kafkaesque proportions. We are not in the age of the human error. We are in the age of the system error– and the system only sees avatars.

In 2017, James Bridle reported on the proliferation of bootleg Peppa Pig videos on YouTube and their potential impact on children: “Disturbing Peppa Pig videos, which tend towards extreme violence and fear, with Peppa eating her father or drinking bleach, are, it turns out very widespread.”

Bridle explains how these videos are the result of the keyword gaming also happening on Amazon. “This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.”

Peppa reads Thrasher. Peppa wears Gucci. Do you?

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