Fashion Space Gallery at London College of Fashion presents The Real Thing, an exhibition that pays tribute to the rebellious phenomenon of bootleg culture in fashion. Featuring work from bootleg pioneers such as Harlem couturier Dapper Dan, and 'brandalist' Dr Noki (JJ Hudson), the exhibition opens on 7 February 2020 and runs until 2 May.
The Real Thing will showcase a range of works through imagery, social media and sculpture by artists who use re-interpretation to interrogate views around immigration, identity, queer culture, sustainability and community. The modern appeal of bootleg culture continues to fascinate luxury houses such as Gucci and Vetements, even while the core of bootlegging relies on mimicking the original. The exhibition examines the way bootleg culture–incited by the desire for symbols and unattainable luxury–has transformed from an act of unauthorised copying, into an artistic language with its own cultural history.
Here, the curator of the exhibition, Anastasiia Fedorova, discusses how she first became interested in fashion bootlegs, her curation process, and the notions of real and fake.
Christina Kapourtzoudi: Where did your interest in fashion bootlegs stem from?
Anastasiia Fedorova: I grew up in Russia in the late nineties. From my childhood, I have memories of brands and goods, but they were mostly fake, mostly countryside produce, which arrived in Russia in the post-Soviet years from China and other places. There wasn't branding [then], so when fashion bootleg appeared, it was very present. It was everywhere and it excited me, from early on. For me, this branding was connected to luxury, success and ideas. When I started working in fashion, I was thinking about what we perceive as real or fake in culture in general. That's how I started doing research about different artists who use branding; it is as much about fashion bootleg as it is about brand obsession.
CK: Could you tell us more about your curation process?
AF: I didn't really want to include that much work from big brands in the exhibition. I was more interested in independent artists and creative collectives who were looking into making a difference with their work, or who represented marginalised voices or social groups. The most important thing for me was the reason why people work for and with branding, and asking what kind of message they want to send through the subverting of branding. I tried to include people who are not doing brand subversion for the sake of the irony or playfulness, but who really want to have a message, a kind of political agenda.
CK: How have cultural attitudes towards bootlegs changed over time?
AF: I think it's interesting that our attitude towards ownership of something is really different now than it was in the 20th century. If you think of a brand or a monogram, like LV (Louis Vuitton) or Gucci, you see signs that something is real, authentic. Paradoxically, they have become the most prominent feature of fake fashion items. It really makes you think how constructed the notions of real and fake are. Since we live in a very digitalised culture, everything's really fluid: there are lots of conversations about copying, appropriation and inspiration and how these things work together. I don't really have an answer on how they've changed, but they are definitely less rigid and less hierarchical.
CK: How can examining bootleg culture help us understand the fashion industry today?
AF: The message I really wanted to show in this exhibition is that fashion bootleg and brand subversion can really help us to have more critical discussions about consumerism. We live in a reality that is incredibly branded–even in our memories and dreams–so I think it's useful to know that these are things you can reinterpret creatively, and in doing so, reclaim some of their value. When it comes to understanding the fashion industry, looking at bootleg culture makes you consider the desire for buying not just an item, but being a part of a creative universe, or the identity that that brand represents.
CK: Do you think that sustainability plays a role in bootleg culture's reinterpretation of branding?
AF: Yes, I think so. Sustainability, at its core, is the opposite of this mythical value of the brand. I have to admit that it was quite difficult to work on this show, because bootleg and quantified culture are like the opposite of sustainable practices. I was very much aware of it, but I believe it's important to show this part of the fashion industry because it's not really talked about much, and looking at context can actually help us understand the deeper meaning of the whole system. We have artists at the exhibition who address sustainability and overconsumption, like Dr Noki and May Hands.
CK: The exhibition gives insight into how bootlegging can be used to unite local communities. Why do you think community is also such a potent concept for fashion today?
AF: Because the community is a very important notion, generally. We live in a very unsettling time politically: a lot of us are losing the trust and belief in conventional structures, and we need communities for support. A lot of young people are realising that there's a lot of power in a horizontal structure more than in vertical power structures. Community is an empowering tool for creatives, and we are finally realising the power of community and cross-culture.
CK: Fashion has been exploring nostalgia and brands have started to partner with their bootleggers. What are your thoughts on the possibility of creating newness now?
AF: Well, there is a difference between the new and original. For example, Dapper Dan's designs in the late eighties and early nineties were incorporating branding, but they were original pioneering design. I feel that, in culture, it shouldn’t be as much about creating new things, as it should be about creating new experiences and new conversations.
CK: What is the most important thing you want people to process and understand from the exhibition?
AF: A more critical attitude towards branding. I want them to think more analytically about this desire and love we have for branded goods; to understand that we have the freedom to take a symbol which has existed in culture for a long time and make it ours; to explore the real and fake in a political context and how they work as political division.