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Paul Vallely: What the designer brands are selling

25 July 2007

The arguments over counterfeit goods examined

They did not have Gucci handbags in the time of Thomas Aquinas, let alone counterfeit ones. Still, it may be fruitful to wonder what the Angelic Doctor would have made of this week’s reports that three million of the British have knowingly, and happily, bought fake designer goods — clothes, handbags, watches, jewellery — over the past year.

Is it wrong to buy a fake? Is it a form of stealing or deception? Most people in Britain today think not, according to a survey conducted for Davenport Lyons, a law firm specialising in intellectual property rights. Some 68 per cent of us think that it should not be against the law. More than that, it is something we are increasingly happy to boast of — last year, 44 per cent of those surveyed said they would tell friends their clothes or watches were fake; this year, the figure of those who think it is chic to do fake has risen to 64 per cent. And it is not just among the poor: one in five fakes are bought by people who earn £50,000 a year.

Popular behaviour, of course, has never been much of a guide to moral rectitude. And it is fairly obvious that buying a counterfeit CD is a form of piracy because it is violating the intellectual property rights of a musician. But what of prices that far outstrip the cost of a dodgy DVD? I am talking here about such goods as a Hermès Kelly bag at $8450 a throw.

There are issues of worth here. Can any bag be intrinsically worth that much? You can pay only so much for leather, the finest stitching, and so on, before you have begun to buy something more intangible. Economists speak of “positional goods”, things that get their value precisely from their exclusivity. There can be only so many penthouses overlooking Hyde Park, for example, or tables at the hottest new restaurant.

In general, positional goods cannot be created, only redistributed, while material goods can be manufactured with time and effort. Designer branding is an attempt to create positional goods from materials that are far from self-restricting. It is partly about quality, but it is also about status and about tapping into something even more ephemeral — our era’s need for psychological self-reward. Because you’re worth it.

Since the abolition of the sumptuary laws, the only thing that can create status, in fashion at any rate, is exclusivity and conspicuous consumption. In this, the brand is the perfect emblem of late capitalism. In the West, we live in a world where absolute poverty has pretty much vanished. Aquinas said that for a hungry man to steal a loaf of bread is not a sin, but, in a consumer society where relative poverty has by and large replaced the absolute kind, such situations are now comparatively rare. Brand-envy is hardly in the same league.

Apologists for the brands have come up with a dubious counter-argument about how the money from the counterfeit trade goes to fund organised crime, but there is not a great deal of evidence to support the contention.

When we buy designer brands, we are buying far more than material objects. We are buying into the machinery of modern marketing, where brands spend far more on advertising than they do on manufacture. It is the advertising that we are subverting when we buy a fake. Whether this is stealing is more of a moot point. Certainly the buyers of fakes feel that it is not. They do not feel that they are simply getting a bargain, but that they are getting one over the capitalist system in a Robin Hoodish kind of way. There is a generous larding of post-modern irony in that. But, as a counter-materialist statement, it seems to have something going for it.

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