Is It Real—And Does It Matter? How Korea’s Counterfeit Culture Shaped My Style
I’ve been surrounded by monograms for as long as I can remember, even before I knew how to read them. Little LVs, crossed C’s and G’s, dotting a waxed canvas bag tucked under my mother’s waifish arm. Yet these were made not in Paris, but Itaewon, the neighborhood in Seoul once known for its fake markets.
I don’t remember when I learned the word “fake,” but I do know it wasn’t a bad word. In South Korea, where my family is from, fake luxury was as good as the real thing—or, rather, it was all they knew after the war. My beautiful grandmother, from whom everyone says I received my inclination for fashion, had a closet filled with fake striped Fendi shirts and little black spandex “Gucci” dresses, back when those houses could not, I would guess, have placed Korea on a map, let alone bother to sell there. On Sundays, she would brush up her pixie cut, go down to the open air grocer, and haggle over a bag of curling yellow soybean sprouts in a tan stretch Faux-ndi top that clung just so. This was the post-war way of life.
So Koreans became very good at copying. I say this, too, not with shame, but as a matter of fact. It remains a national point of pride—the skill with which a pair of Korean hands can perfectly replicate each pin-thin stitch. Once, when I was small, my mother and grandmother bundled me into my uncle’s Hyundai and drove us to Itaewon. We walked past racks of stiff pleather loafers and pique cotton golf polos with an embroidered horse and rider (or was it?) on the chest to discreetly tuck into a shop owned by a woman who, my grandmother said with great confidence, made fake watches like nobody’s business. On a table covered in peeling wood grain paper, this woman laid out a delicious assortment: a little Cartier Tank and a Chanel J12 wristwatch in white or black ceramic, placed gingerly onto a roll of black velvet. They were so well constructed, she swore up and down, you could walk right into 31 Rue Cambon and no one would know.
I remember feeling a rush, admiring it on my wrist. It was the closest brush I’d yet had with high fashion. I was born in Chicago, but moved at age 8 to middle of nowhere Wisconsin, where the closest thing to designer was the Polo Ralph Lauren outlet and shopping at Target (not Walmart) was considered bourgeoisie. (Seoul at the time was no better.) It was a bit like applying a nicotine patch when you’ve never smoked a cigarette. The high stayed with me through lunch. I slurped down two heaping bowls of salty black bean noodles, and the glimmering white “J12” seemed to wink at me each time the chopsticks touched my mouth. I imagined what it might feel like to live in the city and wear Chanel, and it was intoxicating.
In high school, I started a small (in hindsight, obnoxious) trend of carrying a tiny purse, rather than a giant Jansport backpack (I held my books instead, switching them out at my locker between classes). I imagine this made me feel very grown-up and less Midwestern. The Multicolore Takashi Murakami collaboration with Louis Vuitton had just come out, and I wanted more than anything in the world the little black leather pochette with the candy-colored monogram. I begged my parents for it. My mother delivered a gift from my grandmother: Made in Itaewon.
Come on, I thought. A bag that small, how much could it cost? (I still think this). We could have bought one, my mother said, but would have had to make a trip to the city, and why bother when the copy looked just as good? She didn’t get it. In America, I believed, people craved authenticity. That was where value was placed, and your monograms had to be earned. It’s the journey, not the destination, and all that. In post-war Korea, it didn’t matter how or where you got it—a nicer nose, the latest It bag—only that you got there at all. The sooner, the better.
So I took it around school, but felt a.) guilty for owning a copy and b.) paranoid that I’d be found out and deemed a fraud. At night I pored over the canvas inch by inch for clues that might give up the ghost. Were the monograms correctly spaced? Was that the right shade of chartreuse? As a result, I became obsessed with spotting fakes. At the airport, I would fixate on a misshapen Céline Phantom, which should be much wider when unfurled and have four gold square pegs firmly pressed on the bottom, not round. Or a Chanel tweed jacket, whose Lurex bouclé looked too much like cheap tinsel, even from five yards away. Look at the craftsmanship, the Koreans would say. The detail. You cannot tell the difference.
Of course you could. I will never forget my first real bag. It was a Louis Vuitton Speedy (what else?), purchased on a family vacation in Aruba. I imagine my parents felt comfortable splurging on a graduation gift, after years of trying to teach me to be frugal (I am very sorry this did not stick). It was the first time I’d touched a real piece of Vuitton after years of knowing only counterfeit. First there was the smell: the full-bodied butter scent of leather, so rich you could choke on it. The dull sheen of that gold-toned brass padlock. The weight of it in your hand (though, Koreans hate heavy things). I danced around the store and hugged it close inside its protective cloth tote. So proudly I carried it to our seaside lunch and placed it squarely on its own chair, safe from any stray drops of my fleshy white fish stew. It’s real, it’s real, it’s real, I thought. I felt as though I’d finally arrived somewhere.
I still had fakes. Month after month, my grandmother sent tiny ziplock bags packed with blue enamel Dior earrings and tinny silver J’adore anklets. Those weren’t trying to be the real thing, though; they looked very cheap, and I scornfully tucked them into my desk drawer. I was moving to New York to intern at Condé Nast (ha), and I couldn’t possibly wear such an obvious knock-off where a Vogue editor might see (haha). The day after I landed, I went straight to a vintage shop on the Upper East Side and bought a quilted Chanel crossbody. I spent a good half-hour examining the lining (there was some suspicious peeling in the inner pocket) and interrogating the owner over the authentication card and serial number. Once satisfied, I went off to Barneys and grandly plunked down my hard-earned (?) graduation money on a pair of Céline woodblock platforms. To me, they were worth every penny.
In a poetic stroke, it was just as the first signs of the Korean cultural wave began swelling (pre-“Gangnam Style”) that my family also began to abandon its cache of fakes. We were post-post war now. Like the rest of our people, we were firmly on our feet and ready to embrace originality, to invest in genuine articles, rather than pay less for less. I know my mother began to view them as investment pieces. A classic Chanel flap bag, if you’re lucky enough to afford one, does retain its worth and can be passed down; a copy, cut from cheaper skins, disintegrates into little black crumbs. Buy less, buy better.
Yet something weird happened. I began to feel even guiltier about owning expensive things than I had the fakes. “Nice bag,” someone might say, but I would hear, “(Must be) nice bag.”
I’m not here to talk about imposter syndrome, but I am fascinated by my own mental gymnastics. The very rich still exist in a bubble, where using a $19k Hermès Kelly as a gym bag is a cute quirk. Outside it, spending even a hundred demands some justification in the court of public opinion. Was it worse that people might think I had paid several grand for a piece and was flaunting it? Or worse that it was a fake and I was some kind of poser?
One of my favorite films is Certified Copy by the brilliant Abbas Kiarostami, which I think about often. It explores the idea that in art, authenticity is completely irrelevant—every copy is its own original, still made by an artist. In one pivotal scene, Juliette Binoche visits a gallery where an old master’s work, revered for years, had been revealed to be a student copy. Yet, the script posits, did that erase the value people had given it over the years, diminish the beauty of it? Who determines an object’s worth? What is “real,” and why does it matter?
A lot has changed since I first tried on that fake J12. I moved to the city, I work at Vogue. I have carefully collected clothes by my heroes, more Ghesquière-era Balenciaga and Philo Céline, vintage Westwood corsets and Kawakubo than I could ever have dreamed of. I have also unearthed my stockpile of Itaewon fakes. I quite like them now. I guess because I got to where I was going, and they remind me where I started. Besides, counterfeit culture is having a moment. Today’s average millennial can’t afford a house or a car, let alone a $3k chain-strap bag. In an odd turn of events, a cheap-looking copy has become more real. Luxury logos are meant to convey wealth and status. A fake one says, to hell with that—what are we meant to be valuing anyway?
Two years ago in Seoul, I had tea with Vetements’s Guram Gvasalia, who was in town to launch a pop-up at the height of the brand’s craze. I of course asked his thoughts on the knock-off hoodies and faux floor-grazing raincoats he saw on every street corner. To my surprise, he was rather delighted by them. “I don’t know why it’s a bad thing,” he told me, shrugging. Guram was particularly interested in the liberties being taken by these “copy artists:” The thick cotton dress redone in a light terry cloth and turned into a hoodie. “They do things that are closer to the originals, but sometimes they become very creative.”
“People also sometimes take the industry too seriously,” he added, biting into a coconut macaroon. “I think you need to have fun and roll with it.”
It felt like a sign-off—so I went to a bootleg streetwear stall on the B-2 level of a well-known duty-free shop’s basement to find one of those rejiggered Vete-not hoods. The salesman, a tall Korean in his mid-20s, told me all about the auntie who had made it. She was an excellent seamstress, he said proudly, and had actually improved the design by exchanging Demna Gvasalia’s heavy-duty molton cotton for an ultra-lightweight French terry. Someone complimented it recently at my gym, but threw a little shade at the price. I said, simply and honestly, that it was a fake from Korea, and her eyes lit up: “Wow, that’s way cooler.”
I do still believe one should invest in a few good, original pieces over wasteful, unethical fast fashion; nor do I condone lifting designs and passing them off as one’s own (an entirely different category of copy, of course). But I’ve also learned that attaching value—or, more to the point, self-worth—to these items is totally pointless. Now, if someone asks me if a piece is real, I respond with a shrug.
Actually, my mother and I have these very meta discussions where, more often than not, we have no idea whether a particular vintage piece of hers is real or fake. That spandex Gucci top from the ’80s? She can’t recall. The micro Vuitton Speedy? Probably fake . . . but is it? It takes me back to Kiarostami: It’s the feeling that matters.
This summer, I stepped into my parents’ bedroom, where my mom draped a handful of black and white Chanel beads over my head and pressed a bamboo-handled Gucci bag into one hand; she had been cleaning out her closet and found a treasure trove of ’80s and ’90s gems she thought I might like, their origin unknown. I looked at myself—in a likely fake Fendi flannel, holding a real Gucci bag, half real Chanel chains, half not—and felt just fine.