- Knock Off: Revenge on the Logo
Knock Off is a short 45-minute documentary that raises issues of copyright, piracy, branding, advertising and labor and looks at the ways in which consumers use, subvert and create identities from globally branded luxury goods. The film is structured as a shopping expedition starting in Canal Street, Manhattan, where we see sweatshop laborers emerge from cardboard shelters on the streets to begin their day, and ending up in Harlem, where a shoemaker describes some of his recent commissions, which include re-lining a pair of Louis Vuitton boots in scarlet leather.
For most of the journey we are accompanied by two women shopping for designer handbags. On Canal Street they search out the best fakes for $35. Interviews with a labor activist reveal the working conditions of the people who make the bags, the countries they come from, and how the authorities will tolerate a certain amount of this counterfeit activity because of its appeal to tourists and its popularity with bargain hunters. Interviews with a couple of corporate IP (intellectual property) lawyers provide an alternative point of view; they claim that counterfeiting is intimately tied into much larger and more significant criminal abuses, such as human trafficking and drug dealing.
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As the women move uptown, the designer handbags become more expensive. At Prada they examine minute beaded handbags for $1,600. The film lingers in the Prada store, and handbags are forgotten as an architect leads viewers on a tour of the shop, which was designed to "redefine the shopping experience." Huge spaces are devoted to viewing art, and the intention is to encourage the shopper to associate the Prada brand with art or high culture. Hand-held computers read information about the clothes from tags inside them and play video clips of them being modeled on the runway in Milan. The tour of the store is a lesson in how brand values are constructed and communicated to consumers; it is the story of how a boring gray jacket becomes magically endowed with the power to make its owner feel part of the cultural elite and of how such a dull object can inspire confidence and create envy.
By the time we reach Harlem, it is night. Some of the most interesting footage in the film is shot here. For many consumers in Harlem, it is not enough to wear a brand; logos and other brand-identifying characteristics are cut out, re-sewn, and new, highly individual consumer goods are constructed, which flaunt brands in entirely new ways. The film provides little analysis of these strange concoctions. They initially appear as highly creative ways to assert an individual identity in an environment where everything seems to have a brand name inscribed on it. Many of these objects (most are footwear) would be extremely expensive to produce, as they require the destruction of two, three or more designer items to make a new one.
This highly extravagant form of brand consumption is reminiscent of the potlatch of certain Indian tribes of the Northwest American coast (such as the Kwakiutl), who created and articulated social superiority by creating huge bonfires of luxury goods. The economics behind such spectacular displays, in which luxury goods are aggressively destroyed, is always worth examining. The potlatch was probably related to inflationary pressure that had gotten out of hand. In the case of Harlem, it is likely to be related to a black market; it is a way of consuming [End Page 408] money that has a limited chance of being absorbed into the mainstream economy. In both cases surplus is converted into social status through the destruction of luxury goods.
The film suffers, in part, from far too many shots of people in the streets wearing logos. The women shopping for handbags also become tedious after a while. However, aside from these points, it is an entertaining and...