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How Fashion Can Fight Fakes With Connected Tech

Right as New York Fashion Week was starting up in early February, a funny thing happened on Canal Street, the New York thoroughfare perhaps best known as the go-to spot to score knockoffs and fakes of some of the world’s most coveted brands. Seemingly overnight there was a new kid on the block hawking Diesel gear, except with the brand name obviously misspelled “Deisel.” Just another counterfeiter looking to make a quick buck.

Except it actually was an authentic (secret) Diesel pop-up shop selling authentic, limited-edition Diesel goods, with the misspelled logo designed quite intentionally. For once, people hoping to pay less for the look they love actually purchased genuine goods. “It’s the one time on Canal Street you got the real deal,” Graham Wetzbarger, chief authenticator for The Real Real, said at SXSW.

It’s a stunt in line with the distressed super-thin T-shirt that Gucci debuted a few years back featuring the logo prominently splashed across the garment in a motif beloved by counterfeiters, or the “Guccy” bag carried by models on the Spring/Summer ’18 runways. “I kind of love that brands are taking this back a little bit,” Wetzbarger said. “It’s tongue in cheek.”

“This,” of course, is the ever-present problem of counterfeiting, which saw 34,000 shipments valued at $1.2 billion seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2017, representing an uptick of 8 percent over the year prior. Overall, watches and jewelry are the counterfeits most frequently seized by Homeland Security, followed by handbags and wallets; apparel and accessories come in fourth. Wetzbarger said counterfeiters go after wrist pieces, necklaces, earrings and bracelets for their small size and inherent portability, though knockoffs of ready-to-wear luxury items are on the rise.

As the middle class rapidly grows in BRIC countries like Russia, style-conscious up-and-comers crave the trends and fashions served up on Instagram but not easily accessible due to cost-prohibitive tariffs and duties. Buying counterfeit apparel and footwear helps them show off the logos that matter, Wetzbarger said.

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Together, social media coupled with the underground world ready to supply a steady stream of fakes is fueling a “perfect storm,” said Julie Vargas, director of digital solution for Avery Dennison. What’s more, counterfeiters have figured out their own just-in-time manufacturing process, assembling every product component save for those that would infringe on a copyright, which are added at the very last minute on a one-to-one basis before making their way to end customers. That way, Vargas said, if a shipment is seized, prosecution is extremely difficult.

To combat counterfeit culture, many of the most faked brands—adidas and Nike among them—use a “secret sauce” of chips, tags, digital ID and other authentication methods in a continuously revolving mix to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters, though the approach does pose challenges when thinking about the circular economy, Vargas said.

Acknowledging the interest in buzzwords like blockchain, Vargas said the real issue is simply around data and how to leverage all of a product’s information to tell a story. “There’s a broader opportunity to really distribute the knowledge at every touchpoint, including the product’s first owner, if they want to be part of that public knowledge,” she said. If products automatically begin recording their data as soon as they roll off the factory line, then it’s the product—and not the brand—communicating that message to consumers.

Wetzbarger likened a future world of connected apparel to Cher’s closet from the 1995 film Clueless, which featured a computer that offered style matching advice for the fashion-addicted main character. Perhaps in the years ahead consumers will scan and buy a product, which then is automatically added to their virtual closet, and technology will be able to report on pieces that haven’t been worn in a six months, for example.

“It tells you when you’re missing something, like you don’t have a good pair of whatever and you need to go get that. It recommends this, this and this based off your past purchases but this one’s on sale and this one’s on the secondary market,” Wetzbarger said, spitballing. “That’s the life I want to live.”