Museum Life: Replicas, fakes, and knockoffs in the museum



Reproductions in museum collections are gaining more attention these days. This is one of my research interests, so I was excited to hear last fall that an exhibition devoted to copies and counterfeits, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, would be organized by The Museum at FIT.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel to see this exhibition, but I was able to have a telephone conversation with curator Ariele Elia, who generously shared her time to answer some of my questions about the exhibition’s preparation and execution. 

This post will not cover every fascinating facet of this exhibition, so I would encourage readers to visit the exhibition website for a fuller picture of the overall themes and specific objects of study.   

Jill M: The exhibition description states that the organization and research for the show was motivated by current discussions surrounding fashion counterfeiting and copying.  How do you view the existence of these items within a museum collection, or what do you feel is the importance of collecting copies or “knockoffs”? How many copies, authorized and unauthorized, does FIT have in its collection, and will it continue to collect reproductions, copies, and counterfeits, both historical and current?  

Ariele Elia: Copies and counterfeits are very important in telling the story of the fashion industry and how it functions.  Most of the fashion-interested public cannot afford couture or designer garments, and with copies one can still be in the latest fashion for a fraction of the cost.  While the existence of copies and counterfeits has gained major media attention since the “logo mania” of the 1980s and the subsequent rise of fast fashion, copying has been a primary concern for designers since the 19th century–most notably Paquin, Poiret, and Vionnet in the early 20th century–and the establishment of the system of couture.

If a garment is an important piece–something that is pushing fashion forward or capturing a moment in fashion history, such as parodies of designer or corporate logos by Brian Lichtenberg or Jeremy Scott, or a Zara knockoff of a Celine coat–then FIT will collect that knockoff, copy, or parody.  These “captured moments” can then have a long life in the museum.


Licensed or unlicensed copies are not actively collected at FIT, and in the past the museum did get rid of counterfeits, as they were considered “inauthentic” and did not fit with the institutional mission of collecting garments of the highest quality.  I became interested in licensed copies still present in the collection and wondered how extensive are the holdings.  I began to observe that there are many different levels of authenticity present in these garments.  Sometimes the word “copy” was embroidered into the label, as part of its manufacture, and other times it would be written on the label, likely by past FIT staff. When a label says “copy”, what exactly does that mean? This question led to the genesis of the exhibition.

JM: Once these garments are removed from the marketplace and are collected and on display in a museum, unable to be purchased and taken home, does this lessen their allure?  Or does it heighten their appeal?

AE: The inclusion of copies in a museum collection elevates the counterfeit—they are handled with gloves and treated in the same manner as the original.  But the real benefit lies in creating an interesting conversation with the display of copies and counterfeits.  The exhibition isolates the object, and people can discuss and consider copies within an environment that is entirely different from experiencing them in the marketplace or on the street. 

JM: I am very interested in what you have noted as “the gray areas in authenticity.”  Pinning down what makes a garment authentic is sometimes elusive, and is often attributed to ultimate authorship, superior materials and craftsmanship, or corporate authority, for example–especially when the copy is duplicitous in nature.  What is your favorite example of a “gray area” garment in the exhibition?

AE: “Gray area” garments confuse authenticity.  The”diffusion” line, or the less expensive designer line, provides an interesting example.  They can take the place of the counterfeiter and reach a new demographic.  Some may believe that, for example, a Calvin Klein Jeans shirt is not a “real” Calvin Klein shirt.  The exhibition examines three pairings of diffusion lines: Moschino and Cheap and Chic; Donna Karan and DKNY; and Missoni and Missoni for Target.  We looked at material and construction and how closely they follow the original.  With some of these diffusion pieces, one could assume without looking at the label that the garment is a direct knockoff of the higher-line designer piece. 

JM: Being able to view originals and reproductions side-by-side is a unique and exciting opportunity, and encourages close, careful scrutiny of clothing–something that visitors may or may not do on a daily basis. Were there any particular challenges in presenting close-up and interior details to the audience that translate the differences or similarities from one garment to another in the exhibition space?  How were up-close views and comparisons prepared and achieved for the visitor?

AE: Capturing details in a way that would be engaging, intuitive, and visual without being overwhelming was a huge, huge challenge. I wanted to show all the different levels of a counterfeit, but didn’t want to install a long, continuous row of cases in the galleries.  Working with a team of conservators, exhibit preparators, photographers, and technology development staff, we decided on a “cabinet of curiosities”-type of display for accessories that would include both still and interactive photos of the original and counterfeit side-by-side, with my notes on similarities and differences digitally transcribed onto the images.  A secured iPad on a stand in front of the cases contains very high-resolution photos on which the visitor can zoom in and explore.  A video showing multiple interior details was created for the “poster ladies”–the original and copy Chanel suits–that completely explains the exhibition.  There were so many interior details of other garments and accessories that I wanted to capture and show, but there was not enough time and resources.  Images of all labels are displayed, and are important visuals for reminding the general public and students alike not to take a label at face value, and to encourage good research skills.

JM: Reproductions or reinterpretations are a familiar component of the process of costume design for film, theater, or dance–and fashion design as well–where designers can revisit and reinterpret earlier work, both their own and the work of others.  For example, at the Harry Ransom Center where I work, we have a reproduction costume that was transferred from the FIT collection: a recreation of a film costume by Barbara Matera, originally designed by Gordon Conway for the 1929 British science fiction film, High Treason. Is there anything that the copies in the exhibition can tell us about particularly creative perspectives or solutions to recreating a garment, or are the differences mainly practical, cost-saving measures or reflective of a marked difference in construction skill or materials?  

AE: Copies can be made for a variety of reasons and can have different benefits.  There is the Claire McCardell “monastic dress”–a very popular simple shift that was replicated through licensed copies–which was also reproduced for a McCardell exhibition at FIT in the 1990s, and is the example in the FIT collection. Copies of Charles James’s garments can also be good for study, when the originals are too fragile or complex to handle.

A good example of the quality of couture copies can be found in the work of Stella Haninia. Haninia worked in the custom couture salon at I. Magnin department store, and had come there from Bergdorf Goodman.  The few sources I was able to locate on Haninia noted that she was known for great copies and loved to sew everything by hand.  I was a bit skeptical about the extensive hand-sewing–could this be true?  Examination of a copy of a Dior gray bodice and skirt with belt revealed that the pieces contained only a few machine stitches and had incredible layers of pleating in the skirt.  I was amazed and shocked–the copy completely defied and exceeded my expectations.  

Another favorite piece is a jacket by Dapper Dan.  His reinterpretations of luxury logos just keep telling me things–there are so many levels of authenticity to a Dapper Dan garment.  His insistence on and pursuance of high-quality materials led him to work with a Japanese textile company to make sure the colors on the leather wouldn’t bleed.  The jacket in the exhibition demonstrates what Dapper Dan described as taking “street looks and bring[ing] them up to the highest level of luxury.” The shawl-collared double-breasted jacket, fashioned from leather printed with the MCM logo, creates a completely new product.  Very few of Dapper Dan’s early pieces are still in existence, and FIT is the only known museum to have one in its collection.

Many thanks to Ariele Elia for her time and insights.  Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits is showing at The Museum at FIT through April 25.

Top image credit: (left) Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, day suit, wool bouclé, 1966, France, gift of Eleanor K. Graham, 73.82.1; (right): Licensed copy of a Chanel, day suit, wool bouclé, c. 1967, USA, Gift of Ruth L. Peskin, 78.179.4, The Museum at FIT.
Second image credit: Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, gift of Mrs. J. Mirsky, 76.125.1, The Museum at FIT.

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