Last week, a friend sent me an article about wealthy women who purchase high-quality counterfeit luxury bags. The trend surprised me: Authenticity has long been a status symbol when it comes to luxury items. Knock-offs are usually purchased by people who aspire to the status image of the wealthy without having the wealth. So one wonders why wealthy women who have the resources would buy the knock-offs.

But luxury consumer culture is driven more by exclusivity than by quality, and the highest-quality knock-offs are apparently exclusive and elusive. They are less expensive than the real items, so they’re arguably good investments; there is value in the cost and in the price creep that happens as more people buy them. But reading about these bags immediately made me think about people whom the article doesn’t consider: those who make them.

One of the arguments against knock-off designer bags is that they are often made under horrific and even violent labor conditions. That is not to suggest that working in designer leather factories is ever fairly compensated—luxury is almost always dependent upon some exploitation of those who do its labor—but there are degrees. In 2021, Gucci made a public statement against modern slavery and human trafficking as a response to unethical labor practices in the designer world. The statement is alarming to read, but it’s a sign of how brutal the work of making leather goods can be. There isn’t a clean line between legitimate and illegitimate labor. If you shop in Italy, the knock-offs sold on the street, often by Africans, are of remarkably good quality and are often made by the same people as the originals. But in underground markets that are completely unregulated, workers are most vulnerable to mistreatment.

In an article that at first blush seemed to undermine the way luxury labels are fetishized (ostensibly a good thing) there was a glaring omission: asking what the cost of counterfeiting is at the bottom rung.

In Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (introduction at link), I wrote about how domination is layered. There are rarely simple binaries of exploiter and exploited. There are exploiters, plural, who exist in a complex network with one another, often unawares. This is why there are generations of social theorists who have struggled mightily with how we think about consumption and culture as a part of the political economy. People exist in what Patricia Hill Collins described as matrices of domination. And culture and image are palimpsestic, rife with meanings far beyond what appears on the surface.

I adorn my body to satisfy my aesthetic sensibilities and also as a kind of armor in an unfair world. But the artifacts I carry also carry the condition of others. Sweatshops are draped across my form. Arthritic fingers sewed the stitches. Hunched shoulders blocked the fabric. Rheumy eyes wound the bobbin. Where I am situated in the world is determined by more than the fact of my race, gender, and class, my education and employment. It is also about whose hands cramped for the elegance I assert.