Oh the irony. It's almost too much to sew a fake handle on.
Here are a few analogies to offer some perspective on Silk Street launching its own brand: It's like Al Capone launching his own armored car service. It's like Britney Spears Relationship Services™. It's like an ethics-championing New York state governor paying outrageous sums of money for sex. It's like the International Olympic Committee saying that it “is not a political association.”
Actually, those are terrible analogies because they lack the extreme level of ridiculousness involved in the SILKSTREET announcement. (Except maybe the IOC claim; that’s preposterous.)
According to state news agency Xinhua, the SILKSTREET branded merchandise that absolutely nobody will want includes middle-school-fundraiser level goods such as ties, shirts, scarves, and “a few household items such as tablecloths.” To assuage worries of authenticity from the hypothetical consumers who will never exist, all items “will be marked ‘quality guaranteed’.” Apparently, it's easy to copy those labels.
The report, which has an absurdity that rivals only a Silk Street vendor’s claim that those Breitling watches are absolutely real, also contains a precious threat from SILKSTREET™®© that “anyone who tries to counterfeit that brand will be held liable.” The report does not state what the said counterfeiters would be liable for—bad taste, it is assumed. The only way the story could get more ironic is if somebody actually was prosecuted for counterfeiting SILKSTREET merchandise. (Can somebody please make this happen?)
In all seriousness, Beijing’s Xiushui “Silk Street” Market is the notorious ground zero of the counterfeit trade in China. Even if it no longer moves the most product or has the best knock-offs, it will always be China’s granddaddy original gangster of sham.
For 20 years, Silk Street Market rested in a tight alley near the Friendship Store and southern embassy district. The cramped nature of shopping at Silk Street cannot be emphasized enough. In its heyday it was the only place in Beijing to get the better quality fakes, and it’s estimated to have done annual sales of over US$ 12 million. In 2005, citing fire safety, security, and permits, officials moved the market into a massive building.
Note that the market was not closed down for selling brand knock-offs. Since its move, there have been a number of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) triumphs—ahem—including bonuses given to vendors proving that their junk is real junk not fake junk; and, in one case, Burberry, Prada, Chanel, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton were awarded US$ 2,500 each for violations. It remains an IPR battleground in China.
Silk Street’s earliest brush with irony was that the northernmost end of the counterfeit goods market ran straight to the front door of the Embassy of the United States of America. This was no accident; it is estimated (by me) that the daily wardrobe of 85 percent of all ex-pats working in the “Middle Kingdom” consisted of at least some combination of a Polo RL dress shirt, J. Crew roll-neck sweater (green only), and Hugo Boss watch.
In 1998, US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was busted by US customs with 40 fake Beanie Babies while returning from a China trade mission during which, in even more irony, she had been pressuring Beijing to improve intellectual property rights protection. I would bet my Beijing–purchased Philippe Patek that she got them at Silk Street. And herein lies the rub for IPR champions.
Insanely high dollar amounts are often quoted when brands speak about their respective losses from counterfeiting in China. These numbers are always inflated for effect, though there are real losses incurred. But Beijing’s Silk Street is an extraordinary look into where those losses come from. In its heyday Silk Street was a crush of humanity, and almost none of it was Chinese.
Expats and tourists all flock to it because in China it somehow seems acceptable, unlike in New York’s Chinatown, where knock-off shopping is well-known to be illegal and wrong (though still popular). To see just how complicit foreigners are in the trade we go back to Beanie Babies. In the late 1990s, US customs, at the request of the Ty Corp., actually made a rule that individuals could only bring back one Beanie Baby purchased abroad. It is easy to just put a Chinese face to the illegal goods market. But when it comes time to play the IPR blame game, it’s important to remember that without a few—or fifty million—solicitors, the Silk Street Market wouldn’t be filled with customers or knock-offs.
But wait, there’s less: The true irony of the SILKSTREET story is that the brand would almost certainly benefit enormously from itself being illegally copied and sold… wherever. With a low brand value and no real money for promotion, SILKSTREET’s success as a brand is almost certainly impossible. But yet imagine a preposterous scenario in which photogenic British socialite Agyness Deyn borrows a hot Chinese fashion designer’s “ironic” SILKSTREET hat while coming out of a restaurant to shield herself from the paparazzi. Next SILKSTREET is profiled in Nylon magazine and fakes are soon available for New York hipsters in Chinatown. Knowing a good thing when it sees it, SILKSTREET leverages the illogical brand identity; its first retail outlet opens in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on May 12, 2009. It features a gallery of knock-offs of famous paintings done by up and coming Chinese artists.
A long shot? Yes. But do any of us really want to live in a world where SILKSTREET is more than a joke? So, branders everywhere, get out there and purchase a SILKSTREET product. With its brand adorning the shirts and hats of brand analysts, package designers, account directors, namers, and consumer researchers worldwide, it’s sure that SILKSTREET will never become popular.