PHILOMIMESIS: Celine designer "flattered" by copies, says Vogue. Or is she?

American Vogue's March iPad edition is a fresh, surprising embrace of technology, from the Harry Potter-esque preening and posing portrait of Beyoncé on the cover to music clips to a video interview with Alber Elbaz.  The future of magazines is finally here.

Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the issue, however, is a feature by Hamish Bowles on Céline cult designer Phoebe Philo, who not only revived the brand but created a new and influential version of chic minimalism.  She also created the perfect handbag -- but I digress.  The article's descriptions portray her as a woman of contradictions, reveling in her influence but at the same time almost fetishizing privacy and declaring that not existing on Google is the ultimate in chic.  Perhaps there's a reason that neither that handbag nor the house's collections are available for sale online, except secondhand.  Or counterfeit.

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Her take on what the article describes as "a veritable industry of high-street imitations" is at once extraordinarily predictable and positively puzzling. 

"I've got friends with copied pieces," says Philo. "My mum's even got a knockoff bag!"

"I love it," she says.  "I'm nothing but flattered."  Like Coco Chanel before her, Philo feels that when you are not being copied, "that's when it's time to worry."

So far, predictable.  The standard "cool" designer response to copying is always to invoke the f-word.  ("Flattered," of course.)  She's even got her Coco quotes down.

The puzzling part is that Céline is owned by LVMH, the world's largest luxury conglomerate and the company that has in past declared a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to fakes, backing up its position with litigation that, while not frequent, has been more experimental than that of some other storied fashion houses.  (As more than one in-house counsel has told me, "We all watch LV.")  Did someone clear the quotes with HQ?  And was Ms. Philo not aware of the self-correction offered by Marc Jacobs years ago after a similar slip?   

On the other hand, perhaps what we might call Phoebe's philomimesia* is more clever than it appears at first gasp.  (What, you didn't gasp?) 

Mlle. Chanel reportedly tossed off a couple of bons mots indicating indifference to copying, but in reality also exercised her considerable French legal rights when in came to copyists.  The notoriously independent designer even partnered with fellow couturiere Madeleine Vionnet to vanquish a particularly persistent pirate.  In other words, she knew what to say to the press and the public to appear cool as a cucumber about copying but was all business in the courtroom.  (The occasional historical fact comes in handy amid a sea of questionable quotes.  Back in 2006, when I testified in Congress with regard to concerns about copying, one of the opponents of protection tossed off an ill-considered Chanel quote -- and shrank visibly after I politely added historical context.  I don't know that he's been heard from on the subject since -- though that hasn't stopped others from deliberately offering out-of-context quotes.)
 
Phoebe may be as smart and subtle as Coco in managing her audience -- especially since she must be aware that the LVMH legal team keeps busy on behalf of its family of brands, and she did refer to knockoffs rather than to actual counterfeits attempting to appear genuine. 

Or she may simply have been speaking off the cuff.  After all, it's understandable that designers are flattered by admiration for their work, perhaps even when that "admiration" is at the hands of thieves with good taste, though designers with an eye on the bottom line have learned to be wary of the financial fallout from copying.  And as a fellow who'd been convicted of counterfeiting once told me, you really can judge the rise and fall of labels' fortunes by what's most popular on Canal Street. 

Carefully constructed or clueless, the quoted remarks suggest a recommendation to Ms. Philo on which we can all agree.  Phoebe, please buy your mum a real bag!

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*No I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of extremely obscure medical terms like philomimesia, and certainly not of one that as of now appears exactly 5 times in a Google search, only 2 of those in English.  (A chic achievement, in Phoebe's world.)  It's just a word that I thought ought to exist, with a less extreme valence than the medical definition.  I therefore propose that we shorten slightly it to "philomimesis" for convenience, use it in popular parlance to indicate a love of copies or copying, note an ancient Greek etymology (philo + mimesis), add an adjectival form ("philomimetic"), and consider it the perfect pun in context.  Or a contagious social disease.