South Africa: Dapper Dan: Knockups Rather Than Knock-Offs

Last Updated: 9 October 2019
Article by Ilse Du Plessis
Most Read Contributor in South Africa, September 2019

Counterfeiters...we all know what they’re like! Nasty sorts who knowingly deceive and rip-off consumers, tempting them to buy cheap and often poorly-made copies of famous names. Nasty sorts who don’t hesitate to sell goods that may well pose health risks. Nasty sorts who deliberately damage property, the property in this case being intellectual property in the form of trade marks. Nasty sorts who deserve everything they get, be it a cripplingly expensive civil court injunction and damages order, or a criminal conviction carrying a custodial sentence.

But what if the counterfeiter isn’t your run-of-the mill copycat? What if the counterfeiter makes copies that are even better than the real thing? What if the counterfeiter makes copies that cost even more than the real thing? What if the counterfeiter brings the brand to the attention of people who would otherwise never interact with it? Should the brand owner treat a counterfeiter like that a little differently? As a potential partner maybe?

If you read the GQ article Gucci partnership, dressing Harlem’s notorious gangsters and getting busted by Sonia Sotomayor (or saw the CNN report on the topic) you’ll know where this is going. If not, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Dapper Dan!

Dapper Dan has an interesting past. Back in the day – and in fact in the place, which was Harlem, New York – Dapper Dan was very much the man. Dapper Dan produced counterfeit Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton and MCM merchandise. According to the GQ article Dapper Dan produced “acts of sartorial piracy so extravagant that they demanded to be described with the neologism knockups rather than knock-offs”.

Dapper Dan was something of a visionary and a trend-setter. He is said to have started the “Africanization of the premium European brand”, an idea that came to him after conducting a tour of African countries – Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt and Tanzania.

Dapper Dan, we’re told, was known as “the original auteur of gangster chic”. As such his counterfeits had useful practical additions such as (stab-resistant) Kevlar elements and hidden double pockets for contraband. Amongst Dapper Dan’s clients was “the baddest man on the planet”, Mike Tyson. Dapper Dan’s counterfeits were more expensive than the real thing, “scarcely affordable for anyone outside the elite circles of sports stars and drug kingpins”.

Of course this didn’t go unnoticed. Eventually the lawyers arrived. Dapper Dan was raided by lawyers acting for various brand owners, in something that must have been like the Anton Piller order we know in South Africa. One of the raiders was Sonia Sotomayor, then a young lawyer who had grown up in the Bronx and who is now a Supreme Court justice. Sotomayor managed to make a very favourable impression on Dapper Dan, notwithstanding the fact that she was raiding his premises and effectively putting him out of business, because, it seems, where the other lawyers present were quite prepared to rip up the rule book, lawyer Sotomayor was adamant that they had to play nice, to abide by the rules.

A lot of time passed. Then in 2018 Gucci unveiled a “balloon sleeved bomber in mink and leather” (I’m not sure either!) that was, by all accounts, practically identical to a 1989 Dapper Dan creation that he had sold under a brand name he fancied at the time, Louis Vuitton. Gucci’s product caused a stir in the place where the biggest stirs occur... online! “A knockoff of a knock-up”, said the twitterati.

What could possibly happen next? Well, it turns out that the online stir got Gucci thinking. And talking. To Dapper Dan no less. How about we work together Dapper Dan? How about we collaborate?

And that is just what’s happened, there’s a collaboration between the former foes. Dapper Dan will now work on materials supplied by Gucci. According to the article Dapper Dan says he has a carte blanche, well certainly, “within the context of what Gucci’s all about, you know, their standard... which I raise the bar on (laughs)”. Or, as he puts it, “the only limitations will have to do with the perception of what I think is hip and what they (Gucci) think is hip, keeping the essence of Gucci.” And his advice to the big brand owners: “The big houses can keep pulling people in, but they have to first become relevant with the have-nots. It’s all about the have-nots.”

So am I, a trade mark attorney whose business it is to see that companies protect their trade marks and enforce those trade marks against infringers who damage their goodwill and deceive (and sometimes even physically harm) consumers should now go easy on counterfeiters? Of course I’m not. All I’m saying is things aren’t always black and white and it’s always good to keep an open mind!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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