Project Native Informant

Say Hai To Shanzhai: Shanzhai Biennial Turns Luxury Branding On Its Ear, Aiming To Confuse As Much As Amuse

November 2012

One thing that the fashion industry has never taken lightly is knockoffs. Brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, and Tory Burch have all seen lookalike products sold at twilight along the crowded Chinatown corners of Canal Street—cheaply made, for a fraction of the cost. Some of these sartorial heavyweights have won multimillion- dollar lawsuits against the factories that manufacture these designer-imposter bags, sunglasses, cell phone cases, scarves, etc., sending the stewards of the sham assembly lines into colossal debt into perpetuity. Somehow still, somehow marvellously, the knockoffs continue to survive like atomic roaches.

When confronted with the work of Shanzhai Biennial, a new project by artists Babak Radboy and Cyril Duval (Item Idem), one reacts with a special type of confusion: Is this a fashion line? Are they selling knockoffs? Is it some kind of joke? Are these clothes real? Where can you buy them? Do you want them? These are some of the questions that may pop up. Clearly nodding to inherent hilarity of the skewed words and altered brand names that go along with knockoff culture (known overseas as "Shanzhai" branding), it's evident that the work is a clever, irreverent acknowledgment of the faux- fashion phenomenon as well as an exaggerated example of it—though many of the pieces co-opt specific brands, they are designed in styles said brands would never produce. V spoke with Radboy following the duo's debut at Beijing Design Week, where they premiered their first campaign in a building designed by Ai Wei Wei.


PATRIK SANDBERG How was the launch?
BABAK RADBOY The opening was pretty hilarious. We were invited to Beijing Design Week which opened over the course of three days at three separate locations around Beijing. Ours was on the second day in Caochangdi in a complex designed by Ai Wei Wei. When we realized that the opening night had no official ceremony planned, we decided to base our install around appropriating the entire event. We installed a red carpet that started at the entrance of the compound but then made a hard left— circumventing all the other exhibitors and leading directly to our space, ending on a step-and-repeat V.I.P. reception area. Fashion One TV and other journalists were there interviewing people as they showed up and we had a Chinese hostess dressed in one of our prototype products, handing out SB branded eye masks.

PS What was the inspiration behind the environment?
BR In the actual space, we built a façade of a retail store, running our campaign images as giant light boxes on acrylic behind glass and chrome doors that were totally locked. That was the basic idea. A lot of hype for a bright, empty façade.

PS To clear up any confusion: what is Shanzhai Biennial exactly? Will there be an actual collection available to buy?
BR The whole thing has been admittedly purposefully confusing. So much so, that the New York Times totally misrepresented it and we decided not to correct them! We want to encourage some misunderstanding and rumor to build an aura around the brand. The goal is to sell actual things—but we are still in the process of making any actual things.

PS Tell us about the campaign images. What inspired the poses?
BR We literally made our first campaign in Photoshop and then sent the images to sample makers to make the actual garments. The campaign ran as an 8-page advertorial in China's most mainstream magazine—Modern Weekly. It's a rip-off of the paintings of Chinese art-star Yue Minju, whose work is constantly being plagiarized and is available all over China. Each photo is based 100% on one of his horrible paintings. The photos were shot by Asger Carlsen and styled by Avena Gallagher, who is our fashion director.

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