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sarah hampson's currency

Consider Subway Girl with her Chloé bag.

Let her be a cautionary tale about the knockoff dilemma.

Because, yes, ladies (and some gents), a dilemma there is.

Do you buy a knockoff designer item? And if you do, should you tell others? And if you tell, what are you really trying to communicate? Such a modern dilemma, no?

In the pre-branding era, and before fashion was so democratic, people didn't have to worry about such things. You threw on your finery and silk whatnots, and everyone immediately knew you were Somebody, with status and dough to spare. The moneyed look was out of reach to most.

Now, head to New York's Canal Street, and voil à, you can instantly transform into one of those women in the fashion ads who looks better, more important, than the mere mortals gazing at her glossy image.

But if the knockoff culture levels the playing field for the outer self, what effect does it have on the inner self? Can a conscience carry off a fake Gucci? Does it want to try?

It was, in fact, to New York's Canal Street that Subway Girl ventured. She told me that she'd always lusted after the big brands. "I admired those designers, and I wanted to be represented by those brands."

The 25-year-old had done her research. "I read the fashion blogs. I knew not to get a Louis Vuitton bag. Even the real ones look like knockoffs now because they are so ubiquitous. I wanted to buy something iconic with the name of the label on it."

Result? A Chloé knockoff bag for $100. The real thing: $1,000 and up.

But disappointment loomed. Within days of her return to Toronto, off she went with it on the subway and felt instant mortification.

"I noticed people looking at it, and I felt like a liar."

A few months later, she donated it to Goodwill. "I didn't understand my relationship with knockoffs," she explains now.

Partly, it was a matter of naiveté, she acknowledges. She wasn't yet fully aware of her own "painful self-awareness" - that such duplicity would bother her.

How could Subway Girl have known? It's the American dream, after all. There are no barriers to higher status. And in this iteration, you don't even have to work for it. It's a discounted, quick-fix, Horatio-Alger-like solution.

But if duplicity doesn't bother you, perfect your strut: Most people don't know the difference. And if you still want to wear it - Subway Girl did say she bought the bag not only because of the label but because she liked the shape - consider rocking a smirk.

I had to have a little think about how to swing a fake bag when my younger sister sent me one a few Christmases ago. When I opened the wrapping, my first thought was, "Wow. She bought me a Prada bag! What did I do to deserve that?" That was quickly followed by, "Wow. It's a fake! What did I do to deserve that?" Talk about baggage - a fake purse is packed full of it.

She told me later that she had been to Italy, and the knockoff looked so real she couldn't resist. (I didn't ask if she had bought one for herself, which might have revealed a dark underbelly of sisterly love such as, say, I'm real but you're a knockoff. ) Once I had thought through all the freighted messages the gift could possibly imply, I settled on the idea that she thought I might enjoy carrying it off, or attempting to, anyway.

It's a kitschy joke that can signal self-awareness in an ironic age. If you're sure enough of your who-I-am-where-I-belong social co-ordinates, you can carry a fake branded bag, admit to it and find the whole thing fabulously funny. Ha ha, the culture of pretension is so rampant, dahling!

And I did admit to my fake Prada, whenever anyone looked at it with admiration. I didn't throw it out. (I didn't want to hurt my sister's feelings, even though she lives in Europe.) And I wasn't insulted by it. (Ha! Me?) I eventually tired of it, which is why it's now buried in the accessory graveyard at the bottom of my closet.

Scoring a deal on a real designer item is quite another closet of Michael Kors, of course.

"I once bought one of those Japanese designer dresses at Holt Renfrew's Last Call. It was $800, and I got it for $250," a friend tells me. "If someone asks, I would tell them. I'm proud of myself for the money I saved."

What she doesn't add is that the admission is a subtle jab at those women who make a point of purchasing overpriced fashion before the stores lower their exorbitant margins. "Go ahead," the thinking goes, "you ladies waste your money to be first at the racks. Suckers! I'll be like you only a few months later and for significantly less."

And what of clothes that are "in the spirit of" a designer? I once had a Pucci-esque summer dress, purchased on sale for $100. If anyone commented on it, I always made clear that it was not the real thing. I didn't want them to think that I spend that kind of money on clothes - although, unfortunately, I sometimes do. I also didn't want them to think that it matters to me who I am wearing. "It's reverse snobbism," explains another woman, who admits to the same impulses.

Straight-up style snobbism is at play here, too. Some feel that the ladies who lunch and shop top-end designer acquire style simply by dropping cash - how gauche ! - whereas the truly creative and stylish can put together finds from Winners and look fabulous.

Still, is the very act of any label, non-label, or knockoff-label admission a show of insecurity that we worry too much about what others think?

My father once noticed my Pucci-esque dress and commented on it favourably. I de-Pucci-tized it immediately, but he, a gentleman of the most subtle and confident sort, gently admonished me.

It wasn't just that talking about money - even about how little I spent - was not good manners: The admission suggested a wobbliness of character.

"There's no need to admit to anything," he said over the top of his newspaper. "Don't say it's Pucci. And don't say it's not. Just accept the compliment and say, 'Thank you, I am very pleased with it.'" And with that, he disappeared behind the headlines.