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Little ripper

Is pirating designer fashion really all that bad?

My wife-to-be was sticking with red velvet and opera-costume designer Elizabeth Whiting, but my tastes ran cheaper. Weddings are affairs where ragged jeans and a T-shirt won't quite cut it, but the cost of a rented tuxedo is enough to feed an African family of four for a year. So, armed with parsimony and a photo-copied picture of a 1970s mod suit, I was off to Vietnam for a spot of designer piracy.

Despite the country's recent history of conflict, many Hanoi streets have a long tradition of selling single-issue crafts. Hang Gai, for example, is a street where silk reigns supreme. Outlets here sell silk robes, silk ties, silk hats, silk sleeping sacks, silk pyjamas and silk screen-prints. Stores belonging to high-end silk tailors are sandwiched between roadside stands flogging somewhat dated commemorative T-shirts that celebrate the 30th anniversary of victory in what locals call the American War.

My destination is La Soie, a family-run outfit that opened in 1955. It's run by Bich Hanh, a woman with a Botoxy smile and brown hair with black roots. She speaks in soft tones to customers, but uses Vietnamese expletives and the word "lazy" to pepper conversations with her underlings.

Above La Soie's bolts of silk and racks of ties and shirts hang the beaming visages of the wives of despots, royalty and other Important People. Catherine Deneuve has dropped by, as have the queen of Malaysia, the princess of Cambodia and one of the Danish princes.

Robert Mugabe's wife and the wife of the Democratic Republic of Congo's equally murderous dictator have also paid visits. Rounding out the collection of rogues is a picture of French Prime Minister François Mitterrand, in charge when the Rainbow Warrior was bombed. If the spouses of dictators - who are among the least likely to tolerate poor service or shoddy workmanship - give their thumbs up, who am I to disagree?

Four months earlier, my fiancée and I had paid Hanh a visit. I had ordered myself a suit with a collar that's described, depending on your cultural or political persuasion, as reminiscent of the Beatles, Mao or Nehru. My wife-to-be had brought with her a picture of a vintage school blazer ripped from the pages of Vogue. On our return to Auckland, the well-made clone drew many admiring glances.

On my latest visit, I notice the racks have no fewer than three such school blazers. The rip-off has been ripped off! Initial outrage quickly fades to simple hypocrisy. After all, no one has sympathy when a fence gets burgled.

However, according to the New Yorker, far from being the bane of the international catwalk industry, these "rip-offs" may actually be helping fashionistas. Economists are slowly coming to the conclusion that the fickle apparel industry thrives with weak intellectual property protection. They call it the "piracy paradox".

The spread of designs far and wide by pirates induces obsolescence. No one wants to be seen wearing what has become the bog standard, and so the flood of rip-offs pushes buyers back to designers - just in time for the next season's collection.

And, contrary to industry complaints, knock-off fashions rarely bite into the original designer's income. This point is best illustrated by timepieces: Are the people who buy a fake Rolex really depriving a Swiss corporation of $10,000? And would a once-mighty derivatives trader really be caught dead wearing a "Rolek"?

Back in New Zealand at the Cox's Bay Sea Scout Hall, I am tailor-made for the big day. Gold, silver and diamond Rolex: $7. Blue pinstriped silk-cashmere mod suit: $180. Getting married on a perfect June day wearing a watch where the nine o'clock diamanté has broken loose and wedged itself between the minute and hour hands? Timeless.