The fashion knockoff industry has been in business for possibly as long as the fashion industry itself. It is common knowledge that products created by high-end designers like Gucci and Chanel are the dreams of many, only to be afforded by few. Thereby, the fashion knockoff industry has now become the one-stop solution for the masses. I say “industry” because the magnitude of businesses working in the field of making copycat products — namely bags, belts and even apparel — is astonishing, to say the least.
Furthermore, this industry is now morphing into an economy that shows no signs of slowing down, especially as the desire for exclusive products is becoming increasingly ubiquitous thanks to social media and the rise of influencers. The famed interlocking Gucci belt has become adorned by so many Instagram stars that it no longer stands out against Yeezys and other trademark streetwear goods, which now dominate the social sphere.
Some argue the copycat economy is founded on the basis of a crime: theft of design. This is true to a certain extent. Many believe that it, like any business, is simply fulfilling an existing gap in the market, matching the supply to the great demand and capitalizing on a lucrative business opportunity. Business and morals have often conflicted with one another, and this is no exception. Time and time again, critics have cried out against the rather unknown masterminds pulling the strings of the knockoff industry, and lawsuits have been filed, but to no avail. The matter-of-fact is that this economy operates more like a complex web spread across the world, far too flawless in their working to be rooted out.
While exclusive brands charging thousands of dollars rightfully call those in the business of copying wrong, Coco Chanel herself very frankly admitted that knockoffs were simply the “ransom of success.” The economic impact is similar to a pendulum — it could swing either way. Often, when knockoffs are easily available, genuine customers are naturally less willing to shell out large sums of money when they find others enjoying the same sense of exclusiveness at a much lower cost. This possibly leads to lower brand loyalty, since loyalty is a subjective aspect, closely related to the availability of alternatives.
However, not all designs can be replicated, and definitely not all imitations are of similar quality to the original. There might be a few extremely well-made knockoffs that are almost impossible to distinguish from the genuine product, unless you were to examine its every intricacy: from the lining, to the material, to the type of stitch used. Moreover, some designs are products of the brand monopolizing on its superior finish, production technique and detail-oriented work, making them simply too difficult to copy. For example, replicas of the Balenciaga city bag often struggle to find similar high-quality leather quality with the right amount of shine.
What’s even more important than simply discussing the nuances of replication is the realization that the fashion knockoff industry is not limited to simply making knockoffs. It also includes some very popular and commonplace brands, all lumped under the category of fast fashion. While you can guess what these brands are, I am referring to common favourites, like Zara and H&M, who are indeed infamous for churning out designs similar to those seen on the runway in shockingly little time.
These brands work on the basis of microseasons and are able to rehaul their entire lines to match Fashion Week designs in as much or even less time it takes for the exclusive fashion houses to bring their collections from the ramp to their window displays. These brands are well-oiled machines with a clear system in place. The inclusion of these large, global companies into the copycat economy exponentially increases the size of the industry and not only normalizes a part of it, but even legalizes it. However, these multinational corporations are not without their own set of troubles.
The rise of fast fashion in the past decade has completely transformed how this age-old system works. Demand has skyrocketed because many consumers have come to rely on clothing from these cheap and easy brands, as they unknowingly become involved in this unspoken side of the knockoff industry.
In today’s age, the knockoff industry continues to grow with the introduction of online shopping and the fact that replication isn’t simply limited to high-end designers anymore. Companies based in China, like SheIn, are known for ripping off designs from more common stores and selling them for dirt-cheap. They seem too be to good to be true, and they often are, thanks to their mediocre quality material and large-scale production.
What is even more amusing about this business of knockoffs is that it’s not a one way street. Often times, large companies, the likes of which include Old Navy and Anthropologie, have been accused of profiteering by copying the work of individual designers. This stream of interaction is received more with anger, because the masses seem to feel wronged in knowing that companies to which they shell out their own hard-earned money are profiting by stealing another artist’s work. The last piece of this puzzle is the legal aspect: I was surprised to find that much of the replication that occurs is legal, since small-scale designers often do not trademark their graphics or images. Furthermore, there have even been cases of designer fashion houses copying work, including Saint Laurent, Gucci and Off-White just to name a few. This just goes to show that this industry is not restricted by the type of product, or the imminence of the brand involved, but functions only according to one thing — the bottom line.