The Replica Dilemma: The ethics of fake designer products
Laura Elizabeth bought two Louis Vuitton Neverfull totes, a Gucci Marmont and a Louis Vuitton Métis Pochette, all for under $1,000. These four handbags retail for a combined $10,000.
She was able to buy them at such a low price because she bought replicas of the name-brand items.
The multibillion-dollar replica business costs name-brand companies billions in lost sales per year. Also known as fakes or knockoffs, replicas are close copies of original items created without the consent of the original manufacturer. The illegal trade centers around the consumers who purchase replica apparel.
Laura Elizabeth requested her real name not be used to avoid potential legal consequences. She has mostly engaged in buying replicas for personal use but has also sold replicas to buyers online.
Replicas are growing in popularity among young consumers. According to a Red Points poll, nearly 20% of survey participants 18 to 29 said they had knowingly bought a fake product. The largest online replica community, r/Fashionreps on Reddit, has grown to over 1.1 million members. The rise of replica popularity among young consumers is attributed to the app TikTok.
Laura Elizabeth said she found the seller she uses for her luxury handbags by word-of-mouth. This seller goes by Old Cobbler, and their replica-making operation is believed to be based in China. The seller uses a Chinese social image network site called Yupoo to display pictures of the merchandise they sell.
Nothing is sold directly on Yupoo; but the items on display can be purchased through links leading to separate websites. Laura Elizabeth said she purchases her handbags by selecting an item she sees on the seller’s Yupoo and messaging a representative on a Facebook group.
The representative arranges for the item to be bought and sends her a DHgate listing. DHgate is a Chinese e-commerce marketplace comparable to Amazon. Laura Elizabeth said she then purchases the item being sold on DHgate, and the item is sent through FedEx to her.
Laura Elizabeth said she is amazed by the quality and accuracy of the replica handbags. One of the replica handbags she bought from Old Cobbler was authenticated by a professional service, she said.
“I have a couple of authentic Louis Vuitton, not all my bags are reps,” said Laura Elizabeth. She said she has never been dissatisfied with the replicas she has bought, but if she sees minor flaws, she sells the replicas to replica buyers online. She then uses that money to buy the retail, non-replica, version of the handbag.
“I sometimes feel safer carrying a rep, like it’s less of an investment if something happens,” she said. Buying replicas allows her to expand her wardrobe while not spending as much money.
Manufacturing and selling replicas is considered trafficking, and is a federal offense, according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School. The criminal penalty for manufacturing and selling replicas is a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for a first-time offense and up to 20 years in prison for repeat offenders.
The penalty for possessing replicas is the same, but it's rarely enforced. That is because the law enforcing the ban on counterfeit goods requires the offender to seek financial gain or obtain with the intent to transfer or sell. Those who buy replicas for personal use can dispute the financial gain and intent components of the law, according to the Legal Information Institute.
Although criminal charges may be rare, replica buyers face the risk of seizure by U.S. Customs when replicas come from overseas.
Many others like Laura do not have much regard for large corporations when it comes to replicas.
Chase Lagro, 21, is a third-year digital arts and sciences student at the University of Florida.
Lagro said he does not have much sympathy for large corporations and the economic loss created by replicas. He thinks that large companies are hurt the most by replicas, but, those corporations are worth so much that it does not significantly affect them.
“The artist would definitely not like it,” said Lagro when asked how he thinks product designers feel when their products are replicated. He said he thinks that for large companies, it likely would not matter as much because the artists are being paid well.
“Kanye was being paid millions and is worth billions, so I don’t really care if he’s getting ripped off,” said Lagro, highlighting the former agreement between Kanye West and Adidas.
Lagro thinks it’s a big slap in the face to small companies and artists if their products are being replicated. But he pointed out that replica producers rarely target small brands when producing their products. Lagro said he believes that replicas do not subtract from the work the artist has done but are not looked upon highly because the artists are not paid by the replica makers.
Lagro has not bought replicas but said he would consider buying replicas if he wanted an outrageously priced item produced by a large corporation. He said he is not likely to purchase replicas but is open to the idea in the scenario he mentioned.
Lagro said he believes replicas have an overall neutral effect. He also believes that replicas should be discussed in fashion and design courses. The discussion should be neutral, but it cannot be ignored because replicas are such a large issue.
Myles Dunigan is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Florida School of Art and Art History. He is also an artist, specializing in printmaking and reproducible media.
“Almost everything we consume is a replica,” said Dunigan. Almost everyone has purchased some sort of replica, he said, whether in the form of art or consumer goods.
Profiting from someone’s intellectual or creative property is always wrong, said Dunigan. He thinks that creating or purchasing replicas of items originally made by large corporations is completely fine, as long as the intent is for personal use and enjoyment.
Dunigan said replicas allow people to experience art and design more intimately. He likens replicas to museums because people do not get to own the art or design but are still able to experience it. It can give people ownership or agency in a realm that they do not normally feel capable or empowered to participate in.
“As long as you know it’s a counterfeit, I think there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy it,” said Dunigan. The only danger in purchasing a counterfeit is if someone does not know the item is a counterfeit and feels ripped off, he said.
Dunigan said he encourages people to make their own interpretations of popular brands. This creates a new product and protects them legally because the product is either a commentary or satire. He said the only way a replica is truly negative is if someone profits from an artist’s work and does it in a way that hurts the designer’s credibility or reputation.
“There’s been a lot of moves away from fast fashion and from these ways of consuming that are overly and overtly harmful,” said Dunigan. He said he hopes people making replicas with their own interpretations can encourage more sustainable consumption habits.
One area replicas may have an impact is second-hand clothing stores.
Jennifer Perez, 24, is a shift manager at Plato’s Closet in Gainesville. She said there are some brands that the store can authenticate and some brands they cannot. She said they can authenticate Nike, Michael Kors, Kate Spade and Birkin. A couple of brands they cannot authenticate are Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
“I haven’t come across many replicas while working at Plato’s Closet,” said Perez. If she does come across replicas when checking for authenticity, she rejects the item and returns it to the original owner.