An Inside Look: The Big Business Of Fake Fashion

Despite what you've heard, imitation isn't always the sincerest form of flattery.

Counterfeit fashion isn’t a new phenomenon, but 2020 has seen a surge in illegal knock-offs, with face coverings joining the booming trade of the rip-off retail world. Denise Curtin takes a closer look.

I remember my first encounter with counterfeit fashion. It was 2006 and I was on a holiday with my family in Rome when I spotted ‘Prada’ and ‘Gucci’ bags for sale on a rug down quite a busy street. Impressed by the vendor’s lack of fear, selling fake designer products only a stone’s throw from the legitimate stores themselves, I wondered to myself, ‘if he can get away with this, why would anyone pay thousands for a handbag, when they could grab a knock-off for less than a tenner off this brazen salesman?’

As a teenager, my lack of knowledge on the counterfeit industry, my want to get a piece of the designer pie, and my need to impress my friends at school kept me from batting an eyelid at the bigger issue I was paying into by handing this man money.

So I did it, strutting off in style with my Gucci bag, spelt Guccci I might add, but I didn’t care about that, because it looked real and I felt rich. But 2006 was a totally different ball game to 2020, and now, the counterfeit industry is a much bigger beast than it was in the noughties.

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Today, it’s not just the global brands taking the hit, yes “Chanel shoes”, “Louis Vuitton bags” and “Supreme t-shirts” still top the list as some of the most heavily targeted goods by counterfeiters, and equally, as searched by consumers, but those forging fake fashion are constantly trying to think ahead of the curve, targeting smaller brands with potential, undercutting their sales and hindering their businesses entirely.

In June of this year, the Irish Times published a report which stated that Irish businesses are losing more than €400 million annually due to counterfeit sales. This, in turn, is feeding into the estimated figure that the EU governments are losing €15 billion in lost taxes due to fake goods. Taking into account the counterfeit products across a wide range of sectors, the report particularly noted that lost sales in the cosmetics and personal care sectors have increased by €2.5 billion in the EU since a comparable study by the EUIPO in 2019.

This is a clear indication that consumers appetite for fake goods is not diminishing, but at what cost? Not only is the production of these products illegal, with manufacturing and working conditions not compliant with relevant safety standards, but Interpol has also revealed that counterfeiting is used by criminal gangs to support other types of organised crime. These include money-laundering, document fraud, cybercrime, financial fraud, drug production and trafficking; which is unfortunately, not surprising.

Hype Beast 

Today, we’re more exposed to the counterfeit industry, no longer is the shady trade limited to side streets in holiday hotspots and hidden on the internet for those on a quest to find some decent knock-offs, nowadays, you only have to open the likes of TikTok and Instagram for it to be right in front of you. On TikTok, the hashtag “DHgate unboxing” is one of the more popular trends on the viral video app. Showcasing high quality counterfeit purchases from the Chinese marketplace, DHgate, the hashtag has over 17 million views with users flaunting everything from their fake bags to their take-off limited edition runners, all purchased for a fraction of the authentic retail price.

Similarly so, the problem seems to be very obvious on Instagram. Not only is the app a breeding ground for jealousy and competition, with everyone wanting what the other one appears to have, but many influencers are now feeding into the counterfeit trade, marketing fake designer products to their audiences as a source of income.

This year in particular, the problem seems to be only getting worse. Due to the Coronavirus, we’ve seen a rise in a new strain of counterfeit goods – fake designer face coverings. A new and profitable market for counterfeiters, who appear to be working alongside influencers to attract potential buyers.

Recently, celebrities like Amber Gill and Maya Jama have been seen to be promoting copycat Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton designs on Instagram. Sparking fans’ interest and want to copy their favourite celebs at a cheaper price point.

A study carried out by Awesome Merchandise, a printing company in Leeds city centre highlighted this exact problem. Seeing a rise in fake prints showing up online, Awesome Merchandise’s owner Luke Hudson explained that influencers need to take responsibility to check the background of the products they’re promoting before pushing them on their feed. “Supporters of these counterfeit products forget that for the designers and artists behind the piece of artwork, be it in a print or on a piece of clothing or merchandise, spend a huge amount of time devoted to creating them. From the initial concept to developing and refining the idea, it’s a skill set that is very special and unique and shouldn’t be taken for granted,” explained Luke.

And for companies like Awesome Merchandise, the fear of having their designs replicated is an everyday occurrence. “We try to monitor things as much as possible but it’s not the easiest thing to do. We are part of an active community of creatives and they are often very helpful in bringing things to our attention, for good and bad,” added Luke.

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Early this summer, Social Recluse, a small independent design shop in Glasgow saw this fear become a reality when their designs were spotted on a counterfeit account selling replicas in Malaysia. A disheartening discovery for designer Robert Chambers and his team who had no other choice but to persevere and raise awareness of the growing problem. “I always say it’s okay to be inspired by someone but taking what’s not yours is wrong. Social Recluse isn’t a big brand but we have trusted friends and customers. We always hope that value outstrips the cost. Will you get that when someone is ripping off your style or designs?” explained Robert.

The sad reality is that counterfeiters don’t think about Robert and his company, or the millions of other companies and brands they are severely impacted when they take their designs to make a quick buck. What can be changed, however, is consumers’ awareness about what they’re buying and where it comes from. Ella De Guzman, owner of designer resale boutique Siopaella in Dublin sees counterfeit products come through her doors regularly and it’s her job to spot the real deal from the fakes. Educating her customers on what to look out for, Ella noted that with counterfeit products you might notice a difference with the “stitching, hardware, fabric, weight and stamping” and so, these are always important things to check. Aside from that, it’s important to make sure that the brand you’re buying off is legitimate, the reviews of the product are favourable and that the price point looks about right, because at the end of the day, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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