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Thoughts On Knock-Offs


I fear this post will be quite long because there are so many areas to cover when we are discussing knock-offs. First what makes a knock-off? A direct copy or something very close to a direct copy? When does it become "inspired by" instead of knock-off and what if it's all a copy of a copy of a copy? And does it hurt the brand? What about how it's produced?

The first question that comes to mind with knock-offs is what is the creative source? The first image in this post is a dress from the Schiaparelli Haute Couture F/W 2014 collection and the second is of Ginger Rogers in a similar heart top for the 1938 movie Carefree and the final picture is a street fashion picture from 2010 of a Karen Walker dress. Which is the knock-off? The haute couture look which almost completely replicates the 1938 one or the Karen Walker dress which seems to take inspiration from the past while putting its own twist on things? After seeing the Karen Walker dress I actually made my own version using felt. Is my DIY project a knock off?
Ultimately to me defining a knock-off becomes very tricky when you look back and notice earlier versions and how things get re-interpreted by different stores and brands. Can you actually pinpoint the original thought or is that high street knock-off actually copying a copy itself? If you buy a Schiaperlli Haute Couture dress copying a 1930s one are you buying less of a knock-off than someone shopping something cheaper online? Also, what sort of alterations make an item "inspired" by an original design rather than a copy of it? Is changing embellishment to a flat print enough? There are blood drips in the Sciaperlli look you can't see in the 1930s one and it's more gem-encrusted--so is it not a copy since they changed small details? I just find it a very thin line between an online shop selling an identical dress in a cheaper material than the original and a high street store selling a dress inspired by the original with minor alterations.

Of course the inspiration becomes a moot point with many blatant designer knock-offs. Perhaps ultimately though the question of originality doesn't matter. Even is a modern designer dress was inspired by a vintage one, the designer dress is the one being copied today--it is that current design house that stands to be affected by knock-offs. For me it then becomes a question of whether my knock-off purchase actually hurts the designer. For example, I recently wore a dress that replicates a Dolce & Gabbana dress priced at over $4,000. I hesitate to purchase an item when it costs more than $100 and won't spend $4,000 on my wedding dress. So, when I purchase a much cheaper knock-off I'm not hurting Dolce & Gabbana sales--Dolce & Gabbana were never going to make a sale from me. Direct sales to individuals like myself do not affect big brands that have priced themselves out of our market.
Indirectly, a lot of knock-offs can theoretically negatively affect sales since part of the incentive of a higher price is exclusivity. Birkin popularity seems to be decreasing since more reality stars started carrying them and they have became more ubiquitous. Not even Birkin knock-offs, but rather the supposed of accessibility and rise in Birkin visibility on city streets is affecting the brand. The model remains the same for knock-offs though: too many versions of the same dress being available at high street shops and people who can afford the original lose interest. Again, personally my thoughts are this: snobbery shouldn't be reinforced. If people are only interested in a piece because no one else can afford it, then their interest is superficial and I don't see why I should protect it by refusing to buy a knock-off. Many luxury brands are inflating their prices to increase their appeal. I'm not really interested in protecting a brand that intentionally seeks to appeal only to higher income individuals and keep the plebeians out of their clothes. In fact, my views on not wanting to protect brand identity of a number of designers could be an entire other post.
On the opposite side of the knock-off dilemma affecting brands is a theory that the popularity of replicas actually helps sales of a brand--perceived popularity can also drive sales. People interested in having "it" items will buy things they seem everyone else wearing and people who buy replicas do sometimes upgrade to the original. It seems that whatever way you look at it big brands and major designers aren't suffering that much from knock-offs.

Independent brands and artists are a different story. While I'm fairly comfortable purchasing knock-offs of major designers and brands I'll never be able to afford I avoid pieces that knock-off individual designers or artists. Of course, many shops that carry knock-offs of designers will also carry knock-off of individual, independent work. If I recognize an illustration from an artist on Etsy on the sweatshirt in a shop not affiliated with the artist, I won't purchase it. Some will choose not to shop at those stores, but it's rather difficult to find shops that aren't guilty of copying artists' work. I often see shops based in China or Korea as the biggest offenders, but we are quick to forget that even Zara has been caught printing images of bloggers on their tee shirts. They pulled the shirts after public outrage, but the example remains: almost any high street shop you shop at is probably guilty of producing a knock-off. It almost seems as if the only way to avoid knock-offs entirely is to go directly to the source and purchase only vintage, secondhand, or independent designs. Although I admire people with that sort of dedication, it's a step I don't quite feel prepared to make. I just know for myself that I will do everything in my power to support independent designers through posts and purchases--and non purchases!

But aren't knock-offs produced in unsafe working conditions? While I think it is good people seem concerned about how knock-offs are produced, I think it's disingenuous to phrase this problem as if it's a knock-off issue. It's becoming more and more clear that much of our high fashion is produced in terrible, even deadly conditions. Even brands like Nike, Gap, and Calvin Klein produce clothes in Bangladesh where a deadly factory collapse happened in 2013. PVH Corp. (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hillfiger) only signed a safety agreement aimed at stricter regulation of working conditions after the factory collapse. Consider also the suicide protests of factory workers in China producing Apple products a few years ago. People rarely seem to question how their iPhone was made even when they focus on ethically produced clothing. Knock-off and otherwise, many of the products we acquire with little thought are being produced in atrocious conditions.
And while the working conditions are terrible, boycotting factories and pressuring companies to end production in certain countries also negatively affects communities. Boycotting knock-offs or buying only "Made in America" clothing won't improve working conditions elsewhere. Ultimately, we need to ask for more brand transparency and question the origins of all of our purchases. Something you can do is join a site like SumofUs (I'm sure there are others) which has the slogan of "people over profits." The site will notify you about campaigns you can get involved with--some ask merely for a signature while others might request a small donation. Specific to clothing you can join the Clean Clothes Campaign. Sites like these help keep you informed, but ultimately we must use discernment in all our decisions from our purchases to what causes we choose to support.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on knock-offs at the moment--I'm not as educated in all of the issues as I could be and my opinions could change as I learn more and feel convicted. What are your thoughts on buying knock-offs?

15 comments:

Leah said...

But as we're waiting to increase transparency and improve working conditions, doesn't it make sense to at the very least stop buying things from mass retailers just because they suit our whims? Especially when we have blogs that advertise those goods to others.

Rebecca, The Clothes Horse said...

@Leah I think it's more complicated than that--not shopping from mass retailers doesn't help working conditions. And while mass retailers are rife with problems they do provide jobs when sometimes people wouldn't have jobs. There's also lists which tell which companies that produce clothes in Bangladesh have signed agreements to improve working conditions--just because they are a mass retailer doesn't mean they're evil. And you can find articles from locals that talk about the social and economic changes in Bangladesh happening because of clothing factories. I think looking at mass retailers as always in the wrong is a mistake.
Although ultimately I think the problem with knock-offs isn't production being good/bad but less transparency and ability to track production. We can find lists of "good" stores/brands, but it's harder to track so many new websites.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for finally speaking out about labor conditions and the Clean Clothes Campaign. Honestly, I think all bloggers need to acknowledge the importance of being a conscious and responsible consumer. If we keep saying it's complicated, that just intimidates people not to act. As long as we continue to purchase from these companies when they are behaving badly, then they will see no consequences in each time organizations publicize their failure to protect workers. Brand new clothes aren't worth it, it'd be great if bloggers can speak more about recycling outfits, thrift, vintage, DIY......Fast fashion is bad for an environment and people and it has everything to do with mass retailers. Mass retailers are a problem and we don't have to stop shopping there, but we could decrease the amount of shopping (which I know Rebecca is not always busting out in new outfits) for the environment and make more conscious decisions or efforts to highlight labor conditions or when a company acts badly...well there's my two cents and I appreciate that one of my favorite long-time bloggers is at least mentioning this! :)

HavaB said...

This was a great, and thoughtful post. I too try to buy as ethically as possible -- especially when it comes to smaller designers, I buy the originals to support them. The links to the Clean Clothes Campaign are definitely something I am looking into now. More like this, Rebecca!

Daniela Chimal said...

OMG! I was so happy reading this on your blog. The Knock offs, are a really huge topic that the fashion bloggers needs to discuss. Als and more important the labor conditions are a TOTAL HUGE TOPIC!. I'm mexican, and I know that i live in a "Three world country", that is used by the big corporations for finding a low coast workforce... :(. I'm really happy to see that a blogger like you speaks about this.

BESOS DESDE MÉXICO!
http://thefantastico.blogspot.mx/

Klara said...

It's really good to hear your thoughts on these topics -- knock-offs and ethical consumerism alike. I look up to you very much and admire the way you choose your clothes and I've always been under the impression you show a lot of independent companies and less of the mass retailers, which I really liked as that would have been my preference.

Myself, I try to do as much second hand shopping as I can and as much sewing as I can. I do sometimes buy from large companies but I think it's less and less over time. I do however have a problem with buying second hand items originally coming from mass retailers who don't fit the general guidelines for protecting people who work for them. I mean, am I still supporting the big bad wolf if I pay for their clothes for the second time (the first time being when the ifrs owner bought them)? I know I'm not putting money in their pockets but I'm actually perpetuating their product when I probably should burn it to show my dispecpect for their line of production (an exaggeration of course but I hope you know what I mean). It is a really tough question and it has been bugging me a lot lately.

Kristie Glenn said...

I despise knock offs! I think that people who waste their money on this crap don't understand how it affects the designer. Not only financially but they spend a lot of time and effort to create designs to be stolen?! I don't think so!

www.bluelabelsboutique.com

Steph Nappa said...

I agree with most of your thoughts on knock-offs, and you've asked some thought provoking questions. When it comes to high-end designers, does an outrageous price mean the majority of people should miss out on interesting designs? If you could never afford the price of the "real" item to begin with, it doesn't matter if you find a cheaper option, or DIY your own! This is even the case in home goods, as shown by the enormous number of DIY decor blogs that show how to knock off items outside your price range. And when it comes to inspiration from the runway, I always think of the line in The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep says that even the color of a sweater on the shelves at department stores was inspired by a high fashion designer. Everyone gets at least some of their ideas from someone else. I also feel that most of what you're paying for when you buy name brand is just that: the name.

Jo said...

I think my main concern with knock offs is when they are deliberately trying to pass off the product as an original, with the brand logo or symbol on the article of clothing. It's a more obvious problem with items like purses and shoes, where brands are usually very distinct.
I do sympathize more probably with smaller designers but I also do not think it is wise to disregard the interests and efforts of large fashion houses simply because they are large. One day that small, independent designer may a be national brand. It would not seem right to not knock off their items then just because they are no longer a niche name. It is definitely a thought provoking subject no matter what side of the argument you are on.

innerweather said...

I was really happy to see that last point being brought up -- it's not just relevant to clothes, but so many other products where production has moved overseas. People are well-intentioned but rarely seem to grasp the complexities of our current global market, instead just throwing around buzzwords like "boycotting" and "buying locally" without considering how that actually affects the communities they think this is supposed to help.

As for "knock-offs", I guess I make a distinction between "knock-offs" and "counterfeit" items -- the latter being ones that actually claim to be from a particular brand instead of just looking similar to stuff from that brand. (I know nobody uses "counterfeit" to describe clothing but better words escape me right now.) My feelings are that the counterfeit product is deceptive to the consumer, but in the knock-off's case, presumably everyone knows they're purchasing a cheaper version of something out of their price range. So I don't knock-offs as bad because no deception is involved.

At the same time, I am not ok with designs being stolen from independent, small designers (like Etsy sellers), for the reasons you stated. Relatedly, I do not get the sense that these small independent designs artificially inflate their prices to heighten exclusivity, or at least they don't do so nearly as extravagantly as the big brand names. So they also feel more genuine and within reach -- and more likely to be harmed by people ripping off their designs, especially because they have less wherewithal to do anything about it (like take expensive legal action).

Rebecca, The Clothes Horse said...

@innerweather oh I think that's a really good point on counterfeit vs knock-off.

Leah said...

@Rebecca, I see your point and I've heard similar arguments, but I do think that mass production is ultimately unsustainable and that fast fashion companies in particular should be held more accountable, which sometimes means at least threatening to stop purchasing from them until they vow to make lasting changes (or reducing purchases).

If Bangladeshi(or Vietnamese or Chinese, etc.) workers were paid more, fewer members of the household would need to work to make ends meet. Costs may be transferred to consumers, but that's good, because it incentivizes buying less overall.

The issue is complex and no one person or entity can take full blame, but I do think that it's harmful to justify buying from anyone and everyone because it might temporarily hurt underpaid workers. I want a system with longevity from both a moral and ecologically sustainable standpoint. There will be growing pains, yes, but at least people might have a chance to flourish instead of just live at subsistence level.

Anonymous said...


I am a bit sceptical about "originality", and in a way, all artists copy from each other (there is great book I highly recommend: "Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative"). Taking all the sources in, copying at first and then showing your "original" message – that's OK for me.

But I highly respect intellectual property and I know from my own experience that it does not feel good to see your work being copied without the source being explicitly stated. I don't see much difference between copying Dolce and Gabbana dress (I guess that would be not a knock-off but a blunt fake) and copying independent artist's dress. In both cases, there is a person behind the design whose ideas are violated.

Years ago I fell in love with arty oval rings by YSL. It's a huge brand and there would be no big harm for them if I bought a "knock-off" ring from a small retailer who was "inspired by" the arty oval original. But I had a problem with that. There is a particular person at YSL who had the idea and designed the particular shape, material and colours. We need to share ideas, we definitely need to cooperate but we definitely need to voice our own thoughts, designs and techniques. As long as I can tell "oh, that looks like...", I am not going to buy it.

Eva Prochazkova

PS Now I am thinking whether the arty oval ring is not a knock-off of its own:)

Mariah Alysz said...

Rebecca, I thank you so much for sharing your views and opinions on all of this with us! As someone who is really interested in fashion, but also rather oblivious to some issues (like these ones) I greatly enjoy it when bloggers I follow so openly share their thoughts on such things. I hope you cntinue to do posts like this.

-Mariah
Rya Pie

de muze - Hilde Vos said...

Somewhat related, I recently saw a blogpost about Susan Dannenberg, a woman in the 1940's who made similar sweaters and was featured in LIFE Magazine:

http://www.regiannetrainotti.com/#!Suse-Sweater/c1sbz/CD5B2E84-15FA-417B-A1E6-43F62E4DFDA8

Looks like the 1930's foto you posted is the oldest one, though!