Most streetwear fans have a few options when it comes to buying an in-demand item from a favoured brand. The first option involves queuing up around the block, often spending hours waiting patiently for the opportunity to shop. The second, more expensive option involves paying through the nose in an increasingly inflated secondary market, where £148 Supreme hoodies re-sell on Grailed or Depop for over double their retail value. Online bots represent a third option, but even these can greatly increase the cost of a purchase while not fully guaranteeing success.
With these difficult sales conditions, it’s no surprise that a huge market has opened for fakes. Replicas of products from streetwear brands such as Off-White, Supreme, Palace, and Anti-Social Social Club are freely available to buy online – typically from Chinese websites AliExpress and TaoBao (both of which are operated by the Alibaba group). If you haven’t heard of these sites before, /r/RepSneakers (a subreddit of over 33,000 users dedicated to fake trainers) offers this introduction:
Taobao is often referred to as “the Chinese eBay”. Basically, it’s a marketplace for sellers to post stuff for sale. But, because of more lax laws I don’t know anything about, they’re much more lenient on selling replica\counterfeit things, that would never fly on eBay.
Enter the name of any popular brand on one of these websites and you’re sure to find a huge array of counterfeit products, available at a fraction of the retail cost. Churned out of factories in China to global demand, these products move in vast volumes before being removed, presumably by moderators from the respective websites.
The gateway to western shoppers comes via web forums, the most popular of which are on Reddit. Subreddits, such as /r/FashionReps or /r/DesignerReps are incredibly popular, and for good reason; they make it incredibly easy to buy clothing that appear to be from brands that are notoriously difficult to purchase from. /r/FashionReps, a subreddit dedicated to finding and rating the best streetwear fakes available, is a community of over 30,000 users, many of whom post reviews of products or are requesting information on where to cop (or ‘W2C’) a certain item. The subreddit is so popular that it added over 5,000 subscribers in the weeks it took to research and publish this article.
Visiting these parts of Reddit require a crash course in jargon with users seeking the holy grail of a ‘1:1’ replica of much hyped pieces, frequently asking W2C in the hope that someone has started producing replicas or asking for a QC on a product they’ve found. There are often discussions as to which rep offers the best replica, with frequent debate as to whether ‘David’ or ‘Edith’ provide the most convincing Yeezy 350 copies. Users pour over details in the stitching, pattern and sole to see how the fakes hold up to the retail versions.
Ask most people on these subreddits why they purchase replicas and the majority will tell you that it’s not to do with the cost but with the convenience. Why disappoint yourself trying to buy a Supreme hoodie when there’s almost certainly going to be a rep selling them within a month?
Delve a little deeper and users will tell you that the best fakes are on TaoBao, but the difficulty with this is that purchases from TaoBao can only be made with a Chinese bank account. This has given rise to the use of ‘agents’ – people (presumably Chinese) who place the order on the users behalf and organise shipping, taking a small cut for themselves – and users frequently posturing over who is the best person to purchase from. From the /r/FashionReps subreddit:
What is an agent?
Plain and simple, an agent is someone who will act as a proxy for you. You pay them, they buy the item. When they get it, you pay them to ship it to you, and, as expected, they ship it to you. Agents charge a fee, which is how they make money. But even with the agent fee, the final total generally ends up being much less anyway.
These individuals are accessible through their own web stores which are hosted directly on Taobao, with most communication carried through the Chinese messaging app WeChat. It’s not uncommon for breakdowns in communication, or for a product to simply not turn up. Thankfully moderators of /r/FashionReps have a list of recommended agents, making it incredibly easy to access a huge market of knock-offs.
But it’s not just streetwear brands that are being counterfeited. Increasingly, luxury brands such as Gucci, Balmain and Louboutin are being copied and sold on these Chinese websites.
Looking at the feedback sections on the product listings on AliExpress and TaoBao indicate that this trade isn’t limited to one region or country. Shoppers from Canada to Russia appear to be taking advantage of this unregulated market of knock-offs – activity which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the brands who are being counterfeited.
Kering, parent owner to Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and others, have taken Alibaba to court in the past, with mixed results. In a statement last year, Alibaba commented that “[they] do not tolerate or condone those who steal other people’s intellectual property” whilst claiming to have taken down 380 million counterfeit product listings and closing over 180,000 stores on Taobao in the 12 months leading up to August 2016. Prior to this, one of China’s main commerce regulators released the results of a 2014 survey which found that nearly two-thirds of goods sole on Taobao were counterfeit.
This doesn’t seem too much an issue for shoppers either, as Alibaba’s 2016 Singles’ Day sales passed $14bn in revenue – more than double the $5.8bn in sales of Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US. One can only imagine what percentage of that was made up of counterfeit goods.
While a clamp down from Alibaba is unlikely, there have been recent efforts by media outlets (notably Complex and Highsnobiety) to educate their target demographic on the consequences of buying counterfeit fashion. Even without delving into the ethical issues, there appear to be links between the sale of counterfeit goods and the funding of terrorism and other illegal activities. However, until there are tougher sanctions on online reps, it doesn’t look like the trade is going anywhere soon.