Dupes offer cheap fashion to Canadians, but small businesses say they’re paying the price

The Current15:57Dupe culture: Why Gen Z is embracing fakes

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Cash-strapped Canadians are on the hunt for “dupes” online, and influencers like Danielle Shaw are showing them just where to find them.

Shaw posts all kinds of money-saving tips to her TikTok account, @canadiandealfinder, and realizes her viewers are particularly interested in products that look and feel like big-name brand items at a fraction of the cost.

“People just started asking like, ‘Hey, where did you get that? It looks like Lululemon.’ And I’m like, ‘Actually, I found it on Amazon Canada. And instead of paying $100, I paid $20,” the 31-year-old Calgary woman told The Current.

Dupe, short for duplicate, is what many in Gen Z call products that can look exactly like brand-name items — but are much cheaper. Items range from clothes and shoes to beauty products, or even household and lifestyle items like water bottles.

TikTok posts with a dupe hashtag have racked up 4.8 billion views, driven by deal-seekers and customers adding their own reviews.

A head and shoulders photo of a young woman, wearing a gray top and smiling at the camera.
Danielle Shaw posts money-saving tips to her TikTok account, and says her viewers shouldn’t be ashamed for wanting something at a lower price point than many big brands offer. (Submitted by Danielle Shaw)

But despite the popularity, dupe culture has faced criticism for fueling over-consumption and fast fashion, which can come at a cost for the environment and for the workers making the clothing.

Smaller designers and companies have also found their products being copied — both by bigger well-known brands and lesser known online retailers.

Shaw’s account has 45,000 followers, while some of her dupe videos have hundreds of thousands of views. She thinks the popularity of dupe culture is driven by people being more open about their financial struggles, and don’t face the same pressure to buy expensive brands.

“People shouldn’t be ashamed for not being able to afford a brand name or even just not wanting a brand name,” she said. “If you can find something that’s [the] exact same quality but way less for the cost, why bother paying just for a label on what you’re buying?”

‘100% the exact same bra’

Counterfeit goods have been around forever, and will bear the name and logo (or an approximation) of the brand they’re copying. But dupes don’t pretend to be the “real” high-end products they’re emulating, instead openly presenting themselves as cheaper alternatives.

That doesn’t mean dupes don’t sometimes court controversy, however.

Last year, Canadian designer Mary Young accused the retail giant Zara of copying and selling the design for her Kendi bra, an item she’s sold since 2018. She alleges Zara didn’t just take inspiration from her original design, but “basically copied it to a tee.”

“This was 100-per-cent the exact same bra, the exact same fit, the exact same product description, and it was only $30 less than what ours is,” she said.

Young took to TikTok and made her complaint public, and within a few days Zara removed the product from its website.

“As a small business and as an independent designer, to me that’s success, because they know that they’ve been caught,” she said.

The Current reached out to Zara for comment on Young’s allegations, but didn’t hear back.

‘No way to protect your design’

Young said she would have had limited options if Zara had ignored her complaint.

Clothing designers and creators often can’t copyright their designs in Canada, because clothing is considered a necessity, and copyright isn’t available for articles produced more than 50 times.

“There’s no way to protect your design, so there was nothing I could do,” he said.

Even if someone did find a legal route, journalist Sarah Kent said it could end up an expensive, “frustrating and potentially ruinous path to nowhere.”

“I’ve heard examples where dupes have been taken down but reapeared a few weeks later … it’s a big problem and there isn’t a good answer to it,” said Kent, chief sustainability correspondent of The Business of Fashion, an online magazine that covers the global fashion industry.

Bigger companies are also feeling the pressure from dupe culture. In May, fitness clothing brand Lululemon held a “dupe swap” in Los Angeles — an event where customers could trade in their knock-offs for official Lululemon Align leggings, which retail from $98 to $110 a pair. The company reported that around 1,000 people took up the offer, many of them first-time customers.

For someone who doesn’t have a lot of money, of course you’re going to want to go to H&M and get a pair of pants for $13, instead of dropping $150 … at Aritzia– De-influencer Michelle Skidelsky

Following her experience with Zara, Young has tried to help her customers understand why her prices might feel a little higher. She says her materials are ethically and sustainably sourced, and produced here in Canada, where she pays her staff a living wage.

But he said dupe culture can make it hard to stick to those ideals of doing things differently.

“It can feel very frustrating and limiting to my personal success, my brand success, when a company of that size basically picks up our design and runs with it,” she said.

Fueling fast fashion

Dupes can also contribute to long-standing problems around fast fashion — clothing that’s made quickly and inexpensively, but at high cost to workers’ rights and the environment.

Kent said that many companies have responded to criticism by trying to be more transparent about how their products are made — but supply chains are still “extremely opaque.”

She explained that brands will often hire an agent or supplier to manufacture their products, but that supplier may be subcontracting the work to someone else — which makes it very difficult to ensure products are being made in a way that is ethical and responsible.

Dupes often come from unknown manufacturers, so you lose the “thin layer of accountability” with better-known brands, “and move into a realm of an unregulated free-for-all,” he said.

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De-influencers vs. rampant consumerism

On the flipside of influencers who recommend what to buy, de-influencers are working hard to combat rampant consumerism.

“I’ve definitely been easily influenced and seen something on TikTok … and been like, ‘Well, that’s it, that’s going to be the thing that changes my life. I should probably buy it,'” said Michelle Skidelsky, a 21-year-old in Ottawa.

But those products usually disappointed, and now she posts videos urging people to think a little harder about the product — inducing dupes — that they’re buying into.

“I wish before I had bought some of those things that someone would have told me, like maybe think about it for a second, think about how easily you’re willing to spend money,” she said.

A head and shoulders photo of a young woman, wearing a black top and smiling at the camera.
De-influencer Michelle Skidelsky posts videos urging people to avoid getting caught up in needless spending. She has roughly 178,000 followers and 9.1 million views on TikTok. (Submitted by Michelle Skidelsky)

Skidelsky has roughly 178,000 followers and 9.1 million views on TikTok. Despite her message, she understands the appeal of dupes and fast fashion.

“For someone who doesn’t have a lot of money, of course you’re going to want to go to H&M and get a pair of pants for $13, instead of dropping $150 on a pair of pants at Aritzia,” she said.

“So when people kind of speak out against fast fashion, I almost feel like they’re standing on this moral high ground that doesn’t necessarily exist.”

Young shoppers think they could take stock of their purchases before they hit the checkout button, and ask themselves if they’ve been caught up in over-consumption.

“When you purchase less, you can start to purchase better — and just ask more questions and hold different brands accountable for how they’re producing things,” she said.

“I think consumers actually hold all the power and we often forget that.”

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