How ‘Dupe’ Culture Took Over Online Fashion
On Tuesday morning, in an LGBTQ-affirming Episcopal church in Greenwich Village, like most New York venues during this week, there was a fashion show. The brand Mirror Palais made its New York Fashion Week debut, in large part thanks to the steadfast determination of its founder Marcelo Gaia. But on a different stage — TikTok — Gaia’s work isn’t just popular: it’s the latest target of dupe culture.
Dupes, short for duplicates, is the gen-z term for knockoffs clothes — and they’re taking over the online fashion world. While the very nature of fashion has often involved reinventing popular themes or motifs, social media’s impact on fast-fashion brands has completely changed how younger generations think about clothing consumption. In previous decades, these brands would often target large fashion houses like Chanel, Prada, and Coach, using designer runway shows and critical responses to eventually inspire the clothes in low-cost stores and budget collections. (Remember when Miranda Priestly helpfully broke that down?) Even when fast fashion began to pick up steam at the start of the 2000s, it took brands like Zara several weeks for affordable iterations of runway looks to be available for a mainstream, ready-to-wear market. Now, fast fashion brands have stockpiles of possible trends ready to go before models have even left the runway.
Because people active in the online fashion community often follow multiple creators, influencers get more engagement when they are constantly working to dress in new and popular styles. This contributes to an ever-accelerating trend cycle, where clothes that were necessary four weeks ago could become cheugy today. Fast fashion brands like Shein, H&M, and Asos, who already redefined fashion in the e-commerce space, are now able to churn out dupes while clothes are still popular — marking a direct link between influencer-based marketing and the acceleration of mass clothing production.
One of the most well-known fast fashion companies, the Chinese brand Shein, has exploded in popularity due to its presence on TikTok and Instagram. Post featuring #sheinhauls — where creators buy massive pallets of clothes and try them on for the followers — rake in thousands of views and comments per video. Only 10 years since its $5 million valuation, Shein is now the third most powerful startup in the world and is worth close to $100 billion, according to Bloomberg. In 2021 alone, Shein received $16 billion in sales, seemingly in spite of constant criticism for the company’s negative impact on the environment and allegations of worker exploitation.
Seasonal trends on TikTok and Instagram, like cottagecore or indie sleaze, are often defined by heavily identifiable articles of clothing: think the Lirika Matoshi Strawberry dress, the House of Sunny green Hockney midi, or this season’s Birkenstock Bostons. When a particular brand or item goes viral, rather than a style, the most popular dupes are those that recreate a product as closely as possible for a fraction of the price. It’s no longer inspiration, it’s a carbon copy. And influencers have an incentive to post and promote popular dupes: through Amazon’s influencer program, creators get a small percentage of sales when people purchase items with their links.
As a designer whose brand was made popular by its young and internet-forward aesthetic, Gaia is no stranger to virality. In 2021, his Mirror Palais Fairy dress was a TikTok staple for months, spawning dozens of cheap iterations. “I have lost count of the amount of knockoffs there were of that dress,” Gaia tells Rolling Stone. With popular supporters, like Bella Hadid and Dua Lipa, Gaia’s brand was made to go viral. The Maria in Leite midi dress was next.
Made of 100-percent wool and decorated with flower-shaped cutouts, Gaia says he designed the Maria after finding deadstock fabric at a vintage supplier that reminded him of both classic Brazilian cinema and timeless pieces his mother and grandmother kept in their home. Gaia calls the final product an “authentic expression” of his heritage and craft. “Sometimes when you’re a designer you’re like ‘Well, this is for the customer,'” Gaia tells Rolling Stone. “And then sometimes you’re like ‘This is just for me.'”
With its innate wearability, designer look, and meaningful connection to real life, the dress immediately became a summer 2020 must-have but gave many sticker shock with its $625 price tag; the dupes quickly followed. One influencer bragged that she had found a $17 dupe of the dress on Amazon in a video that got 1.2 million views and 20,000 saves, as top comments read “Amazon storefronts are the real plague of our generation,” and “we’re not meant to have everything babes.” Even with backlash, the unboxing of the dress received almost 90 thousand views and hundreds of comments with people saying they were inspired to order their own dupes.
Gaia said that he considers the younger generation especially sensitive and kind, which makes the widespread support of knockoffs, especially the way it exploits underpaid workers at the bottom of fast fashion companies, surprising to him.
“I’m a little bit desensitized at this point,” Gaia tells Rolling Stone when asked about the popularity of dupes. “I’m still upset of course, but more so, it makes me upset when I see young people promoting the dupes. We as a society have become so accustomed to easy and fast consumption… and the dupes just promote a really like kind of toxic culture for that.”
Designer Wray Serna, who runs Wray, a sustainable and size-inclusive clothing brand in New York, says that she’s already had at least one of her designs stolen by an online retailer in 2019. But the theft, and others like it, only push her to keep working.
“To be totally honest, it definitely does affect me at times,” Serna tells Rolling Stone. “I’m frustrated by it. But I always think I can design more things. And in a way, it’s almost like you know you’ve made it big when people are knocking off your designs. I just think, ‘I’ll make another,’ and I move on.”
Serna adds that size inclusivity brings another level to the fast fashion debate, as large websites are often the only places for plus-sized people to find clothes that fit. When approached by customers about her price points, Serna says she never judges if a person says they can only find their size at places like Shein but is encouraged when people choose to return.
“We get a lot of praise for extending our sizes, which to be honest with you, I don’t really feel like we justly deserve,” Serna says. “I think that every brand should carry every size. It’s not revolutionary to do so.”
Many of the arguments around fast fashion dupes also center on the battle of accessibility vs. accountability. Some supporters of dupe culture claim it is classist to assume people can afford designer clothes or always shop ethically, while dupe haters focus on sustainability concerns in the fashion community. The same argument cropped up again during fashion week after several influencers wore fast-fashion outfits to shows. Major brands and fast fashion marketplaces, like Revolve and Amazon, even held New York Fashion Week-themed events.
While sustainable or small designer brands like Gaia and Serna’s are more expensive than the average clothing options, the accessibility argument does little to take into account how much influencing has changed and accelerated the harm of fast fashion, according to author and sustainable fashion expert Aja Barber.
Barber notes that small designers in the fashion world are often priced out of competition when their designs are stolen and popular trends often come at the expense of underpaid or poorly treated garment workers. The ever-increasing trend cycle also means that the fashion industry, which already overproduces, lays the excess abundance of unpopular clothes directly on the global south. According to Barber, conflating critiques of fast fashion copies with classism simply ignores the root of the issue: overconsumption.
“The fashion industry is pumping out enough clothing to clothe the human population 12 times over and the truth of the matter is, you have to be sort of privileged to buy into the system where having trendy clothing is treated like a necessity,” Barber says. “There’s a lot of bad faith players in this conversation. Poor people did not create this mess… and I think it’s time for people to be really honest with themselves about how they’re contributing to this problem.”
As dupe culture has become largely ingrained with how gen-z and social media fashion mavens buy clothes, Gaia says he supports a version of dupes that take inspiration from designs without stealing directly. He especially loves fans who send him inspired outfits they sewed together or managed to thrift, calling it “a better and healthier way to participate in fashion.” For those who think purchasing power is the only way to achieve fashion notoriety, Gaia also encourages dupe supporters to think about where their garments come from and the real human costs of always staying on trend.
“I absolutely wholeheartedly agree everyone should be able to enjoy fashion and express themselves how they want to,” Gaia tells Rolling Stone. “But I don’t think exploiting people who are even less fortunate than you is the solution either. And as someone who grew up with no disposable income, I filled up a closet, and I always looked cool.”
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