Knock-offs: Is Copying Designer Lingerie Ever Okay?
Has there ever been a more controversial subject in the fashion industry than this one? No matter your opinion on knock-offs, cheap copies of luxury goods are here to stay. After all, if there’s a market for people who want expensive items for lower prices (and there definitely is), there’s going to be a company willing to cater to that market.
Some of these knock-offs are outright counterfeits and forgeries (i.e. they’re being advertised and sold as the authentic item) but many more of these knock-offs are “inspired by” replicas… where enough of the original design has been kept to make it recognizable, but not so much that legal action is justified or even possible. And it’s that second kind of knock-off that’s becoming more and more popular, even within the lingerie industry.
I know a lot of brands and designers read The Lingerie Addict, so I just want to acknowledge that I understand this post will probably ruffle some feathers (and doubtless bring me a few “You should never have written this!” e-mails). But the conversation on knock-offs (and if they’re ever justified) is already happening among lingerie consumers. Even if the subject is a little awkward to talk about, it’s one that very much needs to be discussed out in the open.
Earlier, I made a distinction between outright forgeries and ‘inspired-by’ knock-offs and I just want to be clear that I am definitely not in favor of counterfeit goods. Counterfeits are always wrong, and there is nothing excusable about one brand stealing the images, copy, and marketing materials of another brand in order to pass their merchandise off as someone else’s. However, that particular issue is not what this article is about. Instead, I want to focus on two somewhat grayer areas of knockoffs… prices and sizes.
Make no mistake: quality lingerie is expensive, both in terms of materials (silk, lace, chiffon,satin, etc.) and in terms of labor. It takes a lot of time and effort to construct a bra, and if you’re one of the dozens of independent designers making pieces by hand or in small factory batches, you simply don’t have the volume to get the lower manufacturing costs a larger brand can. And in the same way a global intimates empire will pass their cost savings on to customers in the form of lower prices, smaller brands have to pass along their higher costs in the form of increased prices. Factor in the increased costs of things like fair trade and ethical production (which are important to many smaller brands, but which many large brands don’t care about), and you’re looking at an even greater price differential.
But, on the other side, it’s true that many women simply can’t afford luxury lingerie. It’s not about what they’d “rather” buy; it’s just not an option. In this era of depressed wages, uncertain job markets, and ever-increasing costs for basic necessities, I don’t blame women for thinking twice before dropping three figures on a bra and panty set. And while it would be great if we could all fill our closets with handmade, ethically-produced items, those goods do cost more… and that money may just not be available if you’re on a tight budget.
Finally (and I won’t name any names here) not every luxury brand is worth the luxury price. Whether it’s skimping on quality materials or quietly moving manufacturing to cheaper sites overseas (while retaining the same high prices), sometimes a luxury brand is just a lot of hype… smoke and mirrors produced by an excellent PR team, a beautifully lit photoshoot, and some fancy decorations in a boutique.
No big secret here: the average size range of any one lingerie brand is pretty limited. Whether a brand chooses to focus on standard sizes, full bust sizes, or plus sizes, there is no single lingerie brand out there making everything for every woman of every size. However, it’s also true that women who fit into the traditionally standard size range (approximately US bra sizes 32-36 B-D and US dress sizes 0-10) have many more options available to them than women outside that range. As a size 10, I’m at the outer limits of the standard sizing chart, but I can still assume the average brand fits me. When it doesn’t, it’s an exception… not the rule. For many women though, especially plus size women, the search for pretty underthings is a long, unpleasant, and completely demoralizing experience.
The size thing becomes even more interesting when you realize there’s a link between how expensive a brand is and how many women their size range encompasses. It’s been my experience that more expensive brands have smaller size ranges. Right now, I’m thinking of several high-end European names that I’ve personally tried (no names) which max out at a US size 6/8. That is a super narrow size range, and it excludes a lot of women. Unsurprisingly, women who wear double digit dress sizes want beautiful lingerie too, and so lately several plus size companies have stepped in with larger size knock-offs of popular styles.
There are a lot of good reasons for why a brand can’t abruptly expand their size range. As I mentioned earlier, all brands, even plus size brands, specialize. That’s because the costs of trying to be all things to all people would rapidly drive a company out of business (especially an independent company). It’s also true that making plus size lingerie isn’t just a matter of taking a standard size pattern and enlarging it, but requires a complete redrafting… particularly in the case of complex, supportive undergarments like bras. All of that costs money, and if a company isn’t absolutely sure they’ll recoup the costs, they may decide to focus on what they’re good at… and what they know will make them money.
That said, plus size women shouldn’t have to wear ugly underwear because no one’s making their size. I feel really fortunate that I can buy most of what I like, but if I were to go up a size (which is very likely to happen at some point), I suddenly wouldn’t be able to buy most of what’s out there. And I don’t really want to go back to buying my panties in a six-pack. Why shouldn’t larger women have pretty undergarments too? Especially if their needs aren’t being met by standard size brands?
In both of these cases, companies are either unable or unwilling to accommodate all the budgets and sizes of everyone who may be interested in their products. That’s not a fault-finding statement… it just makes sense from both a production/materials/labor perspective and a branding/marketing/advertising one. It’s easier to make and sell a product targeted to a particular group of people than a product targeted to everyone.
So the question becomes… if you have a group of women whose needs aren’t being met by what’s out there (either because of price or because of size), is it okay for them to buy similar pieces at a lower price point or in extended sizes from other brands?
Most designers and boutiques say “No,” and understandably so. They argue that it devalues the brand, and penalizes small designers for being creative and risk-taking while big brands reap all the rewards of that free market research. But many customers, also understandably, disagree. “If I’m never going to buy from you because you’re not making products for me,” they say, “you haven’t lost any money when I buy from someone else. The sale was never going to be yours.” Some people also argue that knock-offs are advantageous to the industry as they constantly generate new ideas, but the counterargument to that is that small brands will get frustrated and quit (or be outright driven out of business) if their work is always being knocked-off.
As a blogger, I see both sides. Professionally, I spend a lot of time talking to and working with independent designers (many of whom are one- or two-woman operations), and it stings when you see all their hard work being stolen with just the slightest reworking. It’s heartbreaking because you know these designers will never be able to sell as cheaply or offer as many sizes as a department store, and they’re being punished for it. And it can very well drive a brand out of business.
However, as a lingerie consumer (and someone who’s always been a little bigger through the hips and a little smaller through the wallet), I understand what it’s like to have to balance fashion with finance. If you know a certain brand is never going to make anything in a size 14 or in a G cup or for under $200, why not take your money elsewhere? Isn’t that how business works?
What do you think, dear readers? Are knock-offs ever okay? Should brands that can’t meet everyone’s needs ‘suck it up’ as the cost of doing business? Or should customers who are left out in the cold just ‘deal with it?’ And how similar or different can something be before it’s not considered a knock-off anymore? I’m really interested in hearing what you have to say in the comments.