In 2019, the counterfeit and pirated goods industry was 3.3% of global trade, with an overwhelming number of these goods originating from China and Hong Kong. Sites such as AliExpress, Alibaba and Taobao are well-known among Chinese mainlanders for selling counterfeits. When did the scope of counterfeit trade become so large in China, and what cultural factors might account for the massive expansion of this industry?
In order to understand where this idea of counterfeit fashion in China originated, you have to look at the history. I did a lot of research on the idea of burnt offerings and Buddhism being associated with this type of mentality, where copying something is not viewed as negative. Both replicas and offerings are linked to consumption. The concept of repetition or replica is also embedded in the art education system where by repeating a technique, you can excel and elevate your art. Repetition can even elevate something like calligraphy or art, which has always been important in China. Once you understand this mentality, you see this idea of copying in a very different cultural context and a completely different perspective.
If you want to identify the Western influence of production in China, you need to think about the 1930s and 1940s, and how tailored jackets and garments started to arrive in Hong Kong and southern China. At that time, tailors were taking these garments and reconstructing them to produce new patterns and fabrications to fit and sell to Chinese customers. The West came full-force into China when it opened in the 1980s. Basic garments such as jeans and T-shirts were very easy to reproduce and replicate because of the minimal aspects of their cut and design. as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the frequently busy and chaotic distribution in China creates an ideal commercial environment for fake goods, as Western designers outsource the production of luxury materials to China and frequently lose control over their product designs and supply chains as well as unwittingly contributing to an active commercial environment for fake goods. It is also important to consider the “logomania” of the 1990s, which started the big manufacturing process in the South. In places like Guangzhou, the products that are most copied are T-shirts, denim and small leather goods like belts. The biggest “super fake” malls are in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
In your article China: Hyper-Consumerism, Abstract Identity you talk about how afﬂuent Chinese consumers are spending vast sums of money on personal luxury goods as status symbols. Why are these affluent consumers willing to buy counterfeited goods? Does it achieve the same aim as buying authentic luxury goods?
I think it does, because it’s for the visual aspect most of the time. You see it not only in China, but also in Italy and New York. People are obsessed with the representation of certain brands but ultimately with the idea of exclusivity and belonging. It’s a big part of our popular culture and a symbol of status. The idea of wealth and displaying wealth is a big part of Chinese culture: not just with fashion, but with everything.
Why would someone buy a fake over an authentic? I don’t know. When I travel to many different cities in China or in Hong Kong, I don’t know if the stores are real or fake anymore. There is a point at which you’re constantly questioning whether things are real or fake and it’s not just in the fashion industry but also in the electronics industry. So many counterfeit products exist in China that it creates a new visual understanding and landscape for fashion or clothing. There is a mix and match culture where many people own both authentic and counterfeit products, which makes you question if it really matters.
As Westerners, there is a notion of trying to protect the concept of trademark. In China, how they play with these trademarks and logos can be very creative. There is a blurred line where a product is no longer a copy, but a new idea. It’s something else, since it’s not necessarily representative of the original brand.
Reddit forums dedicated to “replica” shopping have grown significantly since the mid-2010s, with thousands of new comments posted daily on popular sites. Many consumers on these forums view this practice as a victimless crime and consider “intellectual property theft” negligible for luxury brands. Has there been a generational shift in the understanding of intellectual property? How has the Chinese government dealt with the production and sale of fake goods, given these goods are contributing significantly to both domestic and foreign markets?
The legality behind it is very serious; but when it comes down to copying, there are so many levels. There are fakes, knock-offs, counterfeits and “super fakes” all under the same umbrella. It depends on the product, since the design itself is not protected: the logos and visual trademarks are, but there’s a big difference between these. When design is being fully reproduced without permission and it’s almost exactly the same as the original, it opens new conversations. If you change the stitches on a bag, it’s not a copy any more. The detail can sometimes be so small that it is difficult to discern the difference between a real and a fake.
Intellectual property is changing, and the younger generation sees it in a slightly different way. They seem to understand that people can have multiple ideas that are very similar, even if they’re not producing the exact same thing. Consider appropriation—how, if you buy something, you can make it your own and redesign it to sell as a new product. It’s not just the branding that makes a piece of clothing “designer”— it’s also the status of the brand. Nobody reacts when people appropriate and sell pieces of clothing from brands like Zara and Forever 21, or homemade clothes.
Finding fake goods by directly searching for them on sites like Alibaba and Taobao is now much harder, because companies no longer upload photos. They can be caught. Also, government officials or customs agents cannot easily identify what goods may be counterfeit in these large shipping containers. They need to be very well-trained and understand trademark law, which is very important. The laws in China have become tighter and tighter with regard to these malls, and there’s definitely been an increase in security. Markets in places like Guangzhou are far too big for the Chinese government to do anything. There is a point at which the cost of restricting them is too high. It’s difficult to keep track of it, since not only fashion is copied, but almost every single product being manufactured there. This industry in China is very big and very chaotic, and since Western designers have used Chinese factories for so long, they have the original prototypes. They’re the ones controlling the making of these products, so it makes sense that it’s a part of the industry there. It’s always been very difficult for Western designers to control exactly what’s going on inside these factories, because oftentimes these factories are either closed to the public, or closed to Westerners, or opened only superficially to Western businesses.
Do you think that the growth of the Internet and “instant gratification” culture in younger generations has led to this increased demand for “super fakes”?
Absolutely. In China, young people buy daily from sites like Alibaba and AliExpress. That’s not as common in Western culture. We don’t usually buy something on Amazon every day, even during COVID-19. We consume at a different rate. The younger generation in China is also a large part of society, and China perceives the younger generation as the future. Eyes are really on the younger generation, especially in terms of technology and design, now that China’s more open than ever.
Popular culture is also such a big part of why Chinese manufacturers are copying designs and products. Once there is a photo of a celebrity’s clothes, there will be products available on AliBaba two days later copying the style of the model. If you see a celebrity wearing a denim jacket from Prada, the younger population—especially the ones that are living in more remote areas, such as Yunan—cannot necessarily afford it. So other manufacturers make copies based on the image or even the prototype itself to satisfy a larger audience. The internet and the possibility of selling and buying things online is also a big contributor to the wider distribution of fake goods. China is much more advanced than the West with regard to communication and consumption. Chinese producers are much faster to reach an audience for these products, since the distribution networks are already in place.
You’ve written about how the rise of “hyper-consumerism” gave China “the ultimate opportunity to create a new identity for itself,” using Westernized ideas of consumption to re-brand into luxury capitalism, thereby distancing itself from its old Communist identity. Has Chinese luxury counterfeiting helped or harmed this rebranding effort, given many consumers of these goods tend to view China as a source of fake products made with cheap labor? How has Chinese culture adapted to this change?
The idea of identity through consumption has been important for opening China, and to show the West that China can have a higher status and play a large part in global politics as well. At the same time, it has led to a lot of China’s younger generation feeling lost, or trying to figure out their identity. There is a sentiment that China has changed too much from traditional Chinese culture as a result of trying to fit in and appeal to the global landscape in a Western fashion. The younger generation is now trying to rediscover what it means to be a Chinese designer. This is the most exciting part. Of course, in the West, there are very many assumptions as to what China stands for and that China is associated with cheap labor.
The concept of “ethically-sourced fashion” has become more popular recently, which has contributed to the success of brands such as Reformation and Everlane. Do you think that ethical consumerism is here to stay, and could it pose any serious challenge to the fast fashion industry in the long term?
This is definitely not a trend, and sustainability is a big part of the future. Unfortunately, fast fashion is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. There are a lot of different sustainable methods that are becoming more and more important. It starts with existing brands changing their own systems and their consumers demanding that certain systems are ethical and good for the environment. People are also dealing with the idea of climate justice, which is becoming important as well. China has changed a lot of protocols and regulations in the past years to become slightly more ethical, or at least more controlled. This has contributed to a lot of factories closing or moving to Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam or Bangladesh. However, the Chinese government needs to support a more sustainable fashion system. Shanghai Fashion Week has been showcasing more and more sustainable brands, as well as promoting more conversations about sustainability. Labelhood has been doing a lot for the Chinese fashion industry by supporting emerging designers and changing the global creative landscape.
Many young Chinese designers who have studied in the West in the past five or six years are moving back to China. They are now redefining what Chinese fashion is and creating a new market. There were previously only two big markets in China: fast fashion for mass consumption, and luxury goods for status. But this younger generation coming from places like London and New York is starting a new middle market, which is neither luxury nor mass-produced, but “designer level.” This will modify the industry since these designers have been educated on the ideas of social, ethical and environmental awareness.
kentwang of Flickr / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)