The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Gen Z’s world of ‘dupes,’ fake is fabulous — until you try it on

Influencers have bestowed a shiny new status to the lowly world of knockoffs, but the stigma doesn’t always come out in the wash

(Illustration by Susan Haejin Lee for The Washington Post)
13 min

The pants looked and felt just like leather, the Instagram influencer told her followers. Pair them with a sheer camisole for a look that’s “fun and edgy.” She claimed they were a perfect dupe — short for “duplicate” — of a much more expensive pair of wide-legged leather pants.

So Melissa Boufounos, 33, of Ottawa, went to that influencer’s Amazon storefront and bought the whole outfit. She wore the same size, so she figured the outfit would look identical. She also assumed the social media star’s endorsement could be trusted.

You can probably guess what happened next. As soon as she opened the package, Boufounos realized that she was the dupe, not the pants. She declined to name the influencer (“I don’t know that I want to put them on blast”) but discovered the pants were “super thin, super plasticky,” she says. They had an acrid chemical smell. Despite ordering her recommended size, “they were so small, like, it was comical,” Boufounos says. “Like, I couldn’t even get a leg into what the waist was.”

The kicker: When she tried to return them, she found out the cost to ship them back was $35 — approximately what she paid for them in the first place.

Such items used to be called knockoffs. They used to be embarrassing. They used to be the purses you bought on Canal Street with the not-quite-right Kate Spade label, or the shearling boots from Costco that you hoped the popular girls wouldn’t notice weren’t genuine Uggs. (They noticed. Of course they noticed.) They used to be the way to fit in, not the way to stand out.

But now they’re dupes, a Gen Z rebranding of fashion and beauty products that are cheaper versions of the real thing — duplicate, but also duplicity, since the wearer might trick someone into believing they bought designer. Influencers and aggregators crow about their finds as “an incredible dupe for Hailey Bieber’s party dress,” or “a perfect dupe for Kate Middleton’s” red Alexander McQueen coat.

“It’s a humblebrag to have a dupe,” says Kami Marsh, 26, a cosmetology instructor from Newburgh, Ind.

@kellystrackofficial Drugstore makeup dupes you need to try! This covergirl blush is such a good dupe for the viral Dior rosy glow blush #fyp #makeup #beauty #makeupdupes #dupe #dupes #viralmakeup #k18results ♬ original sound - Kelly Strack

Dupe videos have become so pervasive — and the influencers’ enthusiastic selling technique so predictable — that they’ve inspired a TikTok parody trend, where anything can be a dupe of anything. Nicorette gum is a “cigarette dupe.” Walmart is a “Target dupe.” Olly stress-relief gummies are an “antidepressants dupe.” TikTok user @charismaticblackgal calls it “the dupe mindset.”

The perfect dupe tricks everyone and when you crow about it publicly — no one. In the social media dupeosphere, who’s duping whom?

Fakes have been with us a long time, but for now, let’s just dial back to 1986, when the New York Times reported on “a rebellion that is shaking the $3-billion-a-year fragrance industry: The development of scents that closely resemble designer products but cost a fraction of the price. … Though not always perfect reproductions of the original scent, they are extremely similar, and their names evoke those they are designed to imitate. Knockoffs of Giorgio, for example, are named Primo and Juliano, an impostor of Obsession is called Confess; an imitator of Lauren is called Lindsay.” A year later, Texas Monthly profiled Victor Costa, “fashion’s knockoff king, the man who perfected the $300 copy of the $5,000 to $15,000 original” — a one-man predecessor to fast-fashion retailer Shein. The Wall Street Journal reported from a “purse party” in 2004 where fakes of Louis Vuitton and Kate Spade were priced at $40 each. “It’s too frivolous to spend the money on an original,” one guest said.

Dupe influencers are the newest iteration in this storied bargain-hunting tradition. What’s missing this time around is the furtive hush that once came with owning a knockoff. Dupe culture leans into a sort of pride that embraces the fake.

“Growing up, we honestly didn’t have a lot of money, so I would always look for cheaper alternatives for the trends,” says Denise Duran, 26, of Houston. She makes videos for a TikTok audience of 78,000 followers about the things she buys, which includes dupes for Ugg slippers, the Dyson AirWrap thermal hairbrush and Skims, Kim Kardashian’s slinky shapewear brand. She has promoted brands that are duped, like Lululemon, and earns commission when people purchase dupes she recommends through Amazon and other sellers. Duping democratizes fashion, Duran says, especially in an era of rising inflation and other economic concerns for young people.

“Nowadays, nobody can afford to go buy, like, a $100-something jumpsuit from Aritzia,” she says. “We all want to be in style, but a lot of people can’t pay for that.

It’s not the existence of dupes that’s new, it’s the speed at which they happen. Shein can copy a look and get it into production in less than a week, Vox reported in 2021. AliExpress already offers a dozen affordable options for the $350 viral MSCHF red boots that were released in limited quantities only last month. Confusingly named Amazon brands populate countless BuzzFeed, Byrdie and Elite Daily listicles, all with commission-earning affiliate links.

But the definition of “dupe” is imprecise.

“The problem is, I think dupe can mean knockoffs, but it also can mean counterfeit,” says Peggy E. Chaudhry, an associate professor at Villanova University’s School of Business. There can be legal penalties for companies that copy a trademarked or patented design, but fashion law is murky. Logos can be trademarked, but designs must be distinctive to be patented, and basics like bodysuits, jumpsuits and leggings might not reach that bar. In a 2022 research paper, Chaudhry outlined a few cases where dupe influencers promoted outright fakes. “I don’t think in general, consumers are thinking, ‘Oh, this is a knockoff, it’s legal,’ or ‘This is a counterfeit, it’s an illegal product,’” she says.

Whenever Duran does a dupe video, she includes a disclaimer stating that the products are merely similar to the designer version, not counterfeits. She’s had several dupe videos taken down by TikTok. The company did not respond to a Washington Post inquiry about its criteria for removing dupe content.

Dupe influencer Jacquelyn Fricke, who posts under the handle @theshoppingbestie, says she tries to make it clear to her followers when there are differences. “I always call them relative dupes. They’re in the same field. And then I’ll usually leave a comment explaining the formula differences,” she says. Fricke, 25, of Philadelphia, says she tests every cosmetic item she features on her TikTok against the original to make sure they’re a close match.

“If they buy it and it’s not a dupe, then you’re going to lose that credibility,” she says.

If you spend any time on social media, you have probably seen the Selkie puff dress. It’s a dreamy empire-waist confection in sherbet-colored pastels and princessy organza. In 2021 especially, it was everywhere. Selkie founder Kimberley Gordon, 40, had a mega-hit.

“I guess the first time I realized that we were getting knocked off was probably through Instagram, and I was like, ‘Huh, that’s annoying,’” says Gordon, from Los Angeles. Then she saw that dupe makers on Amazon had stolen her brand’s photos to sell a low-quality version of her dress, which retail between $250 to $400, depending on the length and pattern. Thus began a game of Whac-a-Mole. She’d send the links to her lawyer, but a new dupe would spring up somewhere else and influencers would promote it. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Knocking off a massive corporation like Lululemon might make a gal feel like the Robin Hood of seamless yoga tops. But it’s different for smaller labels: Gordon, who only has 15 full-time employees, says every dupe took a chunk out of her potential livelihood. She can’t put a dollar amount on it, exactly — she’s not sure how many people buying a $30 version of her dress would have sprung for the $300 one.

“But I do know one thing: If there wasn’t a dupe, they would have no other choice. If they really wanted one, they might save up and get one,” Gordon says. “It makes my brand look and feel cheaper to have cheap copies of my brand out there.”

When she spoke out about it on social media, she says she received an avalanche of angry comments.

“Things like, ‘I should be able to shop wherever I want, and your dresses are too expensive, and if I want to buy a knock off, then I can,’” she says. “I cannot imagine, as a fan of a brand, doing that.”

She doesn’t fault the influencers: “Why wouldn’t they buy a $50 dress and make a video that gets a million views and sell a bunch?” Gordon says. “Hats off to them. They’re making money in a system that is set up for women to fail. So I can’t fault them. But I also am angry at them because they want me to fail.”

She hopes they consider the reason that dupes of her dresses can be priced as low as $13. Those garment workers “are making maybe a few cents per garment. Are you okay with that?” she says. And the material they’re using is likely to be a polyester made under similar conditions.

“It’s pretty horrible when you do spend the time and effort to be conscientious, to then see, like, thousands and thousands and thousands of duplicates made in exactly the manner that you would not want, and knowing that that’s all going to go into landfill,” she says. “How are you supposed to feel okay about that? Like how? How do you not feel responsible?”

It has started to affect the way she looks at her own work.

“I see my own dresses and I’m, like, grossed out,” she says. “It makes me start to feel like I’m a knockoff, and I don’t know how to deal with it.”

Legendary dupes go viral, causing the original product and its knockoff to sell out instantly. E.L.F.’s Halo Glow highlighter was deemed an exact dupe for Charlotte Tilbury’s Hollywood Flawless Filter, and both products were unavailable for a spell. When Clinique’s Black Honey lipstick went viral, its $5 CoverGirl dupe sold out on Amazon.

In E.L.F.’s 2023 third-quarter investor earnings call, chairman and CEO Tarang Amin acknowledged the impact of dupe influencers on the company’s excellent recent earnings. “They see other people talking about this prestige quality, these great prices and particularly, these days with platforms like TikTok, we get consumers kind of doing their own demonstrations and comparisons,” he said.

Meanwhile, the dupees can claim the superiority of their original product. Like Olaplex, an often-duped product to repair damaged hair.

“We have over 100 worldwide patents on our breakthrough bond-building technology, which means it can’t be copied,” a company spokesperson says in a statement. Other brands including Lululemon, Skims, Charlotte Tilbury and Dyson did not respond to The Post’s inquiries.

But spend enough time scrolling through the hashtag #dupe and you’ll notice another trend: All of the influencers are duping each other’s videos, too. They bandwagon each other’s finds. They put the same things in their Amazon storefronts. Some recommend more dupes than they could ever have time to personally test against the original.

In the world of dupe influencing, any legging is a Lululemon Align dupe, and any lug sole loafer is a dupe for Gucci. Anything that looks vaguely like another thing is a dupe.

“I clicked on a video one time about Amazon Skims dupes, and then I just started seeing them every day,” says Chelsea Perez, 28, of Sacramento “And I noticed that they’re just seamless clothing, which has been around forever.”

Part of the proliferation is because the barrier to entry is much lower for dupe influencers than luxury brand influencers, who are carefully selected. And once they are set up to earn commission, they can potentially make a lot more.

“If it’s a much cheaper price point, then you also have a much larger audience,” says Colin Campbell, an associate marketing professor who studies influencing at the University of San Diego. He wonders how often a dupe “feels cheap and looks poor, but in the photos on Instagram, you could look like you could be wearing the real thing.” The photos are all that matter. That’s how Boufounos ended up with those pants.

The parodies — which are called doops or doupes, thanks to the drawn-out and exaggerated way the teens making them pronounce the word — seem to indicate a growing disillusionment with duping, and even with influencing.

“I think some of it’s so overreaching,” Boufounos says. “Like you’ll see influencers taking a bath and then they’re like, ‘Oh, here, I’ve linked to Epsom salts on Amazon,’ and it’s, like, nobody asked you. Everybody can find Epsom salt at the grocery store.”

Duping will always be around — everyone loves a bargain! — but the way people refer to it is changing.

“I think we should drop the word dupe. I know I used it one or two times,” says Fricke, who in fact uses it a lot more than that. “So I’m guilty, but I think I just like to call them similar items.”

But hey, fake it till you make it in America, land of the dupe. Crypto is dupe money. Anna Delvey was a dupe heiress. Before he was president, Donald Trump bestowed dupe diplomas.

“Everybody’s duping everybody at this point,” Perez says. “I think nothing is real online. And you’ve just got to understand that when you’re consuming it.”