Colbee Ennis was on a tight budget for her May 2016 wedding. So the 25-year-old, living in Mt. Vernon, Oregon, found herself Googling "cheap wedding dress," hoping to find a decent replica of a fluffy white gown she'd seen while browsing a bridal Web site. With little hesitation, she bought one for $65 through an online retail giant from a third-party Chinese vendor that had a 97 percent approval rating. She knew it wasn't going to be as luxe as one from a designer's showroom, but, she says, "I was just going to wear it once, so that was fine with me."
Fine, that is, until the dress arrived. Ennis unwrapped the box to find a lipstick-red tulle puffball reeking of formaldehyde. Beads around the neckline and waist had been attached using a hot-glue gun, leaving strands of glue stuck to the fabric. And, again, it was red! The sizing was way off — "My five-year-old would have fit better in that dress," she says — and there was no packing slip or return address. Online, Ennis found a return policy requiring an "approval process," she says. "They were going to charge another $15. At that point, I said screw it. It wasn't worth it." With just a few months left before her wedding, Ennis did what few brides would even consider: She borrowed a wedding dress from a generous friend.
We live in an age of knockoff fashion. Thanks to the international e-commerce boom, New York City's Canal Street has been replaced by shady vendors on familiar third-party megasites and online knockoff emporiums based abroad. In some cases, they're hawking outright counterfeits and their name-brand merchandise is anything but. In others, it's just a misrepresentation of goods for sale; what's promised (in images or descriptions or both) is not what's provided. As a result, consumers are getting fooled (or they're in on the joke): The global counterfeit trade is nearly $500 billion a year, according to a 2016 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2014 alone, the Department of Homeland Security seized $1.22 billion worth of products — most originating from China — found to infringe on intellectual-property rights.
And the bridal world is taking its share of the hit. Industry insiders estimate that manufacturers, stores, and designers in the U.S. are losing millions annually to counterfeiting. Horror stories abound at places like BridalBeware.com, a vigilante site that invites victims of online scammers to share their stories and photos. One bride told of a pale-blush ruched organza gown that arrived in a Day-Glo pink instead. For another, what was supposed to be a Vera Wang lace tea-length number turned out to be ill-fitting shreds of tulle. For a third, a copy of Kate Middleton's Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen masterpiece showed up looking like a high school home-ec project, with cheap materials and distorted proportions.
These stories are becoming commonplace as brides grow more comfortable shopping for high-end gowns online but remain unfamiliar with the process of commissioning a made-to-order dress. This is likely the first and last piece of custom clothing most women will buy, and counterfeiters are happy to exploit their ignorance — and wedding budgets, since the gown will also be the most expensive single piece of clothing many will ever buy. "These operators are completely unregulated and prey on the fact that everyone wants a deal," says Hitha Herzog, author of Black Market Billions: How Organized Retail Crime Funds Global Terrorists. They steal the images from designers' sites, upload them to their own, and claim to offer the real thing for a fraction of the price. "When you search for 'inexpensive bridal gowns,' you'll see them. They pay a lot to come up first," explains bridal-industry vet Hedy Lapkin, executive director of the International Bridal Manufacturers Association. "A girl will have fallen in love with a $2,000 dress, and then here it is for $300 or $400. Sellers know the customer has never bought a wedding gown before, and maybe her budget is small. This is how they get to them."
Retail giant David's Bridal is a frequent target. A recent search on one Chinese Web site unearthed listings for the store's Truly Zac Posen designs that used original images swiped from David's Bridal's online store. A mermaid style that retails for $750 is listed for $178. David's has the resources to fight back, and it does, says Trevor Lunn, David's chief customer officer. "We're careful to create dresses that don't infringe on other people's designs, and in turn, we don't tolerate when others attempt to copy our designs or use our imagery without consent," he says. "We use a domain-monitoring service, send cease-and-desist letters, and contact ISP providers when we encounter copyright, trademark, or imagery infringement. And we've filed suits against foreign Web sites."
Boutique designers like Claire Pettibone are at risk too. "We've had brides call us in tears when they receive a counterfeit gown and it looks nothing like the original design," she says. "These sites steal our photos and use our name. Our core clients know the difference, but the aspirational bride, who maybe has a budget under $1,000, is the most vulnerable." Pettibone's legal team sends cease-and-desist letters to offending sites with some success, but it's difficult to monitor, she says.
Katharine Polk, of indie label Houghton, is resigned to the fact that copycats are waiting to pounce. "We just have to rely on the fact that clients understand we're doing better quality and that our fabrics are exclusive," she says. "Beyond that, there's not much I can do to protect my designs." British bridal mainstay (and Duchess of Cambridge go-to) Jenny Packham also relies on brand loyalty to steer customers away from counterfeiters. "When we launched [our bridal line] in 1997, we offered something different for a fashion-forward bride," she says. "Now there's much more choice and competition. The replication of our designs, to varying degrees, has become a constant." But, she says, customers who value innovative design, quality, and service will always choose the real deal.
As it's nearly impossible to copyright a dress design, brands that choose to sue focus on the stolen images used on Web sites. Stephen N. Lang, chief executive of Mon Cheri Bridals and president of the American Bridal & Prom Industry Association (ABPIA), has won a lawsuit against sites like TuteraBridal.com — which purported to sell designs from Mon Cheri designer David Tutera — and MoncheryBridal.com. (See what they did there?) Typically, these companies — many of which are foreign — don't have representation in American courts, so they're simply shut down by the U.S. government. If they do have a legal team, they'll often pay to settle out of court and close operations.
"Mon Cheri is a $100 million company," says Lang, "but I'm probably bleeding $10 million in lost revenue a year because of this. Maybe more." Lang started the ABPIA in 2012 so that designers, manufacturers, and retailers of all sizes could band together to fight counterfeiters, and he says his organization has closed down roughly 1,500 sites already. "The problem is that as soon as you shut one down, it pops up again under a new name," he says.
Complicating matters is the fact that Lang produces his gowns in China, as do many manufacturers: It's the number-one source of wedding dresses in the world. The vast majority of American brides will walk the aisle in an authentic, well-made gown created (or at least assembled) there. But just like many of his luxury-goods counterparts, he's caught one of his own manufacturers selling knockoffs of his gowns on the side. "I've visited our factories in Chaozhou and found my product being bootlegged," he says, adding that his entreaties to the trade groups who meet with the Chinese government have had little effect. But while this practice is part of the problem, the majority of counterfeit fashion is coming from another factory town, Suzhou, known for its apparel copying, where exploitative bosses drive teams of inexperienced sewers to copy dresses from images they find on the Web, without the benefit of patterns or samples.
And the reality of fashion counterfeiting is that there are plenty of consumers who don't actually care whether they're getting the real thing. "We're dealing with gowns that are in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars, and sometimes the consumer becomes an accomplice in the knockoff process," says Susan Scafidi, founder and president of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. "If money is no object and you can pay $15,000 or $30,000 for your gown, then you're probably not looking for a copy. But for a bride who has a dress budget of $1,000, it becomes tempting to pay 10 or 20 percent of that." And there's always that one friend of a friend who was happy with her knockoff.
But all of that ignores counterfeiting's real victims: Bootlegging factories in Asia and, more recently, Africa often exploit their workers with atrocious conditions, unlivable wages, and no compensation for overtime. In the most extreme cases, sweatshops are part of international criminal syndicates. "That means human trafficking, terrorist funding, and money laundering for [drug] cartels," says Herzog. In Suzhou, there have been reports of factories employing underage workers. Sweatshop inspectors have told stories of floors covered in garbage, filthy bathrooms, and 15-hour workdays with just a 30-minute break. In her book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, reporter Dana Thomas recounted entering a factory where children under 10 years old were forced to sew knockoff handbags. As if that weren't horrible enough, they'd had their legs broken and tied together so they wouldn't heal properly — for asking to go outside and play. Everyone loves a bargain, but most women wouldn't want to dress for the happiest day of her life in a gown made by the tiny fingers of a tortured child.
So how do you get your dream dress on a real-life budget, without taking away from a designer's work or supporting a hideous industry? The surest way would be not to buy online from an unfamiliar source; it's easy to be drawn in by shady manufacturers, especially if they're selling through reputable marketplaces and have faked their own reviews to boost their approval ratings. (Most legit third-party auction sites and marketplaces — you know them; you've used them — have policies prohibiting the trade of phony goods, but it's a lot like playing Whack-a-Mole: Shut one illegal vendor down and another appears.) If you're buying your dress on the Web, before you click "Purchase," call the designer's customer-service number to confirm that you're dealing with an authorized dealer. You can also look for mentions of import duties. If a site tries to pin those taxes on a buyer, it's probably a counterfeit operation, Lang says. But our best advice is this: If you're on a tight budget, you're better off buying a less-expensive authentic dress than a knockoff of a pricey one. Because, with wedding gowns as with most things, you get what you pay for.
Lauren Sherman is a writer and reporter whose work has appeared on Business of Fashion and in The New York Times.
Subscribe to BRIDES now for the best wedding dresses, advice, and big-day inspiration.