TikTok teens are obsessed with fake luxury products

Key Points
  • A major genre on TikTok is how to make designer lookalikes or how to find dupes on sites like Amazon or DHGate. 
  • Young consumers want to wear items that look like Gucci or Lululemon, but don't necessarily want to pay for them.
  • Here's what it all means about these consumers and how brands should interpret it. 

In January, Holly Yazdi posted a video on TikTok of how to buy an Amazon dupe of Cartier's $1,650 yellow-gold "Love Ring" for less than $20. At more than 230,000 likes, it's her most popular post.

"Safe cartier ring replica from amazon!!" the caption reads. "Doesn't oxidize and true to size." The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" plays over the 11-second video, which shows the product page on Cartier's website, the dupe's listing on Amazon and then Yazdi showing what the ring looks like. The listing on Amazon was taken down shortly after, Yazdi said.

Yazdi, an 18-year-old high school senior from south Alabama, said she knew many celebrities had the ring and that people might be interested, but didn't know quite how popular these posts would be. She said she received a million views overnight for the ring video. Her other videos have included lookalike Gucci boots from DH Gate ($89 for the dupe; $1,190 for the real thing).

"I have an expensive taste for an empty wallet, and after posting these videos I realize others do too," she said in an email to CNBC. "Now with the attention my videos have gained, I receive messages and comments with suggestions of what people want to see. Obviously I'm not going to get something I wouldn't use myself, but my viewers have exposed me to a lot of things I really do want to get."

A TikTok post on how to find a Cartier ring dupe.

A major video genre on TikTok is videos on how to find "dupes," or items on sites like DHGate, AliExpress or Amazon for items that look like Chanel, Gucci, Lululemon, Louis Vuitton and Cartier or other pricey designers. Other videos show how TikTok users actually make do-it-yourself designer dupes; whether that's sewing and styling shirts to look like they come from Brandy Melville, or actually painting or ironing on Lululemon or Chanel logos to make them look like the real thing.

It's a trend that comes as many younger consumers are cost-conscious but also photographed at a dizzying rate. And brands have to decide whether to encourage the creativity of its fans or come off as buzzkills if they try to clamp down on the activity.

Jason Dorsey, a Gen Z speaker and president of the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, Texas, said Generation Z, which comprises a huge part of the TikTok audience, sits at a point where they grew up around the great recession and saw their parents and the generation before them struggle financially. That makes them tend to be careful with money.

"They want to get things at a really good deal, or they want to buy things that are going to last a long time," Dorsey said. That might be why clothing reseller ThredUP said in a January report it saw a 46% increase from 2017 to 2019 in Generation Z shoppers buying secondhand retail items. Services like Depop and Poshmark are also popular among the age group.

But younger consumers have also grown up with social media.

"Gen Z is also the most photographed generation of young adults ever," Dorsey said. "That's important because if you're spending a lot of money to buy your wardrobe, you run out of outfits quickly. You need to buy them inexpensively to have a lot of outfits to wear."

A willingness to be crafty is also a factor.

"In many places where there might have been peer pressure before to have all the fancy brands, now it's cool to recreate the brands, and you're smart because you did it at a fraction of the cost," Dorsey said.

Take Samantha Pama for example. The 19-year-old from Visalia, California posted a video to her @samanthapama page captioned "Making my own Brandy Melville Tops because I'm too thick to buy them from the actual store lol," which as of this week had nearly 90,000 views on TikTok. The post instructs viewers to buy a small boy's T-shirt at Walmart, buy embroidered patches and iron them on. Pama told CNBC that she always saw crafty do-it-yourself content on the platform and wanted to make something about a Brandy Melville shirt, because she said the brand only carries small sizes and that it was cheaper to make it herself.

TikTok post on how to make a Brandy Melville dupe.

"I believe DIY posts have been really big on TikTok for a while," she said in an Instagram direct message. "It really brings out your creativity and it really does influence a lot of people."

Max Reiter, a 26-year-old fashion management student from Berlin who posts under the handle @maxplore on TikTok and Instagram, regularly riffs on designer goods in his posts. One, which shows Balenciaga's lettering over an image of the cast of Friends that he ironed onto a hoodie, has received 2.7 million "likes" on TikTok. Other posts show him tie-dying his Nike socks or ironing on Lacoste "logos" to beanies and socks.

Reiter notes that the DIY category is popular because TikTok's younger audience likely isn't going to have the cash for a $300 T-shirt. And ironically, he says users are always asking to buy his own creations, which he says he won't do.

He also says TikTok offers a different kind of community.

"What I like about TikTok — it's not just about looks. The most regular person can get famous and grow a fanbase and a community," he said. "You don't have to have a perfect six pack or muscles or perfect hair."

Is it legal?

Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham University and founder of the Fashion Law Institute, said with each new online forum comes a fresh wave of promoting counterfeit items. Of course, the terminology changes — whether that's "fakes," "knockoffs," "reps" or "replicas," or, in much of TikTok parlance, "dupes."

"That's in part because of the evolution of language, and in part an evolution of a design to escape from bots that take down references to counterfeits and increasingly to replicas," she said.

It's not clear what TikTok's official policy is on posts like this. The company clarified its policy for ads (Which don't allow for content promoting products or services that violate "copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity, or other personal or proprietary rights"), but not for regular posts. Its community guidelines say it removes content that promotes criminal activities.

Scafidi points out that "counterfeits" are a technical term for unauthorized trademarks that are substantially identical to the originals. Copies or knockoffs can be legal or illegal, but she said it could be considered trademark infringement if users are copying logos or labels in a way that could confuse consumers (even if the copies aren't exact).

TikTok could potentially be liable if lots of users are directing other users to the sales of dupes, she said, and she said if users have an affiliate relationship with the sellers of counterfeit goods, they could also potentially be liable. Even if a major influencer didn't have an affiliate relationship with a seller, "they are building their own personal brand by being the best conduit to the best dupes, therefore they are indirectly profiting."

But at the end of the day, "when it comes to suing hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of individuals on TikTok, it's unlikely," she said.

"At that point, you're really trying to chase down an enormous number of small actors, and it's just not efficient or cost-effective," Scafidi said, unless brands sued an individual or two to make an example of a prominent influencer or two. But "It's definitely a bad look to go after fans," she added.

But legal questions aside, Scafidi notes buying fakes online can be inherently risky, both in the sense that products may not appear as advertised, and that they also might not be the kinds of business people users would want to provide their personal information to.

What does this mean for brands?

This all can pose a bit of a challenge to brands, which on the surface would likely prefer consumers buy their products rather than make their own version or find a lookalike elsewhere. But being litigious isn't the most attractive look.

"Every time a brand sends a cease and desist letter, it's a press release," Scafidi said. "And if you're dealing with people who might ultimately be gently brought back into the fold and persuaded to buy the originals, you don't want to frighten them [or offend them]," she said.

Yazdi said she's gotten hundreds of comments proclaiming that people should just buy the designer goods. She said in her opinion, not everyone can afford to buy the "real" thing, "but they still want to acquire their interests. I'm not posting these videos to 'make the rich mad' or 'devalue the product.' I know what audience I'm catering to and I'm going to cater to that, not the haters."

Joe Cardador, a VP and consumer intelligence director at Kansas City, Missouri-based agency Barkley, said that where Gen Z tends to care about inclusivity and sustainability, they don't tend to associate those values with luxury brands. He said what some brands have done is try to scale down and have lower-priced items or partner with other companies to have an offering for that consumer base. LVMH's investment in streetwear brand Madhappy is one example.

Katy Hornaday, chief creative officer at Barkley, said that's a wise way of taking the long view on future customers.

"If you're Chanel and you believe the only way to be Chanel is to sell thousand-dollar handbags, and you don't at least take a look at what's happening on TikTok or what's happening in this generation, you [are being shortsighted] to what will make you relevant for generations to come."

Sarah Rabia, co-founder of Backslash culture lab at Omnicom Group-owned agency TBWA, said corporations are wise to remember that their own ideas don't exist in a vacuum; and that they might try to remember that corporations regularly borrowed and profited off others' ideas.

"They benefit from this as well," she said. "Understanding and assessing the value exchange is really important." Rabia said corporations can choose to see this as a celebration of their brand and a way of engaging in "remix culture," especially when stuffier luxury brands have been slower to make it to internet culture.

"Creativity is collaborative today," she said.

This generation can tweak things to make them their own, Rabia said, whether it's to build on a brand or to address a failing of the brand (something like making a more inclusive size when brands' clothes are too small).

"They think that these things should be accessible," she said. "If the brand doesn't make it accessible, then they will."

The rise of Tiktok: 3 trades
The rise of Tiktok: 3 trades