Copycat products manufactured in China have long been a headache for luxury brands. But now policing purse designs is getting harder than ever, thanks to a trend toward “tong kuan” or “look-alike” products that mimic the shape of their high-end counterparts but feature phony Western-sounding brand names. For example, budget-conscious online shoppers can find a pink Michael Kors knockoff bag, as well as a black Prada clone, which both feature “Rebecca Rossi” branding. The nondescript labels are further frustrating fashion houses, like Burberry and Louis Vuitton, which are fighting an uphill battle against trademark infringement amid China’s lax regulation of product design ownership. According to the World Trade Organization, consumers spend $500 billion on counterfeit goods each year, including medicines and food products as well as fashion accessories.
The trend toward tong kuan look-alikes comes at a time when Chinese marketplaces like Alibaba Group’s Taobao, a major ecommerce destination for China’s emerging middle class, are aspiring for greater legitimacy. They’re trying to convince investors that they have the ability to weed out counterfeit goods–easier said than done.
“If I see a picture of Fan Bing Bing online or in a magazine, and I like what she’s wearing, I will look for products that look the same on Taobao,” Shanghai schoolteacher Dong Dong tells Women’s Wear Daily. “People who search for and buy tong kuan products are more interested in how something looks than the brand.”
Since last October Alibaba has been proactively removing Taobao vendors selling knock-offs, but many counterfeits continue to slip through the cracks, due to the site’s size and openness (anyone can register as a vendor). As a result, Alibaba has been focused on growing Tmall, a marketplace for established brands, and 11 Main, an eBay-Etsy hybrid for American small business owners.
“Counterfeiting is a cancer we have to deal with,” Alibaba founder Jack Ma said in April at a press conference announcing plans for greater collaboration with Chinese authorities fighting piracy.